Advocates are quite literally counting on New York City to close Rikers Island. This past Thursday, Aug. 31—exactly four years before the shutdown’s 2027 deadline—they reminded Mayor Eric Adams of the city’s legal obligation as he continues to flirt with a “plan B” at a rally by City Hall.
“I hope that we are fully clear that this administration not only doesn’t want to close Rikers Island, I don’t think it ever had any intention to close Rikers Island,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. “[The closure plan] went through a process. It wasn’t like someone woke up one day, and then [thought] about how to do this. This was a process that made its way to the city council. So not only is it the morally right thing to do, it is the legal right thing to do.”
“What we have is an administration that came in and said that they want to do and address public safety differently. Increasing the population of Rikers Island, and saying that we’re [possibly] not going to close it is not different…Rikers Island is not safe for anyone who was on that island and I’m always gonna make sure I mention the Black and brown bodies who cannot leave there and are detained and work in medical [or as] corrections officers.”
Earlier last week, Adams called replacing Rikers Island with four borough-based jails a “flawed plan.” Combined, the slated facilities can only house up to 3,300 detainees and the New York City jail population sits at 6,182 people as of last month. And the initial $8.7 billion cost to shut down Rikers continues to grow.
“Everyone created this ideal environment and now we’re stuck with something that started at one price tag and now it has ballooned beyond belief,” Adams said at a New York Law School event. “The cost of what it takes and the population. The population has changed.”
But advocates squarely blame the growing jail population on Adams’ administration, which cut $17 million in reentry services often credited with reducing recidivism. A spokesperson for Freedom Agenda—one of the organizing groups for Thursday’s rally—pointed to the Mayor’s frequent use of a Bishop Desmond Tutu quote about going “upstream” to address Rikers’ problems as an initial, unfulfilled indicator for alternatives to incarceration.
Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso was critical of his predecessor’s invocation of another hallowed Black leader, ex-Mayor David Dinkins.
“This mayor talks a lot about the last Black mayor of the City of New York, David Dinkins,” said Reynoso. “This mayor is more attuned to or more aligned to a Giuliani mayoral administration, not a Dinkins mayoral administration…he talks about it being impractical to close Rikers Island. But we saw legislation passed to stop stop-and-frisk. And we saw crime go down. We saw the population in Rikers Island go down.”
Reynoso is referring to the 2013 Community Safety Act bill package, which included legislation to create more litigation pathways for New Yorkers who were racially profiled to discourage discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices. Despite then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s concerns towards public safety, index crime continued to trend downward after the bill’s passing.
Close Rikers proponents also questioned Adams’ comments about detainees on Rikers that “have committed serious crimes.” According to the Center for Court Innovation, 90% of those held on Rikers have not been convicted.
Another New York City jail, the Vernon C. Bain Center, a barge floating across from Rikers Island, is also reportedly closing.
“I will be so glad to see ‘The Boat’ close, but the jails on Rikers need to close too,” said Cynthia Acevedo, whose brother died from leaping from the facility last year. “The mayor constantly speaks about the amount of people with mental health challenges incarcerated, but he has not done anything to reduce that population. Instead of moving people from The Boat to Rikers, he should get them into treatment, and divert them from incarceration in the first place. Gregory, like so many others, [needed] housing and treatment, not jail.”
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.