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Locked Up

Who’s Going to Make Eric Adams Close Rikers Island?

"I don't know how we compel him to follow the law, other than shaming the hell out of him."

NYPD Commissioner Edward Caban and Mayor Eric Adams make a heart with their hands at Gracie Mansion.

NYPD Commissioner Edward Caban and Mayor Eric Adams. (Benny Polatseck / Mayoral Photography Office)

According to a law passed by the City Council, on August 31, 2027, in exactly four years, the jails on Rikers Island must be shut down. This date is itself a one-year extension from the one in the original plan, but the odds that Mayor Eric Adams will carry out the law's mandate to close the violent, chaotic, and deadly jail complex feel increasingly long.

Outside of City Hall on Thursday morning, a group of advocates and elected officials reminded New Yorkers that the deadline was approaching.

"We need to get real. You can pump fists and do all that, but we need to get our elected officials to step to where they gotta be," Neil Berry, an activist at VOCAL-NY told the crowd. "There's great conversation out here, but I need action."

So far, all of the action—or more accurately, inaction—to close Rikers has belonged to Mayor Adams. His administration has essentially stopped transferring land on Rikers away from the Correction Department, as the plan requires. A City contract to build the new borough-based jail in Downtown Brooklyn, one of the four smaller jails meant to replace the facilities on Rikers, is two years over the deadline. And over his first two years on the job, Adams has repeatedly warned that the number of people held on Rikers is too high above the 3,300 necessary for the borough-based plan to work, while at the same time fueling that population increase by advocating for policies that lock more people up, for longer periods of time. The administration's very real fight to rebuff a federal takeover of Rikers will likely last years, and has no actual bearing on the closure plan passed in 2019.

"It was a flawed plan from the beginning. There was no plan B," Adams said on Tuesday, in his sharpest comments on the issue to date. Adams pointed out that 50 percent of the roughly 6,000 people held on Rikers have some form of mental health diagnosis ("They shouldn't even be on Rikers. We should be able to treat them and give them the mental health assistance they need," he said) but failed to acknowledge that his recent budget cuts have eliminated programs for 1,500 incarcerated people. The mayor then shifted his responsibility to administer the plan to close Rikers to the council: "We must sit down with the City Council and lay out the facts."

(Source: Comptroller's office)

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, whose mother was a correction officer who herself believed Rikers should have been closed "long ago," issued a statement on Thursday saying that "it is imperative that Mayor Adams' administration take responsibility for implementing the law," but laid out no next steps for ensuring how to make that happen.

The lawmakers who spoke at Thursday's rally were slightly more pointed. Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso compared Adams to Rudy Giuliani. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams noted that Adams never had any intention of closing Rikers. Brooklyn Councilmember Shahana Hanif accused Adams of trying to "evade his responsibility" on closing down the deadly jails, and that "we the City Council will not allow him to circumvent his responsibility," but, much like Speaker Adams, never said how they plan to hold the mayor accountable.

Borough President Antonio Reynoso compared Adams to Giuliani at Thursday's rally. (Hell Gate)

"I don't know how we compel him to follow the law, other than shaming the hell out of him," Brooklyn Councilmember Alexa Avilés told Hell Gate, when we asked what tools the council had to enforce the law. Would they seek a court order? 

"I can't imagine the council, as an entity, being that at odds with the mayor," Avilés replied. "The question around how it uses its subpoena power over agencies—we don't see them exerting that power over the administration. I wish they would."

Avilés added that Adams's ability to toss aside all of the work and political capital that was expended on the plan is one reason why "people are pissed all the time."

"We spent 10 years, a commission, a plan, studies, enormous amounts of time for New Yorkers, both people who are in the system and people who want to see something different, and then it's just like, entirely ignored," Avilés said. "And the numbers that are in Rikers Island right now—that's a policy decision. That's not people magically appearing there. That's administrative. That can be addressed. We've seen it over and over again, you change the policy, you change the focus, you change the population. [Adams] can do that."

Comptroller Brad Lander, who as a councilmember voted for the plan to close Rikers, told Hell Gate there was a lot the council could do to "shine a spotlight" on the administration's intransigence, but that it ultimately boils down to public opinion. The lead-up to passing the law to shut down Rikers also saw major bail reforms get passed. In the years since, progressives have been divided on the question of whether the City should be spending money to open new jails at all. Meanwhile, Adams came into office on promises to be tough on crime and roll back those reforms.

"It's mostly about public pressure. What made [the plan] happen in the first place was organizing and public pressure," Lander said. "And it's all things that will only get done, if City Hall steps up and takes leadership."

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