As Conditions Worsen at Rikers, New Commission Revives Push to Close It

The speaker of the New York City Council, Adrienne Adams, on Thursday will announce the latest step in the city’s nearly decade-old push to shutter the Rikers Island jail complex, long regarded as one of the most abhorrent lockups in the country.

The speaker will unveil a second iteration of the commission that created a plan to close Rikers Island, with the goal of ensuring that the troubled facility closes by the mandated August 2027 deadline.

It was almost eight years ago that the former City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, announced a commission that would study how to shrink the city’s jail population enough to close the complex. In 2017, the commission, led by the state’s former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, unveiled a plan to close Rikers in 10 years and build four smaller jails to replace it. The new jails are expected to cost at least $8 billion.

The group, which became known as the Lippman Commission, won over skeptics, including former Mayor Bill de Blasio, and secured City Council legislation that mandated Rikers be closed. But since then, acrimony has roiled the process.

Local resistance to building new jails in four of the five boroughs has been strong. At the same time, the city’s jail population has increased to more than 6,000. The four new jails would have only about 4,200 beds.

Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, has expressed skepticism that the city would be able to meet its deadline and has called for a “Plan B.” He has described the plan as flawed, raising alarms among other elected officials and advocates about whether he is committed to closing the jail by the deadline

In the meantime, conditions at Rikers have grown only more dangerous. Nine people have died in custody there this year, and federal authorities are believed to be on the verge of stripping control of Rikers from New York City and placing the jail into receivership because of the violence, disorder and poor management.

We really don’t want anybody else to die behind those walls,” Ms. Adams, whose staff has taken to calling the new effort Lippman 2.0, said in an interview. “This is completely a priority for me, just like it was for Melissa.”

Both Ms. Adams and Judge Lippman, who will chair the rebooted commission, said they had spoken with Mr. Adams about it and that he was on board. City Hall did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Calls for the federal government to take control of Rikers Island have intensified in recent months. Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, in July called the jail a “collective failure” and urged for it to be placed into receivership to address the “ongoing risk of harm” to detainees and correction officers. In August, a federal monitor said the city was not moving with any urgency to fix the longstanding problems there.

Earlier this month, a 27-year-old man being held at Rikers while awaiting trial on robbery charges became the ninth detainee to die in city custody this year. He was found unresponsive and pronounced dead just hours before the federal monitor issued another scathing report.

In an interview this week, Judge Lippman said he had little reason to believe in 2016, when the original commission started its work, that support for closing Rikers would have increased as much as it has, calling the group’s early efforts a “fool’s errand.” Today, many elected officials are in favor of closing the jail.

“This place needs to be closed. It’s a moral stain on the soul of our city,” Judge Lippman said. “Our mandate is to take the original blueprint and superimpose on it a blueprint based on today’s conditions to get the job done.”

One of the commission’s goals is reducing the jail’s population, including by moving people with mental illness to treatment centers outside the jail and shortening the time it takes for detainees’ cases to be adjudicated.

There are 1,200 people with severe mental illness being held at Rikers, a 50 percent increase over the past 20 months, according to the City Council. People held at Rikers also must wait three to four times longer than the national average for their cases to go to trial, which inflates the population.

The cost of operating Rikers is another major reason to close it, Ms. Adams said. The city spends $1,200 per day on each detainee, a total of nearly $450,000 per person per year.

“What do we really get for that money?” Ms. Adams said. “We get unsafe, violent institutions that absolutely endanger staff and detainees, deepen mental illness and release folks that are worse off than when they got there.”

The borough-based jails plan could save the city at least $1 billion per year, Ms. Adams said.

Other goals of the commission include creating a new plan for corrections in the city that eliminates the rampant violence in the jails and makes the system more rehabilitative, and eventually transforming Rikers into an infrastructure hub for green energy.

The commission will be independent, meaning neither the mayor nor the City Council will appoint its members.

Ms. Mark-Viverito said she was optimistic about the plan and glad that Ms. Adams was focused on addressing a difficult issue that was vital to the future of the city.

“Ithank Speaker Adams, because she sees this as something that has to happen and she sees this as something that we’ve got to finish,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said. “I hope that she is the last speaker that has to address this issue.”

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