NEW YORK (AP) — The mayor said Friday that he wants to close the city’s troubled Rikers Island jail complex, though he cautioned that doing so would be difficult and take at least a decade.
“It will take many years and it will take many tough decisions along the way, but it will happen,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
Among those challenges: The mayor said the jail’s daily population would have to be slashed to half of what it was just a few years ago. New, smaller jails would also have to be opened elsewhere in the city — a potentially lengthy process considering the possibility of neighborhood opposition.
Key details of the plan, including the cost and the location of alternative jails, are still a long way from being worked out, the mayor said.
The announcement comes two days ahead of the planned unveiling of recommendations by an independent commission established in the wake of a string of brutality cases that exposed poor supervision, questionable medical care and corruption at Rikers. The commission, headed by the state’s former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, has been considering options for Rikers as part of a broad examination of the city’s criminal justice system.
Previously, the mayor, a Democrat, had called proposals to close Rikers “noble,” but said it would be too expensive.
On Friday, he said he had changed his mind because the jail was housing fewer and fewer people, dropping below 10,000 from a high of 15,000 just a few years ago, according to city figures.
De Blasio credited the drop partly to shifts in how law enforcement handles lower level crimes, like smoking marijuana in public.
Rikers is a 400-acre (162-hectare) former dump near the runways of LaGuardia Airport. It is accessible only by a narrow bridge between it and Queens. For decades, the city has sent its inmates there while they await trial, where they’re housed in 10 jail facilities.
Advocates for prisoners have been arguing that smaller jails, based in the city’s neighborhoods, would be better able to provide services and reduce delays getting criminal suspects to and from court.
It wasn’t immediately clear how local elected officials in the communities where new jails might be built would react. Past attempts to build or expand existing jails in the boroughs have been met with significant resistance from neighborhood groups and others. Also unclear is how the politically powerful jail guards union would react to such a plan, which could conceivably shrink their membership.
The city currently employs about 10,000 correction officers.
A union spokesman didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment. The union’s former president was indicted by federal prosecutors last year in a sprawling municipal corruption case. He has pleaded not guilty.
Violence, mismanagement and corruption have been the subject of intense scrutiny by the media and federal prosecutors in recent years.
A 2015 settlement of civil litigation over pervasive brutality led to the installation of a monitor responsible for overseeing the city’s progress in adding thousands of surveillance cameras and stricter policies on use of force.
The Associated Press and other news outlets first exposed conditions on Rikers in a series of reports in 2014 that highlighted violence, poor supervision, questionable medical care and failures to prevent suicides.
Those deaths included a homeless ex-Marine who essentially baked to death in a hot cell and a mentally ill man who sexually mutilated himself while locked up alone for seven days.