Breaking a cycle of brutality that has lasted for decades at the prison once decried as the world’s largest penal colony, the New York City Council voted Thursday to close Rikers Island, replacing it with four smaller jails spread across the city.
The Council also approved a legal mandate ensuring that no jails will exist on Rikers after 2026, along with investments in community-based services and alternatives to incarceration.
“Today marks a turning point, not only in the trajectory of criminal justice reform in New York City, but also in our vision of what is possible,” said Nick Turner, president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice in a statement.
The vote capped several years of intense advocacy, from both grass-roots groups and an independent commission that concluded Rikers was so broken that only shutting down the violent facility could solve its deep-rooted problems.
“This is one of those moments where a cycle gets broken,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference after the vote. “The…cycle of incarceration ends now.”
For some at the city council meeting, it was a time of intense emotion.
Councilman Daniel Dromm invoked the names of former inmates who have died, including Kalief Browder, the Bronx teenager who was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack and held on Rikers for more than 1,000 days. After his release, Browder took his own life.
Opposition to the vote swelled in recent weeks, however, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez opposing the de Blasio administration’s plan to replace Rikers Island and saying, “We shouldn’t be building new jails” and calling for a delay of the vote.
The congresswoman reportedly agreed with many of the points made by No New Jails NYC, a group that gained serious traction this year.
In a strongly worded statement released on twitter, that group said: “We are outraged and disgusted by the result of Thursday’s City Council vote. With an opportunity to take a stand against the centuries-old and universally failed strategy of fixing jails by building jails, the Council fell miserably short of the mark.”
The statement added: “To the very last minute, council members based their votes on duplicitous claims, outright lies, and performative concern for formerly, currently, and futurely (sic) incarcerated people.”
The group also tweeted, “Rest up everyone. The struggle continues tomorrow.”
Among the criticisms made by No New Jails NYC is that the Rikers shutdown is not facing up to the incarceration crisis but is a veiled attempt to enrich developers’ pockets with the plan to build the new jails, which is priced at $8 billion.
Neighborhood opposition has already emerged on building jails at some of the four chosen sites.
Acknowledging that this is not a perfect solution, activists who support the city council vote also urged follow-through on incarceration reform policies.
“The new jails must be built in a way that prioritizes the well-being of those incarcerated and ensures that the only loss they suffer is that of their freedom, not their safety or humanity,” said Insha Rahman, director of Strategy & New Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice.
City officials say a decrease in the jail population made it feasible to close Rikers, a complex of 10 jails on an island between Queens and the Bronx that primarily houses inmates awaiting trial.
The number of people incarcerated in the city on a daily basis has declined from a high of nearly 22,000 in 1991 to about 7,000 today. City officials said this week that they believe they can shrink the jail population even further by 2026, to just 3,300 prisoners.
Greg Berman of the Center for Court Innovation said in a statement released Thursday:
Success of this kind has many authors. This includes the activists, journalists, and artists who have exposed the brutal conditions that have long prevailed on Rikers Island. And it includes the reformers within government who have worked to support policy changes and advance new approaches to justice.
But another critic of the vote, coming from a different direction, questioned whether the city can really drive incarceration rates as low as it wants without compromising public safety.
“It’s not clear how they’re going to get these numbers and it’s politically driven,” Seth Barron, project director of the NYC Initiative at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, told the Associated Press. “It’s a big risk because we’ve already taken all the nonviolent people out of Rikers.”
Others worry about what will happen if the city cannot reduce the number of inmates by more than half from today.
“I don’t trust the numbers,” said Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, in an interview in the New York Times. “What are you going to do if you end up with 5,000 people?”
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.