Kalief's legacy: Rikers closure set, yet could prove to be long, grueling process

Amsterdam News Editor | 4/6/2017, midnight
This week Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that although it might take 10 years, the notorious Rikers Island jail is ...
Demonstration to close Rikers Island Bill Moore photo

This week Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that although it might take 10 years, the notorious Rikers Island jail is scheduled for closure. The announcement comes in the wake of public outrage over horror stories often times recounted and reported by inmates and correction officers alike. The city was scrutinized over conditions at the facility after the 2015 death of Kalief Browder, who was arrested at the age of 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack and spent three years at Rikers Island without a trial. Two years after his release, Browder committed suicide at age 22. Browder’s case has recently sparked interest in part because of the six-part documentary “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story” on SpikeTV, which premiered Wednesday night.

As the TV documentary about Browder exposes the gritty reality of life on the island, the spotlight has highlighted many of the institutionalized practices that have gone on at Rikers.

By 2027, Rikers Island will be a painful part of New York City’s history, with smaller jails across the city and an even lower number of inmates in the city’s criminal justice system.

While some questioned why it will take so long to close the jail, that very goal was outlined by Mayor de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito Friday, when the two announced plans to close Rikers Island ahead of a report on the controversial Queens facility released Sunday.
The announcement comes as a federal monitor releases another report Monday about the use of excessive force at Rikers by corrections officers. The report details that guards continue to engage in violent behavior, including striking handcuffed inmates in the head, putting inmates in chokeholds, unnecessarily using pepper spray and slamming inmates against walls.

“There is no doubt that the road to Rikers Island’s closure will be long and arduous,” de Blasio said during Friday’s news conference at City Hall. “It will require that local officials and stakeholders stand up and support facilities that meet our moral obligation to thousands of New Yorkers whose lives we will never turn our backs on. It will require that our state government, and each component of our criminal justice system, contribute to the reform efforts critical to reducing our jail population and improving re-entry services and educational programming.”

Mark-Viverito added that the community would be involved in where inmates would go.

“Obviously, it is a long-term plan,” she said. “I will not be the speaker at the time that these serious decisions would have to be made. But yes, the conversation could begin. We obviously want to engage in a conversation with our colleagues once the report is issued and start getting feedback from members with regards to that.”

The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform released a 148-page report Sunday about conditions at Rikers Island and that suggested remedies.

The commission’s report outlined a plan to reduce the jail population to half of its current size, as well as a plan for developing a smaller, borough-based jail system. The new system would consist of facilities in each of the five boroughs located near courthouses and public transportation, which would improve outcomes for inmates and reduce the burden on families and the Department of Corrections.