Queens, N.Y. – New York City is set to close the first of its notorious Rikers Island jails next year and redistribute inmates into the city’s boroughs, but not without opposition in Queens county.
Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to begin closing the entire jail complex over a ten year period in favor of opening borough-based community jails. The 10-year plan to shutter the scandal ridden jail complex includes proposals for community jails to be opened in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and The Bronx. The old Rikers complex would be used as a sewage treatment plant and energy facilities.
Rikers Island is a holding jail until arrestees go to trial and, if convicted and sentenced to longer terms, go upstate to one of New York state’s prisons. It became known for a “deep-seated culture of violence” as described by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says closing Rikers is a key piece of creating a smaller, safer and fairer criminal justice system in New York City, but “will take time, the effort of many and tough decisions along the way”.
The plan is controversial and has both proponents and those in opposition of the closing of the notorious jail complex.
A recent community meeting of the Flushing Civic Association had the majority of Queens borough attendees in opposition of the proposal to open a 30-story community jail building in Kew Gardens for current Rikers inmates. Of the 34 attendees, most expressed concerns about public safety.
Fielding questions from attendees, Queens Assistant District Attorney James Quinn said after the infamous jail’s closing, former Rikers inmates will be housed in the county in which their crime took place. He addressed concerns such as the new jails having less space than the sprawling Rikers complex and discussed if lack of space would cause bails to be lowered and serious offenders to be set free. He spoke of possible early parole and arrestees possibly being given desk appearance tickets when perhaps they should be held immediately, due to the nature of their crime. He also spoke of the possibility of shorter sentences and offenders never being transferred to state prisons.
Beverly McDermott, President of the Kissena Park Civic Association in Flushing, said, “I think it’s bad for every taxpayer. They’re spending money that is not theirs to spend. And when we have homeless, we have people who could use affordable housing and we have medical facilities bursting at the seams.”
Queens resident John Kelly said, “It’s not going to take ten years. It’s going to take 15 years. To me it’s a big smokescreen. They have said publicly that they want to extend the runway at LaGuardia Airport, which is right next to Rikers Island, and they want to increase the number of flights.”
Carsten Glaser, Vice President of the Kissena Park Civic Association said, “This idea of taking prisoners out and moving them out into the community is really an insane idea. We are a civilized society and this notion of bringing criminal element softens the idea that they’re not violent and not prone to recidivism, again, puts a lot of the public at risk. You have the detention center, it’s really not a good idea.”
Other concerns Quinn spoke of is the plan for holding juvenile offenders and if there are more inmates than Rikers is currently designed for. Another concern Quinn raised is if certain crimes would get no jail time. He put forth an example of auto theft convictions when the auto is insured. Quinn asked, “What are victimless crimes? What about prostitution and minor charges?”
The Queens Assistant D.A. said city crime has dropped astronomically in the last 25 years. He said murders are down 85 percent from 1993 to 2017, and last year he said there were less than 50 homicides. “In 1993, 50,000 cars were stolen and last year, that number is down to 1,200. Robberies are down 84 percent and burglaries and grand larcenies are also down,” he said. He acknowledged an “enormous decline in crime,” but posed questions about if there would still be jail sentences for minor charges.
Quinn says since 2013, 49 percent of inmates are re-arrested at an average of three times each.
Rikers Island currently can house 15,000 inmates. Quinn says New York City’s plan is to reduce the population of Rikers to 5,000 and that to do that, it must release everyone currently being held on bail. Rikers currently has 6,447 open cases and 320 inmates are being detained for offenses in other jurisdictions. He says it will be impossible to have a city of 9 million people with 5,000 jail beds. “Putting people in jail is the last resort,” he said.
Quinn says it’s a better idea to refurbish the old buildings at Rikers and continue to house inmates there, not in community-based jails in the individual boroughs. He said it’s easier to transport criminals in buildings that are low built, as opposed to the 30- and 40-story buildings proposed for each borough.
Quinn said it would cost $1.6 billion to refurbish and renovate Rikers Island and it would have to be financed over 30 years. He says building four new community-based jails that contain all of the amenities of Rikers Island could end up totaling $33 billion, “if it goes perfectly and on time.” He said in addition to the 30-some story buildings to house inmates, there will also have to be law libraries and fire departments in each new jail. Also included are kitchens, infirmaries and garages to repair vehicles. Currently Rikers has about 1,000 of its own vehicles for various operations including prisoner transport. Quinn says undertaking the replicating of Rikers Island into four new fully operating jails in each borough is an “astronomical venture”.
Queens Assistant D.A. Quinn says the city has no idea how much redistributing inmates across the boroughs will actually end up costing. He says many times construction workers can only work three to four hours per day. He says Rikers could be repaired, rebuilt and that can be done right now, not ten years from now.
As for inmates being relocated into 30 story buildings in largely residential areas of the boroughs, Quinn says, “People are incensed about it.”
According to Quinn, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown agrees the closing of Rikers is a bad idea and that this undertaking will be “a historic mistake.” He acknowledged that although it sounds like a great idea, it would be “a waste of time, energy and money”.