City looks at Rikers options

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Closing the facility will require the renovation of existing jails as well as the development of new sites


  • The Manhattan Detention Complex, known informally as “The Tombs,” will be evaluated for possible renovation as part of the city’s efforts to close the jail facilities on Rikers Island. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


As part of efforts to close jail facilities at Rikers Island, the notoriously violent city lockup on the East River, officials will soon start to identify potential sites for new jails as well as evaluate existing jails for possible renovation.

“While ‘close Rikers’ has become a convenient moniker, it masks the seismic system change that must happen in order to achieve that one goal,” Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said last week in testimony before the City Council.

Key to closing Rikers, she said, is the continued reduction of the city’s jail population. The current average Rikers population of just over 9,000 individuals per day is less than half what it was during the peak years of the early 1990s, and city officials hope to reduce the number of detainees another 25 percent within the next five years.

“As the size of the jail population falls to 7,000, jail will increasingly be reserved only for individuals charged with serious crimes or who are a high risk of flight,” Glazer said.

The drop in the jail population is attributable to overall reductions in crime and felony arrests, supplemented by changes in the criminal justice system. Those include efforts to reduce the amount of time it takes for a case to reach conclusion and the implementation of diversionary measures such as a supervised release program, which allows judges to release some defendants who would otherwise remain jailed before trial because to their inability to make bail.

Glazer said the city would work to expand those diversionary efforts with the goal of reducing the jail population to 5,000 within the 10-year time frame for closing Rikers set by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“Once the jail population reaches 5,000, the city will be in a position to close Rikers Island for good,” Glazer said.

A number of City Council members, including Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, have pushed for a more accelerated timeline for shuttering the Rikers jails than de Blasio’s 10-year plan.

Roughly 77 percent of the city’s jail population is housed at Rikers Island; the city operates additional jail facilities in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Since borough-based facilities currently have a maximum capacity of 2,300 — well short of the estimated post-Rikers jail population of 5,000 — closing Rikers will require renovations of existing facilities as well as the development of new jail sites.

In November, the city announced it would commission a study to assess the city’s existing jails and identify potential locations for new lockups.

The study will start by examining existing jails, including the Manhattan Detention Complex in Lower Manhattan, for possible renovations or expansions, with the ultimate goal of producing a master plan that will identify additional jail sites as required. The process of closing Rikers, Glazer said, “will be one of the largest capital programs this city has ever undertaken.”

The Detention Complex, also known as “The Tombs” in reference to the Egyptian Revival architecture of the original 138-jail facility that once stood near the same site, is the only existing jail in Manhattan operated by the city. Roughly 8 percent of the city’s jail population is housed there, although roughly 38 percent of the city’s jail population comes from Manhattan’s criminal court. (A small number of additional detainees are held in Manhattan in a prison ward in Bellevue Hospital.)

In 2016, Mark-Viverito appointed former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to head a commission to explore the possibility of closing the Rikers Island jails. The commission’s report, released in April, recommended replacing the Rikers jails on with facilities near courthouses in all five boroughs. (At last week’s hearing, officials said the city currently has no plans for a jail on Staten Island, despite the commission’s recommendations.) The facilities would vary in size, based on each borough’s expected population. Manhattan would require the largest facility, according to the commission’s recommendations. The report estimated that the new jails would cost $11 billion, but would result in projected annual savings of $1.6 billion.

Michael Garofalo:

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