Rikers Island Photo: Tim Rodenberg/Flickr

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has unveiled a plan to close down New York City’s infamous jail, Rikers Island.

In a recent State of the City address, Mark-Viverito focused on sweeping criminal justice reform aimed at reducing recidivism, the tendency to relapse into criminal activity that especially seems to affect those at Rikers. To combat it, Mark-Viverito proposes systematically reducing the population of Rikers to eventually replace it with five borough jails. The City will also reexamine criminal procedures and bolster programs and services to set inmates up for success.

Each year, there are around 70,000 admissions to Rikers and other City jails, but only about 16 percent of those admitted are ever convicted and ultimately sentenced to prison. Nearly 40 percent have been diagnosed with a mental condition.

Mark-Viverito says that a stay at Rikers, even a short one, can be dangerous and add to the risk of recidivism. A 2014 New York Times study found that in an 11-month span in 2013, 129 inmates were seriously injured to the point of requiring hospitalization after altercations with correction officers.

“The idea here is to get the population so small that we could get to a community-based approach,” said Mark-Viverito. In an interview with WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer show, she notes that there are existing facilities that could be reopened to fill gaps, although she would be careful to ensure “fair share siting,” meaning certain boroughs are not overhauled with a relocated inmate population.

In the meantime, Rikers will see new plans for rehabilitation and other programs. The Council will work with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to create a Municipal Division of Transition Services, offering services like computer classes, resume building, drug treatment and housing resources.

They will also seek opportunities to help inmates maintain community ties through a video visitation program, encouraging friends and family to stay in contact without having to make the long trip to Rikers.

Moves will be made to reduce pre-trial detention rates and relocate adolescents and the mentally ill from Rikers in the short term. The City Council will explore ways to utilize community courts and empower borough-based jail facilities.

“For too long, Rikers has stood not for more justice, but for revenge,” says Mark-Viverito. “We must… get the population of Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.”

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