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Locked Up

Mayor Eric Adams Wonders Why Politicians Like Eric Adams Wanted Smaller NYC Jails

Three years ago, Eric Adams demanded lower jail capacity. Now he wants to know where he's supposed to put all the people he's locking up.

1:31 PM EDT on September 7, 2022

Eric Adams discussed Rikers at a Press Conference August 29. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

As the 13th person to die in custody on Rikers Island this year lay dying, Mayor Eric Adams was explaining why the plan to shut down Rikers and build new jails was flawed: The leaders who proposed the borough-based facilities made them too small, and there are now too many people who need to be locked up.

“Those who have created a plan A, that I inherited, obviously didn't think about a plan B,” Adams told reporters at a press conference last Monday. “Look at the incarceration numbers, and one have to ask, what was the plan B? What was the plan B that stated, if we don't drop down the prison population the way they thought we were, what do we do? No one answered that question. And that question should have been raised when we talked about the borough-based jail plan.”

The mayor added, “What do we do with those inmates that's not going to fit into the borough-based jails?” 

Yet Borough President Eric Adams helped shape the plan that Mayor Eric Adams was now criticizing. BP Adams even insisted on a smaller jail in his borough, as well as the criminal justice reforms that would keep incarceration rates low enough to build it.

“Borough President Adams seeks to bring the planned number of inmates in line with recent New York State reforms as well as strategies urged by prison reform advocates,” Adams wrote in 2019, in his Borough President Statement on a proposed new Brooklyn jail complex, to allow for the closure of the jails on Rikers.

Adams said he could only support the jail if it had an even smaller capacity than the 1,437 beds initially proposed. Indeed, the BP wanted a 58 percent reduction in capacity at the Brooklyn Detention Center.

“The City must aggressively consider sound policies that would need to be enacted by the State as part of ongoing efforts to reduce the number of beds in the proposed facility’s design," Adams wrote. "Just Leadership USA [an organization working to close Rikers] advocates a projected daily population of approximately 3,000 based on a capacity of 3,500 beds. CB 2 [the local Brooklyn community board] has called for no more than 875 beds at BDC. Borough President Adams believes that as a demonstration of good faith, the Brooklyn site should be designed for a maximum capacity of 900 beds.”

After Adams's comments, the proposed jail size was ultimately reduced.

It’s possible that Adams was simply channeling the NIMBY resistance that rose up among neighbors of the proposed new jails, sometimes mixing their concerns over property values with the language of criminal justice reform. But Adams didn’t just want to make the jail in Brooklyn very small. He wanted to lock in the reductions in jail capacity across New York City by ensuring that for every new piece of jail capacity built in the boroughs, a corresponding amount of jail capacity on Rikers was shuttered and demolished.

“An incremental expansion of citywide bed capacity should be sequenced with an equal reduction of such bed capacity via the immediate demolition of one or more buildings designated for replacement,” Adams wrote in 2019.

You wouldn’t know it to hear Mayor Adams talking now, but incarceration rates are not some elemental force over which cities have no control, their governments helpless to act as their jails empty and fill again on ebbing and surging crime rates. The mayor and his colleagues in state government, in District Attorney’s offices, and in the courts have many tools at their disposal to safely reduce jail population.

“The answer to a rising jail population is not to throw up your hands,” said Elizabeth Glazer, who as head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice in the de Blasio administration worked many of these levers herself to reduce the number of people held on Rikers. “It’s to figure out how to safely bring that down, either with the means you directly control or by convening all the other criminal justice decision-makers to figure out how to safely get that population down, as has been demonstrated over and over again.”

For example, Glazer said: At present, roughly a quarter of the people held on Rikers, meant to be a short-term detention facility where people are briefly held until their cases are resolved, have been there a year or more. “That balloons the population in a way that is within your control.”

If the Eric Adams of 2022 won’t acknowledge the tools city government has to safely reduce the jail population, the Eric Adams of 2019 did. In his letter on the Brooklyn jail, he said so, and he listed some of them. “The City must invest in alternatives to incarceration so that detention becomes a tactic of last resort,” Adams wrote. He calls the city’s 2018 decision to end cash bail for non-felony cases a “significant victory” and an “important step.” He called for the expansion of the Supervised Release program that keeps people out of jail while they’re awaiting their court date.

Does Adams still support these positions? Does he regret demanding a smaller Brooklyn jail, and calling for measures to lock in a decreased jail population? We asked the Mayor’s Office these questions, and did not receive a response.

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