Dec. 13, 2022
In 2019, the New York City Council voted to shutter Rikers Island by 2026.
The pandemic delayed that plan, pushing the closure back to 2027. While testifying before the Committee on Criminal Justice on Wednesday afternoon, Dept. of Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina expressed doubt that the city would meet that revised goal.
The crux of the delay lies in the population of inmates housed at Rikers. The City Council vote to close down the correctional complex hinged on decreasing the prison’s population to 3,300, with four borough-based jails planned to house the remaining inmates.
According to the Mayor’s Managerial Report for 2022, the average number of prisoners on Rikers Island was 5,559 per day. In response to questioning from Councilmember Shahana Hanif, Commissioner Lewis stated that approximately 5,500 inmates are detained at Rikers prior to their trial dates, with an average length of stay of 100 days. He estimates that the population will reach over 7,000 by 2024.
When Hanif asked if the city was on target to reduce populations to below 3,300 and close Rikers by 2027, as mandated by law, Molina said, “I don’t see [the population] being at 3,300 in less than four years if nothing else changes with the administration’s adjudication of the administration of justice at the court levels.”
In her opening statement, Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, who chairs the Committee on Criminal Justice, stated that the hearing was to conduct oversight on the Dept. of Corrections, as well as to consider two new bills. One of these bills, Int. 806, would establish population review teams, which would identify prisoners whose cases could be resolved without incarceration.
“To close Rikers Island on schedule in 2027, we must be diligent in meeting the commitment set…to reduce the jail population to below 4,000 individuals with smart policies like the establishment of new population review teams,” Rivera said. “This goal is entirely within our grasp.”
The threat of a delay in shuttering Rikers Island comes at a particularly bad time for the Dept. of Corrections, which is facing intense scrutiny of conditions and practices in the prison complex following the death of Edgardo Mejias on Dec. 11. Mr. Mejias is the 19th prisoner to die on Rikers Island so far this year. Prior to the hearing, the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice staged a rally on the steps of City Hall, protesting prisoner conditions and calling for Rikers to close.
In a press statement, Melanie Dominguez, a senior community organizer at Katal, blamed Mayor Adams for an uptick in prisoners’ deaths and called for the prison to be closed.
“Under Mayor Adams, we are witnessing the deadliest year at Rikers since 2013. Over the weekend, the 19th person passed away in city jails,” Dominguez wrote. “With violence at an all-time high and with a population of nearly 6,000, we are nowhere near closing the Rikers jail complex…the mayor needs to shut down Rikers and invest in true community like housing, healthcare, education, and jobs.”
While speaking before the committee, Jumaane Williams, the Public Advocate for New York City, pointed out that closing Rikers would be in the interest of safety for both corrections officers and prisoners alike.
“We do know that corrections officers work in dangerous jobs because of the environment that’s there,” Williams said. “No one is safe on that island.”
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