A 2,317-day contract in New York City is a long time for anyone not named Bobby Bonilla. And too long for a city aiming to close Rikers Island by August 2027.
The six-plus year contract recently awarded for the construction of a new Brooklyn borough-based jail runs well into 2029 and long past the city’s legally mandated deadline. The facility would be one of four sites erected to hold remaining detainees after Rikers closes.
The new borough-based jail will replace an existing “decrepit” detention center in downtown Brooklyn. It will house 886 beds for male detainees. The memo delineating the six-plus year contract was first reported by the NY Daily News.
Elected officials and decarceration advocates fear the contract signals intentions to postpone the deadly jail complex’s scheduled shutdown, so demonstrators—including Speaker of the City Council Adrienne Adams, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and City Comptroller Brad Lander—rallied by city hall this past Thursday, Mar. 16, demanding Rikers’ closure by 2027.
“The inconsistent statements from [Mayor Eric Adams’s] administration over the past few days have unacceptably created questions where there should be no questions,” said Speaker Adams. “Rikers must close by 2027 and we cannot allow it to continue undermining public safety issues across our city. This council will exercise its full authority and work with all stakeholders to help ensure the administration structures contracts to advance closure on time, fulfilling its obligation.”
“There should be no excuses to stall [the] plan and we should be clear, [Mayor Eric Adams’s] administration already said from the jump they’re not even sure they agree with the plan, so [it] seems a little coincidental to find a reason to stall,” said Williams. “If you know how dangerous [Rikers Island] is for everyone there, you should do everything possible to shut it down sooner than later. The only way to do that is if we move forward quickly with the borough-based jails.”
“This is not only about future deadlines and whether they can or can’t be achieved or who developed this plan,” said Lander. “This is about fidelity to the belief that we can do what’s necessary to not have people at Rikers who don’t need to be there.”
Speaker Adams’s rally appearance followed her recent State of the City address, where she committed to closing Rikers by 2027. Before bookmakers assign a betting line for an Adams vs. Adams showdown, Mayoral Office press secretary Fabien Levy said the two former Bayside High School classmates align on the same team. He did not directly address the speculation about Rikers’ delayed closure pertaining to the protest.
“Just like the speaker, Mayor Adams believes that New Yorkers who are incarcerated deserve to be treated with care and humanity,” said Levy by email. “We believe that instead of talking about what happened before the mayor and speaker were elected, the more constructive approach would be to join forces and urge the state to provide mental health funding to keep more New Yorkers from ever going to Rikers. That would be a major step forward and shut the pipeline feeding more and more New Yorkers suffering from severe mental illness into our jails.”
Mayor Adams inherited the obligation to close Rikers from his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, who was the architect of the initial roadmap for the scheduled closure alongside Speaker Adams’s predecessor, Corey Johnson. The City Council voted to pass laws to shut down and clear all 10 jails in the Rikers complex by a mandated deadline, with borough-based jails taking their place.
But behind such efforts were decarceration advocates, whom Lander recalled marching with back in 2016. Many of the same folks found themselves once again in the shadow of elected officials, quite literally, at Thursday’s rally. Members of the Campaign to Close Rikers stood behind the speakers and directed their words to Mayor Adams, reappropriating his trademark slogan to their own chant: “Get stuff done…get Rikers closed.”
Rally speakers included representatives of several organizations involved in the campaign, including the Freedom Agenda, Fortune Society, and Exodus Transitional Community. Many were formerly held in Rikers themselves, including Freedom Agenda co-director Darren Mack, who MC’d the demonstration.
“Rikers should have been closed decades ago, and this administration should be exercising leadership to find every way possible to do it faster,” said Mack. “Instead, they’re introducing delays and threatening the legally mandated closure deadline. The mayor says he wants to ‘get stuff done’? Then get those ‘upstream’ investments made, get people the support and treatment they need, get people to court, get the jail population down, get the replacement borough-based facilities built, and get Rikers closed. How many more lives is this mayor willing to see lost or forever damaged in that hellhole?”
According to the Fortune Society’s Andre Ward, “The closure of Rikers Island must not be delayed as thousands of people remain exposed to trauma resulting from inhumane conditions directly resulting from unstaffed posts and decades of neglect and indifference. The work to ensure that the borough-based jails are open prior to the August 2027 closure of Rikers cannot be interrupted. In addition, as a city, we must continue to increase our investments in community-based resources and services that have been proven to prevent incarceration and re-incarceration, and that also empower human beings so they can live a life of contribution.”
To be clear, delaying the Brooklyn-based jail doesn’t necessarily mean delaying Rikers’ scheduled closure. But such anxieties join a growing number of clues indicating the city isn’t fully confident about or invested in a 2027 closure.
The de Blasio administration’s original timeline to close the jails by 2026 has already been pushed back a year. Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Louis Molina has projected that Rikers’ population will balloon up to 7,000 detainees, and the borough-based jails can only hold 3,300 or fewer people citywide between all four facilities.
Mayor Adams kicked off the year by telling The City a small task force was developing a “Plan B” contingency, although he maintained he would follow the legal commitments to shut down Rikers.
A spokesperson for the Freedom Agenda said there’s additional fear among advocates of Rikers remaining in operation after some of the borough-based jails open, expanding the city’s incarceration levels—the exact opposite intention of building smaller, local facilities.
Brooklyn made up roughly 21% of the borough composition of Rikers’ 2021 population, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. That’s only second to Manhattan.
Last year, 19 people died in or shortly after DOC custody; almost entirely non-white New Yorkers, according to the New York Times’ Rikers 2022 death tracker.
For 2023, the first reported was 65-year-old Marvin Pines was the first reported and so far the only person to die in Rikers this year, pronounced dead last month. His lawyer told the Amsterdam News his client required intensive medical attention and that he fought in court to place Pines in the complex’s North Infirmary Command, where he died.
The borough-based jails would provide 380 total secure hospital beds for detainees like Pines with serious physical health issues.
A follow-up rally will occur today, Thursday, Mar. 23, in front of the Tweed Courthouse to protest a proposed budget slashing social services and boosting DOC funding, which advocates argue is counterproductive to closing Rikers by 2027.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.