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Don’t Delay on Closing Rikers

The city says COVID-19 budget constraints will set back its plans to close the jail but people incarcerated there are suffering from the disease right now.

A nurse protests conditions at Rikers Island jail complex on May 7.Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images.

Funding for the construction of four borough-based jails in New York City—a key step in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex—has been budgeted through the end of fiscal year 2028, according to the city’s latest financial documents. This opens the door to the possibility that Rikers won’t be shut down until June 2028, a year and a half after the initial deadline.

In June, The Appeal reported that COVID-19 budget constraints would likely push construction past the city’s 2026 deadline. Since June, however, the budget crisis has only gotten worse. The city will face a deficit of about $3.8 billion next year, and lawmakers will probably face pressure to make cuts wherever possible. Any delay in the jail construction timeline could have drastic consequences: As one City Council budget memo noted in May, postponing construction reduces the chances that the jails will be built at all. 

These delays underscore the absurdity of constructing jails in order to close Rikers. Beyond its vicious legacy of violence and abysmal conditions of confinement, Rikers became one of the nation’s hotspots for COVID-19 infections this year. Waiting until 2026 to close Rikers was unacceptable to begin with, and pushing that deadline back even further could cost the lives of people incarcerated there.  

The Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice insists that construction will be completed by August 2027, but as The City reported this month, the timeline laid out in budget documents shows that funds can be spent any time in that fiscal year, which ends in June 2028. 

Ultimately, though, how and when that money will be spent is a question for the city’s next mayor, since most of the spending won’t happen while de Blasio is in office. Even then, they are likely to be able to wriggle out of the closure deadline using discretionary power. Among the wide field of 2021 mayoral candidates, only Dianne Morales and Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (who voted against the city’s jail construction plan in 2019) are on the record in favor of closing Rikers with no new jails. 

And the city is further delaying its plans to close Rikers by failing to curb its growing jail population. The city says its overall jail population must be fewer than 3,300 people in order for Rikers to close. But July rollbacks to the state’s historic bail reform law—rollbacks de Blasio supported—have likely contributed to an increase in people being held in jails pretrial, or without yet being convicted of a crime.

Because of releases in response to the first wave of COVID-19, fewer than 4,000 people were incarcerated in the city’s jails in May, the lowest jail population the city’s seen in 70 years. But that number rose to more than 4,800 this month. A November report from the Center for Court Innovation found that the bail reform rollbacks account for “a 7 to 11 percent increase in the pretrial jail population from what it would otherwise have been.” People detained pretrial and charged with burglary in the second degree—a charge that was ineligible for bail under the reform law but made bail-eligible in July—increased by almost 70 percent, the report shows. 

“Prosecutors now have additional incentives to charge felony burglary rather than misdemeanor theft, even in cases where no one was hurt,” Maryanne Kaishian, senior policy counsel at Brooklyn Defender Services, explained in an email. 

Still, the mayor’s criminal justice office confirmed a commitment to reducing the jail population. “We continue to grow our programming and services at every point of the justice system, giving us the tools to continue to prevent unnecessary detention as we move towards the 3,300 goal,” said B. Colby Hamilton, the office’s chief of public affairs.

At the same time, COVID-19 cases are spiking again within city jails—as of Dec. 11, 253 incarcerated people had tested positive for the disease, up from 229 as of Nov. 28. This makes the push to close Rikers all the more urgent, and should raise questions about why the city must spend billions of dollars it doesn’t have on a seemingly endless construction project instead of moving to close jails immediately. 

“Closing the Rikers Island jails cannot be contingent on building new jails,” Sylvia Morse, an urban planner who supported the No New Jails campaign last year, said in an email to The Appeal. “As activists and advocates have shown, the city can lower the number of people it cages on Rikers and across NYC jails through reforms including reducing arrests and ending pre-trial detention with state-level legislative changes.”

But New York City policymakers have short-term options. As I argued in a previous Appeal column, reducing jail capacity can pressure police into reducing arrests. After the NYPD’s malicious protest suppression tactics this spring, it seems obvious that arrest numbers have more to do with preserving police power than ensuring our safety. Instead of waiting to get to a population of 3,300 to close jails, the city can get to that number by closing them. It is a mistake to assume that NYPD arrests will remain (or should remain) at current levels if jail capacity is reduced. 

Additionally, in response to city judges setting bail for a greater proportion of cases and in higher amounts, the City Council could create a bail voucher fund to ensure that people are not trapped in unsafe jails before their trials. 

The city should also make long-term investments outside of the criminal legal system that would improve safety and quality of life. New York City Housing Authority residents, for example, continue to report power outages, heating problems, and shoddy lead repairs. Yet NYCHA is slated to receive $1.1 billion less than the jail construction plan will receive over the next four years. Beyond public housing, the city should reallocate police and other carceral funding streams to support education, employment, healthcare, and more targeted interventions like violence interruption. 

If New York City does not act quickly to shutter the dangerous Rikers Island jail complex, incarcerated people will be at the mercy of the next mayor’s commitment to decarceration and budget constraints. The best way to protect incarcerated people and avoid an endless cycle of jail construction delays and budget cuts is to close Rikers now with no new jails. 

Jonathan Ben-Menachem is a journalist and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University.