A state commission that oversees New York City’s jail system may move to close the troubled complex at Rikers Island before the city’s 10-year timeline to do so, citing the city’s inability to correct long-standing problems there.
The Commission of Correction found that despite increased scrutiny from state and federal investigators in recent years, violent incidents have risen from 2016 to 2017, according to a report it plans to release today.
“Given the city’s inaction and protracted 10-year proposal, it is now time for the commission to examine steps to expeditiously close Rikers and to ensure that the constitutional rights of inmates and staff are protected,” the 70-page report said.
The report, which will be delivered to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature on Wednesday, was the latest example of the strange intraparty tug of war between Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor. The two Democrats largely agree on policy issues but nonetheless fight over nearly every detail — especially the matter of who lays claim to owning the issue.
Cuomo’s chief counsel, Alphonso David, said that a “fair, safe and humane criminal justice system is essential for our state, and we will make it happen.”
He noted that the city’s plan to close Rikers within 10 years was not legally binding. In a statement, David added that the plan was “wholly unacceptable and repugnant to federal and state constitutional principles.”
Rikers has garnered national attention for its brutality, spawned federal investigations and become a lightning rod for protests.
State officials said the Commission of Correction could issue a citation to New York City for failure to correct violations, and then hold a public hearing. If the city failed to provide evidence that it could bring Rikers into compliance, the state would have the option of moving to close the complex. An immediate closure was unlikely, however, given the logistics of relocating several thousand inmates.
In preparing the report, the Commission of Correction conducted site visits and interviews at scores of county jails across the state, focusing on inmate deaths and physical conditions. It labeled Rikers one of the five “worst offenders,” joining jails or penitentiaries in Greene, Erie, Dutchess and Onondaga counties.
Last March, de Blasio pledged to close Rikers in 10 years, embracing a report prepared by an independent commission empaneled by Melissa Mark-Viverito, then the City Council speaker. The report called on the city to replace the jails on Rikers with a network of smaller jails in each of the five boroughs.
On Tuesday, Eric Phillips, chief spokesman for City Hall, sought to highlight the city’s resolve in shuttering the complex.
“The mayor’s not only invested deeply in improving conditions at Rikers in the short term, he’s made the historic decision to close the jail and move off the island as soon as possible,” he said. “We appreciate the governor beginning to show interest in this process, and in fixing the embattled prison system he runs.”
The backhanded expression of gratitude appeared to refer to the package of criminal justice reforms that Cuomo has made part of this year’s state agenda. Among other things, he would revamp the bail system, ensure access to a speedy trial and launch programs to help released inmates make the transition from prison to the community.
Last year, the governor and state lawmakers raised the age of criminal responsibility. And according to his office, Cuomo has closed 24 prisons and juvenile detention centers, pushing down the prison population by more than 6,000. But Rikers, according to the Commission of Correction, remains a blight on New York’s criminal justice system.
The report highlighted “significant incidents,” including deaths, escapes, fires and group actions, noting that in almost every category, there were more incidents at Rikers Island facilities than at all the county jails, even though the average daily inmate population for Rikers was half that of all county jails in the state combined.
Gang and individual assaults involving inmates at Rikers were more than double the corresponding totals at the county jails, and attacks between inmates and personnel were 10 times more frequent. And many categories of serious incidents rose from 2016 to 2017, including fire (up 200 percent), gang assault (up 160 percent) and hospital admission of an inmate (up 2,300 percent).
The report, which was obtained by The New York Times, also focused on deficiencies across categories ranging from security and supervision to discipline and visitation, exposing “conditions that are unsecure, unsanitary and dangerous, for staff and inmates alike.”
Investigators found broken pieces of metal and glass, as well as holes and divots, in the exercise yards at the Anna M. Kross Center, a 40-acre unit at Rikers that houses male detainees. At the Robert N. Davoren Center, another male detention unit, they found that prisoners requiring constant observation were being supervised by officers of the opposite gender, while inmates were able to “pop open” secured cell doors.
And across the complex, there were instances of unmanned security posts, poor record-keeping, papered-over security cameras, rodent infestation, water leaks, sagging floors and expired fire extinguishers. Even the basic requirements for laundry services were not being met, with inmates washing their personal clothing in buckets in their cells and hanging them to dry, obscuring sight lines of correction officers.
Reached by phone in advance of the report’s release, Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of the state’s highest court who chaired the independent commission on Rikers, said he could not comment without knowing its contents.
Some state lawmakers said they hoped the report would lend urgency to the push to close Rikers. Last year, Brian A. Benjamin, a Democratic state senator whose district includes Harlem, sponsored legislation that called for Rikers to close within three years.
“It’s a very aggressive timeline, but what we are seeing requires aggressive activity on our part,” he said. “Ten years is way too long. I want it done before people leave office because you have no idea who could be the next mayor and what the priorities that a new mayor will have.”