“Rikers Island is a stain on our great City. It leaves its mark on everyone it touches: the correction officers working back-to-back shifts under dangerous conditions, the inmates waiting for their day in court in an inhumane and violent environment, the family members forced to miss work and travel long distances to see their loved ones, the attorneys who cannot easily visit their clients to prepare a defense, and the taxpayers who devote billions of dollars each year to keep the whole dysfunctional apparatus running year after year. Put simply, Rikers Island is a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.”
—“A More Just New York City”
The Independent Commission on New York City
Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform
When he was running for mayor four years ago, Bill de Blasio promised he’d create a universal pre-K system. It was up and running within nine months of his inauguration. He said he’d reduce the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk, and he did so. He vowed to create affordable housing, reduce the speed limit, create new sick-leave and living-wage provisions, reinvigorate the city’s ferry system, create new rental vouchers for the homeless. And he has done or is doing some degree of all these things.
So why does no one seem to believe the mayor when he says he wants to close Rikers, the vast jail complex that has come to symbolize some of the worst abuses of the criminal- justice system?
In part, it’s because for two years, as the chorus of voices calling for New York City to shutter the island’s outmoded and isolated jail grew larger and louder, de Blasio dismissed them. Then, when de Blasio finally changed his mind on the last day of March, he announced it at a hastily arranged Friday-night press conference, 48 hours before an independent commission was almost certainly going to recommend closure. Since then, he has dragged out the timeline for emptying Rikers, suggesting a 10-year timetable as a minimum estimate, not an outside figure. And when the mayor finally released his plan for closing the complex—nearly three months after announcing his new position—the blueprint placed a large share of responsibility for achieving Rikers closure on other officials and said little about where new jails would go.
The biggest reason for the doubts about de Blasio’s devotion, however, is that closing Rikers will require tough decisions. And de Blasio’s critics believe that during his first 42 months as mayor he has shown little appetite for making those kinds of calls in the politically perilous area of criminal justice—a policy area where this mayor faces unusually high expectations and especially acute risks.
Many of the mayor’s political foes—the tabloid editorial boards, for instance, and the correction officers’ union—will push to derail the plan to close Rikers, whether now or in a few years when a new person occupies Gracie Mansion. But now there is an opposing force as well: a feisty advocacy campaign, #CloseRikers, that has shown a gritty commitment to demanding change rather than waiting for it.