New Yorkers Ask: If Rikers Island Closes, What Comes Next?
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has not been making many new friends with his plan to close Rikers Island and place inmates in smaller jails around the city. New Yorker’s are not excited about new jails popping up in their neighborhoods, and aren’t afraid to say it. Other New York government officials have also expressed reservations about the idea, with some stating that they would never accept jails in their districts.
The plan to close the 400-acre island across from La Guardia airport is not a simple one. The Mayor predicts the entire process will take ten years, and will involve many steps. The inmate population would have to be lessened from 10,000 to 5,000, which of course would mean major changes and updates to the criminal justice system. The system would have to find a way to cater to the 85% of the prison population who are still waiting for a trial date. And even if there was a clear cut way to decrease the jail population, the next step would be finding neighborhoods to build newer, smaller jails, and that will be a battle all on its own.
The decision to close Rikers Island did not come swiftly or easily. Before De Blasio took his seat as Mayor, his predecessors worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of the ten jails on the island. Violence and crime decreased when Mayor Giuliani was in office in the 90’s, but violence surged again when Mayor Michael Bloomberg came to power. Millions of dollars have been spent trying to save Rikers Island, from tripling the number of security cameras to training officers how to deal with violent offenders who suffer from mental illness. Regardless of these measures, Riker Island still manages to be responsible for over 1,000 stabbings and other violent crimes annually, which is what lead the Mayor to decide to shut it down.
According to a report outlining the next steps in this plan, there are many good reasons to shut down Rikers Island and build newer, smaller jails in the boroughs. The location and lack of public transportation to and from Rikers make it hard for families to visit loved ones, and the layout of the actual facility makes it too easy for violent acts to be committed in secret. The facilities are old, and the city spends a great deal of money on regular repairs, and the system spends over $31 million a year transporting inmates on and off the island for various reasons. The proposed change would be located close to courthouses, making transport of inmates easier and less expensive, and would give the city new opportunities to serve the needs of women, adolescents and the mentally ill. But even with all of these reasons, government officials are well aware that many NYC residents are not happy about the prospect of jails popping up in their area. The report even mentions that community space and meeting areas would be incorporated into the new jails, including retail space for local businesses. But that doesn’t seem to be swaying anyone’s opinion.
With Rikers Island no longer a place for criminals, many New Yorkers wonder what the 400-acre space could become. There will be some challenges in transforming this land, including its proximity to the airport and the fact that most of the island made up of a landfill. Getting to and from the area will also pose a challenge if and when the island finds a new purpose.