February 17, 2016

Close Rikers Island?
A Former Correction Commissioner Offers a Five-Minute How-To Guide

In recent days, key City and State elected leaders have made public pronouncements warming to the once seemingly unthinkable goal of closing New York City’s violence- and scandal-scarred jail complex on Rikers Island.

Declaring in her Feb. 11 “State of the City” address that Rikers Island has “come to express our worst tendencies, and our biggest failures,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito proposed a set of reforms designed to improve conditions and reduce the inmate population there. “We must,” she concluded, “explore how we can get the population of Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.” Asked for his opinion a few days later, Governor Andrew Cuomo called the Speaker’s proposals “interesting and intriguing,” adding that Rikers Island “is a truly troubled facility and I believe the design of it is one of the aggravating factors.”

Addressing a Center for New York City Affairs forum last Nov. 18th, another top City official, Comptroller Scott Stringer, called Rikers Island “an urban shame.” He cited decades of failed and federally-mandated attempts to reform the jail complex and called on the Mayor and Commissioner to implement the changes required by the current consent decree and to “plan for the day when Rikers Island can be safely and responsibly closed.”

Today, Rikers Island has an average daily population of 10-11,000 prisoners. Is there a practical way to decommission a jail complex that big? At the Nov. 18th event, former New York City Correction Commissioner Martin Horn, now a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, offered this succinct, step-by-step plan for decreasing the inmate population on Rikers Island by more than 90%. It’s a process that would reduce the number of inmates -- through bail reform, swifter processing, more appropriately serving the mentally ill and adolescents -- and enable a more decentralized, efficient, modern, and humane City correction system.