Nothing says spring more than cherry blossoms and city council budget talks. This past Tuesday’s rally to close Rikers at City Hall Park featured both. So under falling pink petals, decarceration proponents in the council—along with Campaign to Close Rikers organizers and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams—floated ideas about how they could ensure the legally-mandated closure of the troubled jail complex.
“Today, we just wanted to introduce some ideas that we believe that we should be focusing on, pillars such as mental health, speedy trials, and also housing,” Bronx council member Kevin Riley told the Amsterdam News. “These are issues that we’re seeing within our communities that could potentially decrease the population in Rikers Island. My whole approach is always trying to work with people together in the administration. We’re getting more people involved—people [who are] actually affected, families that [are] actually affected.
“We’re looking at programs that are out there like alternatives to incarceration. Are we funding that program? When we’re looking at issues that happened in Rikers, is this a mental health facility? Or is this detention center where we’re supposed to be holding detainees until they’re [processed] into the prison system? So what are we really doing with our judicial system?”
Reducing the city’s jail population by 2027 is critical as the borough-based jails replacing the facilities on Rikers can only hold up to 3,300 people combined. Last month, NYC Division of Criminal Services reported 5,845 people were in New York City jails, a 7% increase from March 2022.
So Riley and several of his colleagues, including Progressive Caucus co-chair Lincoln Restler, are proposing a roughly $300 million game plan to reduce Rikers’ populations based on the aforementioned pillars. Steps include cutting down pretrial jail time and providing housing to at-risk populations. Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) union president Benny Boscio reportedly called the plan a “socialist manifesto” according to the Daily News, but Public Advocate Williams provided only glowing remarks for the proposals at Tuesday’s rally.
“If the people who are detained in Rikers, and even those who work at Rikers, were not primarily Black and brown, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said. “If they looked [differently] and came from different communities, it would be unacceptable…the plan that’s been put forth to shut [down] Rikers the time that’s been designated by law is a very good one…it only makes sense, though, if you actually want to shut Rikers down. And I get the feeling from this administration, that is not a priority.
“But I also think that the administration would agree with the three pillars that are in this plan, making sure we’re dealing with the mental health, the housing, and speedy trials of folks. This is a mock up [for] all those who want to talk about it, and those who want to be about it.”
Restler added, “We all know mass incarceration is a policy decision. But it is, in fact, the greatest of epic policy failures. What we need right now is [to] actually invest in the solutions that will drive down incarceration in New York City. Many people are talking about closing Rikers Island, these are the investments that we need to make…to actually close Rikers Island.”
This week’s rally follows another demonstration at City Hall Park just over three weeks ago where Speaker of the City Council Adrienne Adams and other officials, including Williams, Riley, and Restler demanded the city remain committed to Rikers’ closure in 2027 after the Brooklyn borough jail’s contract seemed to run well past the deadline.
Committee on Criminal Justice chair Carlina Rivera was not present due to her child’s recent birth, but her office provided her written statement at the rally promising to ensure the city meets Rikers’ mandated closure.
“In order to reduce the jail population to meet the needs of closing Rikers and opening borough based jails, I have introduced legislation which would establish jail population review teams for each borough to identify people in custody of the Department of [Corrections] whose cases could be resolved or who could be safely released into the community,” she wrote. “Streamlined case processing is just one way we can reduce unnecessary, even harmful jail time imposed on New Yorkers.”
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.