New York City is one step closer to shutting down Rikers Island, its violence-plagued jail complex known for deplorable living conditions and grisly deaths.
According to an Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform proposal — which reportedly has the backing of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) — the notorious jail “must be phased out over the next 10 years and its facilities demolished.” In its place, the five boroughs will house their own, smaller jails, with a total of 5,550 beds city-wide.
As the New York Times reports, the plan requires a significant reduction in the current jail population — approximately 9,360 people — and 6,300 staff. To bring down the number of people held at Rikers, the commission proposed reforming state law to decriminalize certain low-level offenses, embracing alternatives to incarceration, and cutting the number of people pretrial detainees held on bail — roughly 80 percent of the jail population.
The commission, led by Judge Jonathan Lippman, was formed last year, with the goal of “[creating] a blueprint for an improved criminal justice system reflecting our city’s values of decency, dignity, and equal treatment before the law.”
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito proposed the group’s formation and publicly called for Rikers to be closed during a State of the City address in February 2016. The speech sparked an intense political debate about the plausibility of closing down one of the largest jails in the world. The Mayor did not previously support the idea, but on Thursday, Lippman informed the rest of the commission that de Blasio is now on board.
The plan is not set in stone, but the commission’s recommendations will be made public on Sunday.
Rikers has long been known for its violence and warehousing of poor people, including teenagers. Guards brutally beat detainees — many of whom have a mental illness — to the point of needing emergency care. In 2014, the use of force against prisoners was reported to have skyrocketed by roughly 240 percent in the span of a decade. Violence often drives people to attempt suicide.
People who haven’t been convicted of a crime also spend months — sometimes years — in solitary confinement, a policy likened to torture. Despite a change to the law in 2014, young people under the age of 22 were still segregated and forced to live in isolation last year.
The jail was built on a landfill, so prisoners inhale poisonous air and contend with foul smells, compounded by extreme heat.
Medical neglect is also ubiquitous. According to a study of the jail’s health care workers, many feel like they need to put their ethics aside to work there, citing the use of solitary confinement and physical abuse of prisoners. Last September, the city agreed to shell out $5.75 million for the gruesome death of a man with schizophrenia and diabetic, Bradley Ballard. After staff neglected his medical and mental health needs for nearly a week, Ballard was found dead in a cell without clothes on, coated in his own feces and urine.