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At Least Somebody Is Still Trying to Close Rikers Island

As Eric Adams drags his feet on closing the jail, some City Councilmembers are still trying to shut it down by a mandatory 2027 deadline.

9:35 AM EDT on April 12, 2023

City Councilmember Kevin Riley speaks at a rally urging Mayor Eric Adams to close Rikers Island.
(Hell Gate)|

City Councilmember Kevin Riley speaks at a rally urging Mayor Eric Adams to close Rikers Island.

Under a law passed in 2017, the jail complex on Rikers Island legally has to close by 2027, when it's set to be replaced by four smaller borough-based jails. These four jails will only be able to hold around 3,300 people, which means that's how low the Rikers Island population needs to drop before the jail can shutter. There was a time when New York City was on its way to getting to that historically low number—that is, before Eric Adams took office.

The jail population dropped below 4,000—for the first time since 1946—in April 2020, when then-Mayor Bill de Blasio heralded his administration's efforts that cut the Rikers population by more than 50 percent. But under Adams, the number of people incarcerated on Rikers Island has shot up to just under 6,000—almost double what's needed to close the deeply dysfunctional and deadly facility. Since taking office, Adams has been noncommittal when it comes to closing Rikers Island and hitting the 2027 deadline, stressing that the jail population remains too high while, of course, rallying for bail reform rollbacks at the state level that would most likely place more people on Rikers. The Adams administration has even gone so far as to push back the completion date of the new Brooklyn jail to 2029. Adams is continuing to back a Correction Department that is unable to bring people to court on time, is letting public defender offices hollow out, and is urging more quality-of-life arrests by the NYPD, further stuffing Rikers full of people during his time in office. 

While Adams drags his feet on the Rikers closure, the City Council is trying to pick up the slack. On Tuesday, Councilmembers Kevin Riley and Lincoln Restler released a series of steps to put New York City back on the path to reducing the number of people held at Rikers to below that 3,300 number (and maybe even lower). Called "A Pathway to Ending Mass Incarceration in New York City," the plan includes provisions like funding alternatives to detention programs and increasing funding for both supervised release programs and public defenders. It also includes legislation that would begin the process of handing over the review of the jail population to borough-based committees, who would help determine who could be safely released from Rikers. 

"If any of you visit Rikers Island and then head home, you would be traumatized. You see how our brothers and sisters are living. This can't continue," Councilmember Riley said at a rally in support of his plan on Tuesday at City Hall Park. "We talk about all the Black people holding power within this state—we need to actually talk about real solutions."

"As I have said, the law currently says Rikers must close and we follow the law," Mayor Adams said in a statement to Hell Gate when asked for comment about the plan from Restler and Riley. "The question of the jail population being larger than the Borough Based Jails plan is the elephant in the room when discussing this and I’m not going to shy away from talking about the challenges and the reality that we face. We are exploring all options that will allow us to keep our streets safe and follow the law: everything from urging the state for more funding for mental health services so people don’t end up on Rikers, to additional space, to ways we can keep the courts moving and functioning properly. We’ll review the report."

Restler and Riley aren't the only City Councilmembers prodding the mayor towards closing Rikers. City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and Criminal Justice Committee Chair Carlina Rivera have been pushing the Adams administration to recommit to closing Rikers by 2027 and to fund programs in the City's budget that would help lower the City's jail population. The other elephant in the room, however, is the fact that Governor Kathy Hochul has held up the entire state budget over her bail reform demands. If Hochul has her druthers, judges across the state will get far more discretion to set effectively unpayable bail amounts for people charged with certain crimes— changes that would upend decades-old precedent in the state and would almost certainly lead to a higher jail population in New York City. 

At the rally, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who as a City Councilmember helped pass the law to close Rikers, was more direct in his comments regarding those holding power in the City. 

"The plan that has been put forth to shut Rikers Island is a very good one," said Williams. "It only makes sense, though, if you actually want to shut Rikers Island down. And I get the feeling from this administration, that is not a priority." 

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