So the big news of the past seven days, since we last spoke, is the unified announcement – from Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito – that the City plans to slowly shutter the Rikers Island jail system over the next 10 years.
“This problem was created over many decades and it will take time to solve, but we fundamentally believe it can be solved,” de Blasio said on Friday. “And, for New York City, this is both about continuing the work of ensuring that more and more people in this city can live their lives the right way and stay out with any encounter with law enforcement, stay out of jail have a better life, but it’s also New York’s way of contributing to the larger national effort to end the scourge of mass incarceration once and for all.”
On its face, this seems like a prudent decision, to finally close what former State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman called “a stain on our great city,” with a fair timeline attached to it.
But the how, in this case, is so much more important than the why. And this is where the move to close Rikers Island gets murky.
“In order to best serve New York City residents, Mayor de Blasio should concentrate more on ways to improve the situation at Rikers, instead of creating new problems with siting facilities across the boroughs, generating multiple security and public safety issues throughout the city,” said State Sen. Joe Addabbo, Jr. (D-Howard Beach). “It seems that once again, this administration is looking to merely discard an entire program, much like it has done with cluster sites for homeless individuals, instead of looking for ways to fix it.”
Addabbo’s analysis is on-point. We can see it now: “temporary” detention facilities start popping up all over the World’s Borough – because, as we all know, “just dump it in Queens” seems to be an unofficial mantra of most mayoral administrations – sans a proper community-review process.
If not for informed activists and civic leaders, and timely demonstrations and protests, the voices of Queens residents would not have been heard at all regarding homeless shelter sitings—what makes anyone think that the byproducts of the closure of Rikers Island will be any different?
“We must replace our current model of mass incarceration with something that is more effective and more humane — state-of-the-art facilities located closer to where the courts are operated in civic centers in each borough,” said Lippman, chairman of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which has recommended that Rikers be shuttered for good.
More effective and more humane. Of course we agree with Judge Lippman. But how we arrive at a more effective and more humane incarceration system matters.
It can’t come down to littering the boroughs with sub-standard, temporary jails, without consulting the communities they will directly impact, just for the sake of getting closer to the ultimate goal of ridding the city of an 85-year-old stain.
You want to permanently depart from Rikers Island? We applaud the decision. Just don’t punish us with the process.