In a recent press conference, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he plans to close the prison at Rikers Island within a 10-year time frame.
Just a year ago, de Blasio had a different opinion about the possibility of closing Rikers Island, calling it an “unrealistic” plan that would cost a great amount of money and a lot of planning. Now, de Blasio is calling it a “moral obligation” to close the prison.
There were multiple claims of corruption, violence among inmates and correctional officers and lack of trials for inmates.
Rikers Island currently houses about 10,000 inmates. The violence in Rikers Island began to escalate in the late 1980s during the crack epidemic, when the inmate population doubled and gang violence, in the form of slashing and stabbing, dominated the prison.
The U.S. prison system has always focused on punishing rather than rehabilitating people. One of the most controversial punishments has been solitary confinement, which, many studies have proven, affects inmates in a negative way emotionally, mentally and psychologically. In many cases, solitary confinement has completely destroyed mental states and has led many prisoners to commit self-harm or suicide. Some correctional officers who are not properly trained and are hungry for power are accused of sexually harassing some prisoners as well.
The number of people in the prison makes it even more difficult to co-exist and increases the chances of violence that often leads to tragedies. The situation in Rikers Island has spun out of control and the closing and revitalization of it is long overdue.
New York’s former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, leads an independent commission that has been examining the city’s criminal justice system for years. A report by the commission was released revealing the details regarding the closing of Rikers Island. The plan includes cutting the population of inmates to half of what it is now and opening more jails throughout the city in different boroughs. The second part of the plan alone would cost about $10.6 billion.
The existing jails in the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan would be modernized and expanded and the new ones would be constructed in downtown areas. The detailed plan has been carefully put together by the commission and real estate and business leaders.
The closing of Rikers Island would be an opportunity to create a system for inmates that is moral and fair. The system has slowly been failing and has dehumanized inmates in many ways. It is pivotal that correctional officers are trained and educated to be able to deal and communicate with the inmates in a fair and proper way while still being able to maintain order. A system of rehabilitation needs to be put in place to help inmates after leaving prison.
However, in order for this issue to be fixed, de Blasio needs to commit to it. He must not just continue suggesting solutions as he did in his last press conference where he was noncommittal and did not guarantee anything. He failed to acknowledge the recommendations given by the commission and did not solidify any solution he gave.