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Katal Op-Ed in The Amsterdam News: Mayor Adams Talks About Closing Rikers While Working to Keep it Ope

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The Amsterdam News

Mayor Adams Talks About Closing Rikers While Working to Keep it Open

by gabriel sayegh

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Last month, news broke that the city’s plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex is facing more setbacks. Replacement jails in the Bronx and Queens, projects that should have been much farther along by now, are delayed until at least 2031—four years after the legal deadline. The jails in Brooklyn and Manhattan are also far behind schedule.

In response to questions about these delays, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams issued another statement bashing the city’s legally mandated plan to close Rikers by 2027, but insisting that the mayor will follow the law. In a very Adams-like twist, the administration has also said Rikers will not be shut down by 2027. What’s going on here?

The horrific problems at Rikers aren’t new: Most of the people detained there are low income and Black or Latino. A majority of those incarcerated have mental health diagnoses, making Rikers the city’s largest “mental health institution.” The costs associated with Rikers are outrageously expensive, and the human costs are even higher—for incarcerated people and their families, for those who work there, and for the entire city.

Efforts have long been underway to shut down Rikers. In 2019, after years of organizing by community groups and advocates, the city passed laws to close the jails by 2026. Shortly afterwards, though, the city delayed closure to August 2027.

Since Adams took office, the legal closure deadline hasn’t changed, but the conditions at Rikers have seriously deteriorated. At least 31 people have died in Department of Correction (DOC) custody. The administration has repeatedly tried to limit transparency about what’s happening.

Although Adams has said he’ll close Rikers, his actions tell a different story. He’s failed to meet almost all of the closure plan’s legal deadlines and process benchmarks. For instance, the plan requires transferring ownership of land on Rikers Island from the DOC to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, but the mayor has neglected to do so.

Reducing the jail population to below 3,300 is central to the closure plan, but Adams has done little to get people out of Rikers. Worse, he’s made efforts to cage even more people in the deadly and chaotic system. In late 2022, the Adams administration told the New York City Council that by 2024, the jail population would spike to 7,000. Adams then cut the budgets for the very programs that reduce jail populations, making that prediction more likely to come true.

When it comes to Rikers, refusing to follow the law is a feature of this administration, not a bug. That’s why a federal judge held the city in contempt last year after the DOC’s “blatant failure” to comply with court mandates related to transparency and reducing violence at the jails. 

The City Council, which has struggled to hold the mayor accountable about Rikers, appears to be preparing to change the closure plan. Last year, Speaker Adrienne Adams announced that a nongovernmental commission, led by Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of New York State, would “update and enhance” the 2027 closure plan.

Since its launch in 2016, the Lippmann Commission has made many concrete recommendations about closing Rikers, but the mayor has adopted few if any of them. Back in December, Judge Lippman and the mayor co-wrote an op-ed stating that the commission had the “full support” of City Hall, but they are obviously not on the same page: Just last month, the commission spoke out against the administration’s approach to the replacement jails, and called for an independent review of the associated costs and timelines. 

As the excuses and delays pile up, the dysfunction at Rikers and other city jails have gotten so dangerous for incarcerated people and staff that a federal court is now considering appointing an independent federal receiver to take them over. Hernandez Stroud, a legal scholar at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, has called receivership a “tool of last resort.” 

It’s clear that last-resort tools are needed now. That’s why a growing number of government officials, including Attorney General Letitia James and Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and more than 75 community, advocacy, and legal groups are all supporting the call for receivership at Rikers.

While receivership may help save lives now, it’s not, and cannot be, the long-term solution to the crisis at Rikers. New Yorkers affected by Rikers, including Katal Center members, know that the only acceptable way forward is to cut the jail population; shut down Rikers; and invest in real public safety, including housing, health care, education, and jobs. Our entire city, especially the communities that have suffered the brunt of decades of drug wars and mass incarceration, deserves nothing less. 

gabriel sayegh is co–president of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. For more information, go to www.shutrikers.org.

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