In her call for the city to move quickly with plans to close Rikers Island by 2027, Council President Adrienne Adams faces some major hurdles. If and when county jails are built, the city is likely to hold twice or more the volume of inmates that would fill them.
The complication does not mean that the long-term project of shutting down our most trusted source of human rights violations, located right next door to LaGuardia Airport’s shiny new terminals, is crazy. Rikers is worth closing down, for reasons including inaccessibility for friends, family and attorneys and the sorry state of the complex’s physical infrastructure, adding to the dangers faced by detainees and officers alike.
However, the path there must be paved with more than good intentions. From the beginning, the plan relied on bringing the detainee population to an arbitrarily low limit, based on the assumption that the numbers would continue to decline. That assumption didn’t hold up, and the number of detainees is now not only well above the 3,300-person goal, it’s rising.
Part of this can be explained by recent increases in certain crimes, but it also largely has to do with bureaucratic backlogs at all levels of the criminal justice system, with cases creeping through backlog courts and keeping to people locked up in preventive detention for much longer. than might reasonably be expected.
It is also a consequence of the persistent and dire fact that prisons remain our primary avenue for mental health interventions, with many New Yorkers ending up in Rikers simply because we have not been able to deal with their mental illness at any point before they got involved. in a crime
Speaker Adams is correct that Rikers really does not serve the city, not just as a lackluster facility in its own right, but as a representation of our failure to develop better treatment options and move toward effective alternatives to incarceration. All of that is a precursor to our ability to close Rikers. Without it, we are spinning our wheels.