NYC lawmakers vote to close massive Rikers jail

The New York City Council voted Thursday to close the massive Rikers Island jail complex, one of the largest jails in the country, and replace it with four smaller jails across four of the city’s boroughs. The $8.7 billion plan, backed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, will close the jail by 2026.

Rikers, which has 10,000 beds, is a 400-acre jail complex located on an island in the middle of the East River, between Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. Despite only being accessible by one bridge from Queens, it is technically considered part of the Bronx. The City Council voted 36-13 to replace the complex with four smaller ones located to the city’s main courthouses in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens.

“Rikers island is a symbol of brutality and inhumanity and it is time for us to once and for all close Rikers Island,” said Johnson. “As a city we must do everything we can to move away from the failed policies of mass incarceration.”

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Rikers has become infamous for lack of oversight, excessive force and neglect. In 2016, Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, told “60 Minutes” that a two-year investigation had found “an alarming number of cases there was no discipline with respect to officers at all.”

The jail housed some inmates with short sentences, but mainly served as a holding center for thousands awaiting trial. Rikers made national headlines after the death of Kalief Browder — who was detained for three years — which included abuse by guards and stints in solitary confinement, starting in 2010 when he was 16 on charges of stealing a backpack. The charges against him were eventually dropped, but Browder later killed himself at the age of 22. 

Rikers Island
In a June 20, 2014, file photo, the Rikers Island jail complex stands in New York with the Manhattan skyline in the background. AP

Opponents of closing the jail have worried about housing the inmates in residential neighborhoods. The new jails would only contain a total of 3,300 beds — compared to a current population of roughly 7,200 inmates, according to CBS New York. The city says the inmate population has gone down from 11,000 since 2014, and it’s projected to be 3,300 when the borough-based system begins.

Protesters repeatedly disrupted Thursday’s City Council hearing and vote, according to CBS New York. They apparently changed “If you build it they will fill it” and threw flyers from the balcony, according to The Associated Press.

Johnson said Thursday is “a day the history books will look back on as a good day for the future of New York City, as getting rid of a profound and painful symbol of inhumanity and brutality that was allowed to fester and be in the East River for far too long.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also celebrated Thursday’s vote, calling it the “start of the long-overdue process.”

“When Rikers eventually shutters and the last person leaves the island, the abhorrent culture that has always plagued the facility must not follow it,” the ACLU said in a statement. “We plan to hold the City accountable to ensure that its culture of violence and over-reliance of inhumane isolation are not perpetuated.”

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