(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
The Rikers Island jail complex, a notorious and decrepit institution sitting on 413 acres in the East River, was slated for closure well before New York City became the country’s epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, during which the complex has emerged as a hotspot for infections that have led to the deaths of several detainees and corrections officers.
But the timeline for shutting down the jail complex and building local jails in four boroughs has been thrust into uncertainty by countervailing forces: state bail reforms were recently rolled back and could reverse a downward trajectory of New Yorkers detained on the island pre-trial, but there are also fewer detainees than ever before as the city has released hundreds in the interest of their health and safety during the pandemic. Meanwhile, due to the economic shutdown, the city’s financial picture has become dire, quickly shifting planned investment in the construction of the new jails necessary to the closure of those on Rikers.
The $8.7 billion plan to close the Rikers jails by 2026 and replace them with four smaller, safer, and more humane borough-based jails, in each borough except Staten Island, was approved by the New York City Council last year after years of pressure from criminal justice reform advocates and elected officials who decried the horrid conditions and crumbling infrastructure of the island’s jails.
The plan was put into motion in 2017 by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who convened the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, chaired by former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann. The commission crafted the foundation of the city’s plan for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who reluctantly embraced it but then ensured a path to its fruition.
The closure of Rikers was contingent on reducing the average daily jail population to below 5,000. In October, when the Council voted on the plan, the daily average was about 7,200 and dropping, with major state-level bail reforms set to take effect in January; there are 14,000 beds across the city jail system. The initial design of the borough-based jails calls for a total of 3,795 beds, and the city intends to house only 3,300 detainees across all four.
As this year began, the bail reforms were implemented, arrests continued their multi-year drop, and the city jail population shrunk significantly, to 5,557 by March 16. But facing a growing campaign of criticism, including some disinformation and fearmongering, state lawmakers decided in April of this year to alter the still-new bail reforms, ensuring more defendants jailed pre-trial. By the time that decision was finalized, the state was already in lockdown due to the coronavirus, concerns about the health of detainees were growing and tax revenues were plummeting. As he ordered the release of some Rikers detainees, de Blasio redesigned his capital budget plan to postpone spending on the new jails.
“In October 2019, the City Council, backed by the Mayor and numerous justice reform advocates, passed a historic measure that will allow the City to replace Rikers Island with four new community-based facilities by 2026. That remains the plan,” said Colby Hamilton, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, in an email.
Initially expected to be completed over a decade, the closure plan timeline was shortened to nine years after a spate of reforms passed last year by the Democrat-led state Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo that eliminated cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felony offenses. Those reforms quickly led to a 40% decrease in the city’s pretrial jail population over the previous year, according to an analysis by the Center for Court Innovation.
But, just three months after those reforms went into effect, Cuomo and the Legislature rolled them back, reinstating cash bail for dozens of offenses and giving judges discretion in setting bail for offenses currently ineligible for pretrial detention. The new rules go into effect July 1 and the Center for Court Innovation estimates that they will lead to a 16% increase in the use of bail and detention over one year, based on the number of people ordered to bail and remand in 2019, adding about 450 more people to the average daily jail population.
After the rollback, activists worried that the Rikers plan was in jeopardy, though the de Blasio administration has not expressed the same level of anxiety. “We also do not believe the recently passed changes to the State bail laws will have a significant impact on the jail population -- we remain on-track for 3,300 by 2026,” Hamilton told Gotham Gazette, referencing a new projection released by the city just before the City Council voted through the jails plan.
The Council also remains committed. “The goal of closing Rikers has not changed,” said a spokesperson for Speaker Corey Johnson, in a statement. “We will work to build on our criminal justice reform efforts as we negotiate a budget during an unprecedented economic downturn.”
The pandemic has proved both a curse and a blessing to those who want to see Rikers shuttered for good. Already reviled for its inhumane conditions, Rikers was at risk of becoming a petri dish for the coronavirus. Data released last week by the Department of Correction showed 362 confirmed cases of coronavirus among the jail population, and another 1,319 among DOC staff. Three detainees and ten corrections officers have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
But, because of the concern for safety of detainees, since the city went into lockdown, de Blasio has ordered the release of hundreds of people detained for nonviolent offenses or those who are particularly vulnerable because of age or preexisting medical health conditions. Cuomo has also taken measures to reduce jail and prison censuses across the state, including by releasing some people incarcerated for technical parole violations.
There are now 3,906 people in New York City jails, down 1,651 from March 16. Of those still in jail, 3,421, or 87.5%, are pretrial detainees, including 595 there on open cases and parole violations. Another 214 are being held only on technical parole violations with no open cases, such as missing curfew or an appointment with a parole officer, for instance.
For those who have long criticized New York’s punitive carceral system, the drastic reduction in the jail population through administrative measures has been vindicating, though there have been a number of detainees who have been rearrested after being released. And the pandemic has added to their fervor to push for a quicker closure of Rikers.
“The COVID-19 crisis has only created more urgency to shut down the Rikers jails, and we are closer than ever to actually doing so,” said former Chief Judge Lippman, in a statement, noting that the jail population was lowered below 4,000 through “smart decisions” while prioritizing public safety. He said the city could still move forward with the borough-based jail plan despite its fiscal woes and “put a permanent end to the miserable legacy of Rikers and save billions in operating costs over the long term. This is a time of great difficulty and pain across the city, but it is not the time to turn back on our commitment to a better future.”
Tyler Nims, executive director of the Lippman Commission, echoed Lippman in a phone interview. “We have fewer people in jail than in any time in recent memory,” he said. “This crisis has just heightened the need to shut Rikers down and placed even more attention on the harms that incarceration can have and the need to use it as sparingly as possible.”
A new report from the commission that looks at the impact of the recent changes to state bail laws recommends several measures that will ensure that the jail population continues to fall after the pandemic. The commission is pushing for the passage of the Less is More Act, sponsored by Manhattan state Senator Brian Benjamin and Brooklyn Assemblymember Walter Mosley, which would limit reincarceration for technical parole violations. That would enshrine into law the administrative changes that the mayor and governor have enacted in the last two months.
The commission also urges district attorneys and judges to employ the additional discretion they will have after July 1 and request bail only when absolutely necessary, expand the use of supervised release, and provide greater pretrial services like housing to those who need them. “There are also a lot of things that can be done by the courts, by the district attorneys, by the city to make sure that that additional judicial discretion...is not used in a way that results in a return to the pre-bail reform practices,” Nims said.
The commission also recommends implementing an “ability-to-pay assessment” for cases where cash bail may be imposed and calls on the state Legislature to give charitable bail organizations greater ability to post bail.
“I do have faith that, with the right political pressure, the right smart policies and laws can be put in place to continue the progress that has already been made,” Nims said.
However, the mayor’s latest budget proposal released last month would delay capital spending meant to build the new borough-based jail system. The administration cut the entire $140 million it planned to spend on the effort in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and reduced planned capital spending in the next fiscal year from $392 million to $196 million. Even in the best of times, the city has struggled to complete large capital projects on time and within budget. The design process for the jails has barely begun – the city released a Requests for Qualifications for construction vendors for the project in November. While reiterating that the city plans to meet its larger timeline, MOCJ’s Hamilton did not address the delay in capital spending or say whether the planning process for the borough-based jails is still on track.
The city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure was suspended on March 16, which means that a land use measure initiated by the City Council that would officially prohibit future jails on Rikers Island by designating it a public space was also put on hold.
City Council Member Costa Constantinides, whose district includes Rikers, has called on the City Planning Commission to resume hearings virtually to ensure the process is completed. “Every day we let this application stall is another life put at risk on Rikers. Nothing should stop the decision to close Rikers Island, when we have proven everything from City Council meetings to weddings can be conducted remotely,” he said in a statement last week. “What this virus has done to the detainees, employees, and guards there only underscores why we cannot wait any longer. If there is one application the City hears virtually, in a way that keeps everyone safe, it should be the one that guarantees Rikers is no longer used as a jail.”
Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank, has suggested that, with the financial uncertainty the city currently faces, the administration would be better off abandoning the borough-based jails plan and instead rebuilding Rikers. “With the pandemic, the city must inevitably rethink its capital-budget priorities so that one experimental project does not overwhelm the rest of the scarcer money available for critical infrastructure,” she wrote in a report last week that cited the city’s poor performance on capital projects in the past, among other issues with the plan.