The number of inmate deaths under the NYC Department of Correction’s watch is up to 11 this year, with the majority from overdose or suicide, and five in just the last three weeks. Shootings and stabbings at Rikers have also increased by nearly four-fold from 2020 to 2021.
And the knee-jerk response to decades of egregious mismanagement and horrible conditions at Rikers?
Get rid of Rikers! No Rikers, no problem!
But the city’s plan to close Rikers and replace it with four new borough-based jails run by the DOC is grossly flawed. First, the space and funds earmarked for the new jails is totally inadequate. Secondly, the same dysfunctional management that allowed these deaths to occur would only lead to the same atrocious conditions in the new facilities.
What’s more, simultaneously building new borough-based jails in four separate locations is an enormous project. The Department of Design and Construction, charged with building the jails, has little experience in this arena, and will no doubt end up mired in delays and cost overruns. The old, low-ball $9 billion cost of building the borough-based jails was already projected to run over $33 billion in a pre-pandemic, pre-inflation environment. But the current faltering market, dramatic flight of high-income taxpayers, and worsening city finances absolutely guarantees there won’t be enough money to complete the new jails. And when the funds run out, it will be another big city project started, then stalled.
Even if there were enough money for the plan, the new borough-based jails would have insufficient beds. The new jails allow for 3,544 beds; Rikers now holds 5,500 detainees. Without accounting for any increase in inmates from rising crime rates, where would the extra detainees go? To the streets, increasing crime? To additional new jails? To homeless shelters without monitoring and necessary support services? To the new (and now overcrowded) jails that will be even worse than Rikers?
No. The best way to fix the Rikers problem is to actually fix Rikers.
In 2019, architects and engineers released a 63-page plan to renovate Rikers, at an estimated cost of $5.6 billion, offering a hospital, a mental health center, a learning center, a sunlit farm and more services that all provide vast improvements beyond the high-rise borough-based jails. In May, City Council member Robert Holden introduced a sensible bill urging for a commission to examine and report on the cost of renovating Rikers.
While Rikers gets renovated, the facility should go under federal receivership. This measure, supported by two former NYC Correction commissioners, would improve Rikers’ management, culture and operations. Independent control has been successful in other troubled prison systems, such as in Alabama, the District of Columbia and Wayne County in Michigan.
Since 2015, the DOC has operated Rikers under a federal monitor, but failed to comply with the monitor’s recommendations. Last month, the DOC welcomed a five-month reprieve from a threatened federal takeover recommended by a Manhattan US attorney and two federal prosecutors. During its reprieve, the DOC has pledged to implement its action plan for improvements. But how can the same DOC that has failed to improve Rikers in seven years improve it in less than five months?
It can’t. External control is critical.
Rikers was once a solution, consolidating multiple local jails into one facility in 1932 to allow for more centralized management. Rather than scrap Rikers altogether (or threaten public safety by doing away with prison time for most crimes, as Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg proposes), we should go back to the original plan and simply fix Rikers.
Otherwise, the new neighborhood jails in Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Manhattan — if they’re ever completed — will mean we no longer have a Rikers problem, but four new problems under different names.
Wai Wah Chin is the founding president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Greater New York.