The first step: de Blasio announces Rikers Island jail closure

Those who want Rikers Island closed for good saw a glimmer of hope with City Hall’s latest announcement.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he’d close the George Motchan Detention Center on Rikers Island as part of his plan to close the entire island in 10 years. De Blasio wants to close the GMDC by the summer.

In a statement, de Blasio said, “Every day we are making New York City’s jail system smaller and safer. This announcement is an important step in our plan to close Rikers Island and create more community-based facilities to better serve people in custody and our hard-working correctional staff.”

The GMDC currently holds 600 men awaiting trial and was picked to close first because of its maintenance and sewer system issues. Brandon Holmes, campaign coordinator for #CLOSERIKERS, thanked the de Blasio administration for taking the first step in closing Rikers with closing GMDC.

“This is an example of the concrete steps that advocates and directly impacted communities have been demanding from this mayor ever since he made closing Rikers the official city policy of New York,” said Holmes in a statement. “We applaud the mayor’s taking this step while also acknowledging that this is the first of many steps that the mayor must take if he is serious about shutting down Torture Island for good. And we thank the thousands of directly impacted people who created the momentum leading to closure of a facility with over 2,000 beds. Much more work remains, and we will not stop advocating and agitating until we #CLOSErikers for good.”

Last July, members of #CLOSERIKERS took their protest to the mayor’s workout spot at the Prospect Park YMCA after reports from the city and the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform suggested a 10-year process to close all facilities on the island. The activists felt 10 years was too long.

One union leader, however, thinks there shouldn’t be a timeline at all. In a statement blasting de Blasio’s announcement, New York City Corrections Officer Benevolent Association President Elias Husamudeen’s said the mayor’s plan to construct smaller facilities around the five boroughs puts New Yorkers in danger.

“Once again, the Mayor has put politics ahead of safety, just as he did with the elimination of punitive segregation for 18 to 21 year olds, which only increased the levels of violence within that population,” said Husamudeen. “He wanted New York City to be the first in the nation for ‘progressive jails’ and instead he made NYC’s jails the most violent in the nation. His vision for New York City is to become ‘the fairest city’ in America.”

The mayor could push for the GMDC’s closing without loud pushback because of the decrease in the city’s inmate population to a below 9,000 for the first time since 1982. De Blasio’s stated that Rikers wouldn’t completely close until the population fell below the 5,000 mark.

Jonathan Lippman, New York State chief judge and chair of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, said that the announcement of the inmate population dip marked an important milestone in the making the criminal justice system fairer and more humane.

“The reduction in the number of people in our jails coupled with the falling crime rate goes to show that mass incarceration is not a prerequisite to keeping New York safe,” stated Lippman. “As criminal justice reform efforts may be stalled on a federal level, closing Rikers and moving to a community justice model will go to show that New York City can be a beacon of progress.”