Glenn Martin & JustLeadershipUSA (photo: @GlennEMartin)
New Yorkers depend on City Council hearings to hold agencies accountable and to demand transparency from the mayor’s administration. On Monday, what the City Council members of the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee got instead was a dismissive attitude cushioned in lofty rhetoric from a mayor’s office that seems unwilling or unable to make closing the jails on Rikers Island a priority.
Time after time, representatives from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) and the city Department of Correction (DOC) sidestepped important questions, reaffirmed their adherence to a too-long ten-year timeline to closing Rikers jails, and adamantly refused to offer a concrete plan for how to achieve even that goal.
Several Council members were quick to point out that a ten-year timeline is not justified by any information that has been presented to them, but the de Blasio administration made clear that they see the challenge of closing Rikers jails as a “steep climb,” and something that will be nearly impossible to achieve in anything less than ten years.
Glenn E. Martin, president of JustLeadershipUSA and founder of the #CLOSErikers campaign, voiced a concern that many were palpably feeling during the hearing when, in his testimony, he described Mayor de Blasio’s actions on closing Rikers as “opaque, narrow, and visionless.” Martin and others voiced concerns over some of MOCJ’s proposals, including the use of risk assessments in evaluating the population at Rikers Island, as well as the language used by new DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann, who constantly referred to people incarcerated on Rikers as “inmates.”
On Twitter, Martin noted that Brann’s call for cultural change at Rikers – what he sees as an untenable given the deeply-entrenched culture of brutality on the island – was rendered meaningless by her refusal to “recognize the humanity of the people there.”
There were other moments in testimony from MOCJ and DOC offering insight into how the mayor is approaching the problems presented by Rikers Island.
MOCJ Director Liz Glazer reaffirmed her office’s commitment to using data to help reduce the number of people incarcerated at Rikers, while pointing out that the seriousness of the charges that many are facing may make it difficult to immediately relocate or release several of those people. Additionally, DOC Commissioner Brann highlighted some of the increased programming that has been introduced at Rikers, and walked Council members through some of the recent reforms that are a result of oversight efforts from the court-appointed Nunez Monitoring Team.
However, even with these moments, the hearing felt like a missed opportunity to communicate the mayor’s vision, if he has one, to a city eager for concrete action and meaningful change. “While today's hearing should have been an opportunity to engage with the administration and learn about what they have done and intend to do, the hearing showed that the mayor is simply not interested in crafting meaningful and bold solutions in the effort to close Rikers,” said Martin.
What was perhaps most shocking, however, was not just how little was said about what’s next, but how little was said about whatever has been achieved up to this point. The City Council was given very little substantive information to work with, and was instead forced to reckon with the fact that, in many ways, the mayoral administration’s work on closing Rikers still sits at square one. In fact, judging by the few proposals and initiatives that were discussed by the administration, it would appear that they still do not understand the scope or the urgency of this issue.
Much of the testimony offered from the mayor’s representatives felt like it could have been spoken, without changing a word, several years ago. This is despite what the mayor claims has been significant progress on criminal justice reform throughout the second half of his first term. Time and again, MOCJ and DOC testimonies were centered on platitudes about the challenges that remain and the general vision that the mayor reluctantly adopted when he did finally agree that the city should work to close the Rikers jail complex.
But that was pretty much all they offered, and that’s the problem.
Rikers Island continues to be a destructive force for New York’s communities, budget, and conscience. It is, as Comptroller Scott Stringer has said, a stain on the moral fabric of our city. For this administration to offer little more than empty words and half-hearted ideas is a true disappointment for all of the New Yorkers eager to work with this mayor to end the trauma that results from this national embarrassment. Perhaps most importantly of all, this administration’s attitude was a deeply painful insult to the people who’ve been directly harmed by Rikers, many of whom were in the audience, looking on as the mayor’s representatives seemed to look past them.
Shanequa Charles is a #CLOSErikers campaign member.