Everyone agrees: Rikers Island Jail is in crisis. Already this year, 12 inmates have died amid the squalid conditions. Daily, around 1,500 corrections officers call out sick and over half of officers are reportedly not Covid-vaccinated.
But what should be done?
Our distinguished panel represents varying views on the sources of the dysfunction and on more fundamental questions around the efficacy of incarceration. As former First Deputy Commissioner, Mark Cranston previously managed all aspects of the NYC Department of Corrections and argues that Rikers can be turned around through better management. Jim Quinn, former Executive District Attorney in the Queens DA’s office, sees danger in a multi-borough jail system that can only house about half the recent inmate population and to which local communities object. Architect William Bialosky has proposed a plan to redesign the complex on Rikers Island. Lastly, moderator and MI senior fellow Nicole Gelinas has argued the role of gross mismanagement is key in Rikers’s deterioration.
Rikers, the “short-term” incarceration complex for New York City criminal offenders, has been a longtime target of condemnation. In 2014, US Attorney Preet Bharara found a “deep-seated culture of violence” at Rikers. In 2015, a lawsuit over civil rights violations against juvenile detainees led a federal monitor to oversee the city’s system.
In 2017, the City Council’s Lippman Commission described an “inhumane and violent environment” at the complex. Their report took a progressive stance, pointing to a decade of simultaneous reductions in crime and incarceration to conclude that “more jail does not equal greater public safety.” They demanded Rikers’s closure, and a “dramatic” reduction in incarceration as “part of the larger project of reimagining justice.” Mayor de Blasio rapidly announced his intention to close the complex within a decade and begin replacing Rikers with a borough-based system. In 2019, the City Council voted to shorten the deadline to 2026.
In September, following public outcry, de Blasio’s “Emergency Rikers Relief Plan” provided a series of quick measures. A federal court judge ordered sweeping changes for Rikers and other NYC jails. Current Manhattan DA Cy Vance urged less pretrial detention for non-violent offenders. Further, encouraged by de Blasio and democratic nominee for Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, NY Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Less Is More Act, reducing penalties for “technical violations” of parole.
What is the way forward for NYC’s jail system—and which policies spell disaster?