Mayor reveals Rikers closure ‘roadmap’

Ryan Brady, Associate Editor

Mayor de Blasio has released more details on what the replacement for the Rikers Island jail facilities will be like and the process of setting up a new corrections system with facilities throughout the five boroughs. To a mixed response, City Hall published a plan called “Smaller, Safer, Fairer: A Roadmap to Closing Rikers Island” last Thursday.

Over a three-year period, the city will invest $30 million to expedite safely shrinking the jail complex’s inmate population. It will also start developing and renovating correctional facilities that are not on the island, a process it estimates will take years. And, to ensure that those who are incarcerated or employed at Rikers are safe, the de Blasio administration will renovate facilities and expand services there.

The “Smaller” plan component aims to reduce the daily inmate population by 25 percent to 7,000 by 2021 and then further shrink it to 5,000, according to the de Blasio administration.

Existing facilities throughout the five boroughs, not including Rikers, could only host an inmate population of 2,300 people.

Shrinking the jail system’s size is, according to the mayor, to be achieved in several ways. The city will replace brief jail sentences with programs that curb recidivism; speed up transfers to state custody and processing time for felonies; reduce the number of young adults, women, parole violators and people with substance disorders and mental illness in the jails; and help inmates pay for bail. Additionally, the mayor wants to allow judges to assess danger as a factor in bail decisions; de Blasio says that more precise risk assessment by judges will result in fairer detainment decisions.

Making the correction complexes humane and safe is, fittingly, the aim of the “Safer” part of the initiative. Over the next five years, all existing facilities on Rikers will be repaired. Funding to the tune of $100 million has been dedicated to creating a Department of Corrections Training Academy, which City Hall says will make officers safer. Technological upgrades are planned to increase safety, transparency and accountability. The de Blasio administration also plans to expand the amount of housing dedicated to people with severe mental illnesses.

To further achieve his aim, the mayor has also outlined initiatives to make the system fairer. One includes refining and creating more alternatives to punitive segregation. Securing post-incarceration employment is what another component of the “Fairer” part of the roadmap looks to accomplish: Every inmate will enter the Jail to Jobs program upon finishing a city sentence. To make inmates less isolated and more linked to the community, de Blasio wants to start a pilot program for an expedited transportation option to Rikers Island, renovate visiting areas and allow for longer visit times. For correction officers, the mayor also wants to improve professional development and staff well-being. Those entering the jail complex as inmates will also all be offered re-entry planning, which would set them up with a minimum of five hours spent in vocational, therapeutic and educational programming every day.

“We are building a correctional system that is smaller, safer and fairer – one in which jails are safe and humane,” the mayor said in a prepared statement.

But not everyone is as happy about the “roadmap” as de Blasio.

Pointing to the severity of their crimes, Corrections Officers Benevolent Association President Elias Husamudeen doubts that the plan to reduce the inmate population can actually stop the worst criminals from behaving badly.

“We’re not just talking about people who are re-arrested for spitting on the sidewalk,” he told the Chronicle. “We’re talking about felony assault, attempted murder, robbery. We’re talking about rape.”

Husamudeen also drew attention to the fact that Rikers Island does not simply house inmates; replacing it would require more than just building structures with cells. Along with the 10 jails, it has a fire house, a hospital, a bakery, a garage and a power plant. “This island is a city,” he said.

Even supporters of shutting down the jail complex, like Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), excoriated de Blasio for what they consider an unsatisfactory plan.

“The Mayor’s ‘plan’ barely expands supervised release, abdicates responsibility for the siting of new jails, and is overly reliant for keeping people out of jail on an updated ‘flight risk’ assessment tool that currently does not even exist,” Lancman, the chairman of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, said in a prepared statement.

The lawmaker added that the plan does does not make shutting Rikers down achievable in 10 years, which de Blasio has said is his goal for timing.

JustLeadershipUSA activist Glenn Martin, who has been a dedicated advocate for shutting the jail system down, was also unimpressed.

“He must lay out concrete steps tied to a timeline that recognizes the urgency of ending the harm caused by Rikers,” Martins said in a prepared statement. “Simply put, ten years is way too long.”