New York’s mayor has pledged to shut down the notorious Rikers Island prison, the city’s main jail complex, in a process that will take at least 10 years. “We had to do a lot of work to figure out a path that actually could achieve this goal,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio as he yesterday announced the commitment, which he was previously reluctant to make. “For a long time I have said publicly it was a noble idea but I did not see how it was attainable under the conditions we were facing.”
Many New York officials and legal experts for years have been calling for the closure of the huge site of the same name as the island in the East River where it is located, which sits between the city’s boroughs of Queens and the Bronx. They highlighted the jail’s aging and poor conditions and almost daily incidents of violence against prisoners and guards. They mayor said it became clear that “we that had to adjust the time line if we were going to be honest about it –that a decade was the minimum in which it could be done. That was the breakthrough.”
De Blasio said that the decreasing number of inmates in recent years, along with a reduction in crime, had helped to change his mind on the closure. Detainee numbers on Rikers have effectively dropped by 18 percent since 2013, according to recent statistics, from a daily average of 11,696 prisoners to 9,756 in 2016, and 9,362 for the month of March.
The mayor acknowledged that the plan would nevertheless require commitment from his successors to build smaller prisons, closer to neighborhoods where New Yorkers live. It remains to be seen whether such a long-term commitment will be able to withstand political changes in the coming years.
De Blasio is running for reelection as mayor in November and is well placed to secure a new four-year term. Among the better-known detainees to spend time on the island was the former head of the International Monetary Fund, France’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He was briefly imprisoned there in May 2011 following his arrest in New York after he was accused of attempted rape by a hotel maid.