Why I came around to backing the push to close Rikers Island

Why I came around to backing the push to close Rikers Island 

When I first heard of the “Close Rikers” campaign, I was skeptical. But after months of research, I am now convinced of the right path forward. We must take the steps today to allow us to close Rikers Island for good.

Today, Rikers represents a profound failure of our criminal justice system and a black eye for New York City. Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara once referred to it as “a corrections crucible that seems more inspired by ‘Lord of the Flies’ than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.”

It has become clear to me that, despite well-intentioned and well-financed efforts, we have been unable to eradicate the culture of violence at Rikers Island. The number of violent inmate-on-inmate incidents between July and November 2016 increased 21% compared to the previous year.

Meanwhile, an outside consultant working to reduce violence at Rikers has billed New York City $27.4 million since 2015 alone. The situation is made even more appalling by the fact that 80% of individuals incarcerated at Rikers are just awaiting their day in court.

The problem lies, in part, with Rikers’ outdated design and layouts. Smaller facilities elsewhere in the city can be upgraded, and new ones built, to accept the Rikers population. These facilities could incorporate modern best practices for design, technology and, most importantly, safety.

It’s worth noting that the population of the island is already at a historic low, after New York City’s incarceration rate declined by 55% over a 20-year period.

We can lower the number further, and achieve both safety and justice, through criminal justice reforms that we should be doing anyway: namely, speeding up trials and reforming the bail system. Once the population is reduced, and remaining inmates transferred, we can close Rikers entirely and rid ourselves of this blight on the city’s conscience.

It is also apparent that incarcerating individuals so far from the rest of the city harms, rather than helps, public safety. Studies show that isolating people from their friends, family and social services makes them more likely to be convicted of future crimes.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections found that visits to inmates reduced felony reconvictions by 13% and technical violations by 25%. Data also shows that New Yorkers incarcerated at Rikers get disproportionately fewer personal visits than those incarcerated in the boroughs. Rikers’ isolation makes us all less safe.

I am also concerned that the city is spending an unreasonable amount of money to operate Rikers. In 2015, New York City taxpayers paid $112,665 per year for each individual in our custody. By contrast, Los Angeles County paid only $42,859.

Our costs are so astronomical because Rikers’ isolation requires us to pay for security in the river surrounding it, for an on-island bus service, and, most significantly, for transporting individuals to courthouses miles away in the five boroughs.

In 2012, the city’s Department of Correction transported nearly 1,000 people off the island to court each and every weekday. These DOC bus trips require 300 employees in DOC’s transportation staff alone, cost New York City more than $30 million annually, and release tons of unnecessary carbon dioxide into the air we breathe.

Finally, closing the jail would let us put Rikers Island to better use. We could create a hub for manufacturing. We could open a new park or wildlife preserve. We could build a critical piece of unpopular sanitation infrastructure, such as a waste treatment plant. We could even use the island to expand neighboring LaGuardia Airport’s constricted runways. Such an endeavor would complement Gov. Cuomo’s plan to redesign and significantly upgrade the airport and reduce its chronic delays.

No matter how you slice it, there are far more effective uses for this space.

The process will be long and challenging. But it is worth our time. The mayor should not invest hundreds of millions more dollars into building a new jail on the island. It’s time to stop throwing money at fixing up Rikers, and plan for real, progressive alternatives.

Garodnick represents the East Side and Midtown Manhattan in the New York City Council.