OPINION: Jury still out on closing Rikers
The planned closing of the jails on Rikers Island will have an impact on every borough with the possible exception of Staten Island. It’s only right that discussions are underway about what should happen in Queens and Brooklyn.
Keep in mind that the Department of Correction’s closing of Rikers remains a big if. The closing is contingent upon the city’s ability to reduce the inmate population to 5,000 inmates. It currently stands at about 9,000.
The reduction in the number of inmates held in the city jails over the last 20 years has been dramatic. It reflects a reduction in criminal activity. Violent crimes in particular have declined to a level that was hard to imagine.
But the question remains: can that decline continue? If not, is a reduced population of 5,000 inmates in the next nine years a realistic number?
We are not persuaded that decriminalizing the use of marijuana and other minor offenses will significantly impact the jail population. People accused or found guilty of these petty crimes already represent a small part of the inmate population.
COBA, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, claims the current inmate reduction represents what they call “the low-hanging fruit.” They say the most violent inmates remain in the jails is Rikers is more dangerous than ever. The union does not support closing Rikers. They would prefer that more money be spent on officer safety.
Here are just a few of the questions that must be resolved before Rikers can be closed:
Staffing Raise the Age. Under the state’s newly enacted Raise the Age law most 16- and 17-year-old offenders in New York state will be considered juveniles and moved out of the adult jails. New York was one of the last two states to consider anyone older than 15 to be an adult in the eyes of the law. Two hundred additional juvenile detention center staff must be hired before Oct. 1. Crossroads in Brooklyn will likely be one of the facilities to house the older population.
The mentally ill. A large percentage of the city’s inmate population is battling mental illness and drug addiction. The city plans to triple the number of units caring for this population under the Program to Accelerate Clinical Effectiveness (PACE). It is estimated building eight new PACE units and hiring 163 new health workers to staff them will cost the city $8.7 million in the current fiscal year, with funding increasing to $24.2 million in fiscal 2020. What happens when these inmates go in four different directions? Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon argue the city’s money would be better spent improving Rikers. Upgraded facilities, they say, would also better allow for the implementation of new and sorely needed programming, particularly in the area of mental health and vocational training.
Female inmates. At present all female inmates are housed at the Rose Marie Singer Center (RMSC) on Rikers. What happens to them?
Prison Hospital Wards. What will happen to the prison wards at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan and Elmhurst Hospital in Queens?
There is time to figure all of this out. For the moment it appears community leaders agree that expanding the Brooklyn Detention Center can be done without serious impact on the community. There is already a healthy dialogue between DOC and the community.
In Queens the opinion is more divided about what should be done with the underused Queens House of Detention located near the Criminal Courthouse, which is currently used primarily by movie and television production companies.
Some believe the facility should be used to house the Raise the Age Juveniles. Others say it should be converted into a homeless shelter. But if the city goes forward with the plan to close Rikers, it only makes sense to modernize the existing jail.
It should be clear that the jury is still out on closing Rikers. Will it be safer? Is it worth the expense? Should it happen without the support of the unions who work there? And, most important, can the decline in the inmate population be sustained?
Leave a Comment
Leave a Comment