By: Elizabeth Kim and Jessy Edwards via Gothamist.com
Mayor Eric Adams is pledging to shutter the long-troubled Rikers Island jail complex but recently outlined a number of challenges that could hamper the city from meeting the legally mandated closure deadline of 2027.
“Idealism can’t collide with realism,” Adams said during an interview on NY1 on Friday. “We want Rikers closed, but it has to be done correctly.”
While Adams promised to close Rikers during his candidacy, as mayor he has questioned the viability of doing so by the imposed deadline. The deal reached under the de Blasio administration calls for replacing the jail complex with four smaller borough-based jails.
Adams’ latest statements appeared aimed at quelling the growing pressure on his administration to close Rikers as a federal judge weighs whether to put the complex under outside management, also known as receivership. They came a day after the judge held the city Department of Correction in contempt of court for failing to inform a federal monitor about putting detainees accused of arson in a specialized unit that lacked fire sprinklers.
But the mayor’s remarks also effectively cast doubt on how long it will take to close Rikers, which has been plagued by dangerous conditions and alleged abuses for years. During Adams’ tenure, 28 people have died at the complex, though deaths are down this year — at nine, compared to 19 in 2022.
Adams declined to answer questions about Rikers during an unrelated press conference on Friday. A spokesperson for his office later declined to clarify whether the mayor remains committed to meeting the August 2027 closure deadline, which was enacted into law in 2019.
Jonathan Lippman, who chairs an independent commission responsible for ensuring Rikers closes on time and is a former state chief judge, jointly wrote a Daily News op-ed with Adams on Friday that raised a host of issues around shuttering the jails.
Lippman and Adams cited the law requiring the city to close Rikers, but also described obstacles to meeting that goal, including the pandemic, the migrant crisis and increased construction costs for the new borough-based jails planned to replace the infamous complex, albeit with hundreds of fewer beds.
The replacement jail in Brooklyn, which is being built under a nearly $3 million city contract, is not expected to be completed until 2029, they wrote.
“With criminal cases in the city now taking far longer than the national average amount of time to resolve — and many as long as two years to go to trial — the current jail population at Rikers is 13% higher than at the outset of COVID in March 2020,” the op-ed read. “[The borough-based jails’] construction time frames are also at risk, though we will explore all reasonable options to accelerate them and work to bring the secure hospital beds online swiftly in the meantime.”
In his NY1 appearance, Adams said the 2027 timeline has prevented the city from making necessary capital improvements at Rikers, such as remediating bathrooms. He said he’s seeking to “get everyone to the table, look at the correct timeline, look at the dollar amount that’s attached and make sure that we can close [Rikers] the right way.”
Last week, Adams appointed a new correction commissioner, Lynelle Maginley-Liddie, to replace Louis Molina, who has been accused by the federal monitor of “avoiding transparency” and is now in a newly created role in the mayor’s office, where he’ll continue to make the same salary and work with the correction department.
City Councilmember Lincoln Restler of Brooklyn, who serves on the Council’s criminal justice committee, pointed out that local incarceration rates have climbed as Adams has cut social services and blamed financial difficulties facing the city.
“There’s no solution to this crisis that does not include committing every possible resource to closing Rikers by 2027; anything else is a disservice to New Yorkers,” Restler said in a statement to Gothamist.
Criminal justice advocates also criticized the mayor’s recent comments about closing Rikers. Gabriel Sayegh, co-executive director of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, a community organization that works in New York, questioned whether Adams was deviating from the legally mandated plan to close Rikers.
“The 2027 closure plan was in place when he took office,” Sayegh said. “But as mayor, Adams has ignored or otherwise delayed virtually every legal deadline and process benchmark required by that plan, and instead has seemingly done everything possible to keep Rikers open.”
Darren Mack, cofounder of Freedom Agenda, a nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated people and their communities, said Adams could show he’s serious about closing Rikers by meeting this month’s land-transfer deadline under the 2021 Renewable Rikers Act, which requires the DOC to transfer unused portions of the island to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services every six months through August 2027.
Mack said Adams should start by closing and repurposing jails that are no longer in use, such as the Anna M. Kross Center, which began winding down earlier this year.
“This is something he can get done right now,” he said.