Progressive NYC Votes To Close Rikers Island, Reduce Jail Pop. by Half


Can a city reduce the number of inmates it can hold in jail by half and still keep dangerous criminals off of the streets?

Progressive New York City thinks so — and they’re basing this off of historically low crime rates continuing to fall.

On Thursday, the New York City Council voted to close Rikers Island. A massive complex located in the East River between Queens and the Bronx, Rikers Island is the main jail for the most populous city in the country, capable of holding nearly 10,000 people at a time.

Rikers Island is both a mess and a massive PR problem, both for New York City and the progressive administration currently ensconced in Gracie Mansion.

In 1886, when the plan for the jail was first being laid out, The New York Times called it “an enormous model penitentiary, ample in size to serve for many years to come and which in all its plans and parts should be the most perfect prison in the world.”

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Even before it opened nearly five decades later in 1932, CityLab reported, the problems were multifarious.

“Rats ran rampant. Fires spontaneously sparked. Nearby neighborhoods complained of the stench,” CityLab wrote in a September report.

“Prisoners labored under gunpoint on the newly purchased island, unloading barges of the city’s garbage and picking through rotting material for dry rubbish or ash, which was used to expand the island’s shoreline and make space for the new prison (Rikers Island is now approximately 400 acres).”

Fast forward more than 80 years after it was opened and things still don’t look good for Bill de Blasio’s New York.

Do you think New York City should close Rikers Island?

“In 2008, a corrections officer was indicted in an assault case involving inmates in which teens were allegedly used as enforcers,” The Washington Post reported.

“Five years later, inmate Bradley Ballard was locked in a cell for six days, and then found naked and covered in urine and feces. Earlier this year, Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman, died at Rikers after she was placed into a program that was, according to several former Rikers inmates, equivalent to solitary confinement.”

One can tell why the de Blasio administration wanted to close it, even though reform could potentially have been a better option. On Thursday, the mayor was touting the plan as a win for progressivism.

“This is about valuing our people, no longer condemning people and sending them on a pathway that only made their lives worse and worse,” de Blasio said at a news conference. “Today we made history: The era of mass incarceration is over.”

Irrespective of whether closing a jail which houses about 7,000 inmates at a time has put an end to “[t]he era of mass incarceration” (much like de Blasio’s quashed presidential campaign, this statement relies on certain grandiose ideas not backed up by the numbers), it’s worth looking at what will replace Rikers Island and what the effects on New York City will be.

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The massive Rikers complex will be replaced by smaller jails in four of New York City’s five boroughs: Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens.

The plan will cost $8 billion, according to The Times. But that’s not the biggest issue: The jails will only house 3,300 inmates collectively, slightly less than half the number Rikers Island holds on an average day.

The plan is this: A declining crime rate, along with criminal justice reforms, will cut the city’s jail population in half by the time the new jails are ready and Rikers Island is scheduled to close in 2026.

“I don’t trust the numbers,” Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, told The Times.

“What are you going to do if you end up with 5,000 people?”

Or 23,000. That was the number the city had on a daily basis at the height of the crack epidemic in the 1990s. Even half of that would overwhelm New York City’s overhauled jail system.

The plan would rely on crime not just staying as low as it is now but going even lower.

“When one considers (1) the seriousness of the charges most city jail inmates are facing, (2) the level of violence those inmates engage in behind bars and (3) the potential for future crime increases, one thing becomes crystal clear: There is simply no way to cut the average daily jail population — which the city itself has described as ‘more violent and difficult to manage’ — that much more without leaving dangerous criminals on the street, where you can be sure they will continue to diminish the quality of life in their neighborhoods,” Rafael A. Mangual of the conservative Manhattan Institute wrote in the New York Post earlier this week.

“Murders and shootings are up citywide, albeit slightly,” he added. “What using a citywide benchmark could mask, however, is the fact that any crime increases attributable to decarceration aren’t going to be evenly distributed; and some of the city’s neighborhoods are already seeing crime increases.”

“In 35 of the city’s 75 precincts, shootings are up. Many of the city’s most serious crimes are already committed by criminals on probation, parole or who have pending cases. Forcing the average daily population down to 3,500 inmates will only exacerbate that problem.”

“Between the city’s plans to put more criminals on the street and the state’s efforts to raise the transaction costs of criminal prosecutions, New Yorkers are going to be dealing with a higher number of criminals walking the streets. That makes the NYPD’s job more difficult, and the city less safe.”

And the plan has critics from the left, too, who think that it doesn’t go far enough.

“There is no such thing as a safe, humane, dignified, or well-designed jail,” No New Jails leader Brittney Williams told THE CITY. “Every jail in NYC is a torture chamber and the new ones will be the same.”

I’m sure that kind of thinking will work out spectacularly for New York — a city that’s setting itself up for a return to the bad old days of the 1980s and 1990s through policies designed to appease liberals without accounting for reality.

They’re going to spend $8 billion to build new jails instead of renovating the one they have, all because of an image problem which has been caused by gross mismanagement.

And they’re going to call it the end of the “era of mass incarceration.”

This would almost be funny if it weren’t so sad.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture