Mayor Adams at Rikers (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
As the crisis on Rikers Island continues and the death toll soars, Mayor Eric Adams told New Yorkers last week that there needs to be a “plan B” for the city’s plan to shutter the notorious jail complex, suggesting he may not close Rikers at all. This should alarm all New Yorkers who care about justice.
There is currently a plan in place to close Rikers by 2027 and drastically reduce the city’s capacity to jail people. In 2019 community groups secured a victory when the New York City Council passed and then-Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation to close Rikers and replace the existing borough-based jails. The plan dramatically reduces the number of jail cells citywide, while emphasizing diversion and alternative programs that promote public safety without relying on incarceration.
As a candidate, Mayor Adams committed to the Rikers closure plan. But as mayor he has done little to nothing to follow through, even outright ignoring the 2019 law, and has instead fought for policies to jail more people at Rikers, increasing the detention population, endangering lives, and further imperiling the closure plan. When the mayor said, “We need a plan B,” he went on to suggest expanding the city’s jail capacity by holding people – pretrial – in state prisons.
The Rikers closure plan requires the city’s detention capacity to be 3,300 or lower. But today about 5,700 people are in New York City jails—300 more people than when Adams took office in January, and thousands more than what is permissible under the 2019 plan, which purposefully cuts overall jail capacity.
Roughly 4,900 people (86%) are incarcerated pretrial. These people—neighbors, family, friends — are innocent until proven guilty, but most of them are in jail because they can’t afford bail. Having worked at a bail fund and posted bail more than 500 times in New York City, I know firsthand how immoral and predatory our state’s bail system continues to be — yes, even after the reforms that have been mischaracterized and partially rolled back twice.
Jail populations don’t rise on their own. They are the direct result of regressive decisions made for political gain.
Mayor Adams has made daily calls to roll back bail reform and incarcerate more New Yorkers pretrial—predominately Black and Latino people—due to unaffordable bail. And it’s working. The jail population is going up because Mayor Adams wants it to. This comes at a great cost, including the unacceptable reality that 13 people have died in New York’s jail system this year; the city is on track to surpass the grisly record set last year.
The mayor wants even more people behind bars at Rikers, where even more people will die.
And New York City taxpayers should not be spending more than $500,000 a year per person to hold people in cages on Rikers while cutting funding to schools and homeless services. This type of policy decision-making makes our city less safe.
To address the crisis at Rikers, there is no need for a “plan B” or for people to be sent to state prisons while they await their day in court. The solution is straightforward: utilize proven programs to reduce the jail population, invest in real community safety: housing, health care, education, and jobs, and shut down Rikers.
New Yorkers deserve better than a mayor who commits to one thing, does another, and seems to govern on the fly through reckless statements. People are suffering and dying, and the time for action—the time to close Rikers—is now.
Yonah Zeitz is the Director of Advocacy at the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. From 2017 to 2019 he was the Project Associate at the Bronx Freedom Fund. On Twitter @yonahzeitz & @katalcenter.