NYC’s Thorny Issue: More prisons, fewer prisoners using old tactic: Decentralize

January 3, 2018 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that one of the nine facilities used to house inmates at Rikers Island, the George Motchan Detention Center, which formerly housed approximately 600 men, will close by this summer. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Brooklyn's Atlantic Ave House Of Detention would get bigger

Mayor Bill de Blasio made a major announcement this week that will impact the future of Brooklyn — the city has taken the first steps to close Rikers Island with the first of nine facilities to be closed by the summer.

“Every day we are making New York City’s jail system smaller and safer,” de Blasio said. “This announcement is an important step in our plan to close Rikers Island and create more community-based facilities to better serve people in custody and our hardworking correctional staff.”

The reason for closing Rikers Island is simple. The entire facility is a disaster and its desolate location causes headaches for attorneys, prison guards, social workers and the families of the inmates.

To close the facility, two things will need to happen: The population of Rikers Island needs to be decreased and borough-based facilities need to be expanded or created. In Brooklyn, this means more inmates will be housed at the Brooklyn House of Detention located on Atlantic Avenue and Smith Street.

The Brooklyn facility can currently house 815 inmates, which means that capacity will have to be expanded. One member of the commission to close Rikers Island told the Brooklyn Eagle that existing facilities are capable of housing inmates after Rikers closes, but there are many skeptics who believe additional facilities will have to be built in the borough.

NYC has issued a request-for-proposals to identify potential prison sites that will eventually replace Rikers Island. There are currently facilities in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens that are in use and assessments are being done to assess the capacity of these sites.

“Today’s announcement of the closure of one of the jails on Rikers represents an important step in the right direction and with the historic reduction in New York City’s jail population, it is clear that mass incarceration is not a prerequisite to keeping New York safe,” said former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. “The sooner new, smaller, state-of-the-art jail facilities are designed and sited in the boroughs, the sooner all of the horrific jails on Rikers Island will be a thing of the past.”

The building being closed is called the George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC) and it houses roughly 600 men. Eight other facilities will still remain open on the island. According to the Department of Corrections, there were no layoffs as a result of the closure of the facility.

While many in the criminal justice system see this announcement as an overall positive, there is some worry that it is premature to celebrate the closing of just one building. In a statement, Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at the Legal Aid Society, praised the move, but cautioned that work needs to continue to reduce Rikers’ population and stressed the importance of the programs at Rikers Island.

Michael Cibella, president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association, had similar concerns. He admitted that Rikers Island is a problem, and called this a “step in the right direction,” but stated that the other prison facilities located in NYC are currently inadequate, especially when it comes to the programs available for inmates.

“It’s a good start, but a plan will ultimately be needed which provides for the continuation of necessary services like mental health, drug treatment, educational and other trade programs at each of the hoped for community jails. My concern in ultimately closing Rikers is losing services which the current community jails aren’t providing outside of Rikers.”

NYC currently has the lowest incarceration rate of any large city in the country, according to the mayor’s office. Its incarceration rate of 167 per 100,000 citizens compares favorably to 229 in Los Angeles, 252 in Chicago, 338 in Houston and 784 in Philadelphia.