NYC Mayor Eric Adams faces a tough challenge on Rikers Island

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“The mayor is going to have to make some tough decisions,” said William Bratton, a security expert who has managed police departments here and in Los Angeles and Boston. “Meanwhile, Rikers is a hellhole that’s only getting worse – not better.”

The current plan would raze the 11,300-bed prison complex — which has long been plagued by appalling living conditions and officer misconduct — and replace it with four new high-rise buildings by August 2027, located in each of the boroughs except Staten Iceland . Total capacity would be 3,544 inmates, with each site having 886 beds. Only one would accommodate women.

However, as of last week, the city’s prison population had grown to nearly 5,700 inmates, reversing a sharp decline early in the coronavirus pandemic. Adams has continued to champion crime-fighting policies that are likely to put more people behind bars, and instituted a modified version of a controversial crime-fighting task force that was disbanded in 2020 for its aggressive tactics.

Community activists and elected officials in neighborhoods identified for the new lockdowns are calling for it to significantly reduce their size or find new locations. Many members of his party’s progressive faction want him to put less emphasis on incarceration, move the project forward to specifications approved in 2019, and accelerate the snail’s pace that has hampered construction and related works during the pandemic.

At the same time, centrist Democrats and the Benevolent Association of Correction Officers are among those pushing Adams to scrap the county-focused plan and build a new complex on Rikers Island.

The cash-strapped city has a budget of $8.2 billion to build the new jails, but construction industry experts familiar with the project estimate the cost will be at least $10 billion to $15 billion.

The mayor’s spokesman, Fabien Levy, declined to make him available for an interview. In response to questions submitted in writing, Levy said in a statement that the city “will continue to meet with communities, listen to their concerns and incorporate their feedback into the ongoing process.”

According to several members of the mayor’s inner circle and other longtime confidants, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deliberations, the Adams administration is in talks with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office about reopening some closed state prisons temporarily relieve existing problems on the island. These prisons would then house the excess inmates in the future county jails.

They also said Adams wants to reduce the size of the proposed confinement and potentially relocate some to less populated neighborhoods, as well as direct some people leaving the city’s prison system to “supportive housing units,” which he pledged during his candidacy by converting shutters Hotels. Residents would be offered access to psychiatric care and other social services.

Councilor Robert Holden, a Queens Democrat, is among those urging the government to reconsider Rikers’ future. He said he met with senior city officials last week and unveiled a cheaper alternative: building a college campus-like prison complex on the 413-acre island at an estimated $5.6 billion.

The 63-page proposal, drafted by architects and engineers opposed to a new prison in Lower Manhattan, calls for a hospital, athletic fields, labor training centers, an agricultural area and a ferry service.

“It would be crazy” not to scrap the current plan, Holden said. “Most people don’t want jails in their neighborhoods. It is too expensive.”

However, Councilman Lincoln Restler, a Brooklyn Democrat whose district includes one of the proposed jails, believes it is criminal to continue holding inmates at Rikers. “Rikers has to close,” he said. “There’s no lipstick to put on this pig. This is an eyesore to our city.”

Located in the East River between Queens and the Bronx, the island was a garbage dump before being converted into a prison complex in the early 1930s. Most inmates today are people of color who have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial. Many suffer from mental illnesses.

Conditions there have been so abysmal in the past that the city’s prison system has been under federal oversight by a court-appointed monitor for 40 years. The Rikers complex continues to suffer from poor ventilation and unsanitary conditions, among other issues. Its correctional officers have long been accused of routinely treating inmates with excessive force.

At least 16 people died in city jails last year, the most reported deaths since 2013. On Friday, a 52-year-old man died on Rikers Island after being held there since February. It was the second death of the correction system in as many days – and the third this year.

Hernandez Stroud, attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said he believes the problems are so bad that “Rikers is ripe” for federal administration — a rarely used judicial intervention that would allow a federal judge to to govern city prisons. He noted that such actions have helped poorly run prison systems, including those in Alabama and the District of Columbia, to fix deadlocked problems.

Despite decades of appalling conditions, it took the publicized suicide of Kalief Browder in 2015 before city officials enacted serious reforms to Rikers. The 22-year-old hanged himself at home after spending three hellish years with Rikers as a teenager – nearly two of them in solitary confinement – while awaiting trial for allegedly robbing a backpack. He was never convicted of a crime.

In 2016, city council spokeswoman Melissa Mark-Viverito called for the closure of facilities on the island and formed an independent commission to make recommendations on how best to do so. The following year, the findings of the commission led de Blasio to announce that Rikers would be closed. He unveiled his prison plan and by 2019 all the necessary state permits had been obtained.

The council added an additional deterrent by passing legislation that would halt all prison activity on the island after 2027. Therefore, any attempt to build new prisons there will require future legislative action.

Mark-Viverito said she’s “hopeful” Adams keeps that plan on track. She expressed frustration that de Blasio “did little” to advance the project in his final years in office – leaving it vulnerable to renewed scrutiny.

“Any change now would cause a big setback and delay the whole thing,” she said.

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