Six years ago, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an ambitious plan to close the jails on Rikers Island and replace them with smaller ones across the city. The City Council then sealed the deal, passing two laws requiring the last incarcerated person to leave the island by Aug. 31, 2027.
But as that deadline nears, Mayor Eric Adams is increasingly talking about a “Plan B,” even as conditions worsen and people housed there die at the highest rate in a quarter century.
Although the new jails were intended to usher in an end to the era of mass incarceration, the jailed population has been inching up since COVID and now nears 6,000 people, almost all of whom have not yet been found guilty of their alleged crimes.
What’s more, the city forecasts that the jailed population will increase to 7,000 by next year, but the four replacement jails together can house no more than 3,300 people.
“We can’t be so optimistic that we’re not realistic, or idealistic that we’re not realistic,” Adams said on CBS 2.
Criminal justice activists, defense attorneys and advocates for detainees recently failed to get the federal government to take over the city’s jails, but they at least looked forward to the guaranteed closing of Rikers by 2027. Four sites are actively being readied for new jails in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Mott Haven in the Bronx, Kew Gardens in Queens, and Downtown Brooklyn.
But Adams said that his chief counsel Brendan McGuire is leading a “small working group” on a Plan B. And while he insisted he would follow the law, Adams said that “if there are other plans we must do, such as a Plan B, we are going to institute that because the city must be safe.”
Here’s a look at where we are now.
Why close Rikers anyway?
Conditions at Rikers are universally described as inhumane, and much of that is due to the facilities themselves. Toilets don’t operate properly, forcing detainees to defecate in their clothing. The medical teams are situated long distances from some residential areas, leading to delays in response times for emergencies and canceled medical appointments when there aren’t officers available to take the time to transport people.
The buildings are in such poor conditions that officials say incarcerated people have used parts of the physical facilities, like plexiglass, to fashion shivs used to stab other people. Detainees complain of extreme temperatures and rodents.
Accessible only by a bridge, the island is far from borough courthouses where detainees have hearings and trials each day. The new jails, by contrast, are close to four of the five borough courthouses, which would save money in correction transportation costs. The island is also very hard for family members to visit.
Another reason that new jails aren’t being constructed on Rikers itself is because it was built on a landfill, which emits toxic gas, and is vulnerable to flooding and infrastructure problems.
Besides all of those practical reasons, Rikers has also long been a stain on the city, observers say. Last year at a symposium on closing Rikers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Adams’ chief counsel McGuire — now in charge of coming up with a Plan B for closing Rikers — said: “The impact of Rikers on the psyche of the city cannot be underestimated. And we understand that every day.”
The new jails are envisioned to have naturally lit apartment-style cells equipped with bathrooms, and all housing units will have medical areas.
But they are not without opposition in their respective neighborhoods, particularly Chinatown, where residents have decried the project’s size, calling it a “megajail” and “jailscraper” that would harm the neighborhood’s economy and quality of life. They also say Adams violated a campaign promise that there would be no new jails in Chinatown.
Why is Adams so pessimistic about closing Rikers?
The problem is that by next year, there are expected to be more than twice as many people incarcerated at Rikers as could fit in all of the new borough jails. So, the math doesn’t add up. (A caveat: The new jails will be supplemented by additional space at three hospitals for as many as 380 detainees who need specialized medical care.)
Meanwhile, the jailed population is only going up — new admissions increased 10% from the 2021 to 2022 fiscal years, a recent mayoral report said, while the length of incarceration has likewise creeped up in recent years. Nearly 26% of the population has been held there for more than a year, with most simply awaiting court hearings, according to city data from December.
Criminal justice experts say courts are still working through COVID-related backlogs, and systemic inefficiencies have long plagued the system. The percentage of people brought to court on time also plummeted in the 2022 fiscal year, to 79.1% from 97.7% four years earlier, which could lead to judicial delays and longer stays.
Meanwhile, with a former police officer as mayor and upticks in certain crimes since COVID, arrests are ramping up. Misdemeanor arrests increased 25% in the first six months of Adams’ term, according to Bloomberg News, reflecting a more punitive approach to low-level offenses that could fill jail cells. The article reports that 9% of Rikers detainees are being held on misdemeanor charges.
And Adams continues to lobby for changes to the state’s bail reform laws, which allowed poorer defendants to wait for hearings in their communities instead of at Rikers. If he succeeds, the jailed population could increase further.
Is it possible that Rikers could remain open?
The City Council could change the laws it already passed, but the Council’s political makeup at the moment is decidedly more progressive on criminal justice issues than the mayor, making any move to keep Rikers open a non-starter.
Of course, the mayor — or his successor, since Adams’ first term ends in 2026 — could violate the laws mandating the end of incarceration at Rikers, but such a clear violation of the law is seen as unlikely and would at least result in a lawsuit and possible injunction.
The mayor could kill pending contracts, since the four major construction contracts have yet to be approved, or even cancel contracts that have already been registered. One factor that could prompt such an action is cost. The price for the four replacement jails is now close to $10 billion. Given inflation and an overall increase in building costs, if that number were to balloon the city’s capital budget could be affected, potentially providing the political cover that Adams would need to pursue a Plan B. He has already referred to the cost in his comments about closing Rikers.
But the Lippman Commission, an independent and influential group that advises the city on closing Rikers, projects long-term cost savings in the community jail system. That’s because while the city will pay about $670 million in annual bond payments to pay for construction, it will save $2 billion a year due to the new jails’ smaller footprint and reduced population.
What would a Plan B look like?
While proposals have circulated in recent months for rebuilding jails on Rikers Island itself — and while Adams notably did not pooh-pooh that idea when he was asked about it in the CBS 2 interview — that would require a herculean legal and political effort, as explained above.
There are plenty of other proposals for handling the extra population after Rikers closes, however. The conservative Manhattan Institute made several proposals in a report last month, including reopening of vacant correctional facilities in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, and building smaller jails in the Bronx and Staten Island. The city could also look to other neighboring jurisdictions in Westchester and on Long Island to contract for jails space, just as counties in New Jersey have shared services agreements with other county jails to hold their detainees.
Adams also may have wiggle room to hold some detainees at the floating jail off the Bronx known as “the boat.” While city officials have said they will close that jail, there is no law mandating them to do so, as there is with Rikers.
Killing the plan entirely would be difficult. Already, about $500 million has been spent on the construction process, mostly demolition, at all four new jail sites.
In Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, existing structures where the jails will be built are being dismantled, and in the Bronx, the site is being prepared for construction, according to Ian Michaels, spokesperson for the city Department of Design and Construction. The first new jails building — which includes a community space and garage in Queens — is nearing completion, he said. And procurements for all four facilities will be completed by the end of the year.
What if the city just reduced its incarcerated population? How would that work?
In pledging to close Rikers, de Blasio said part of the point was to end the era of mass incarceration in the city. Those efforts continue. The Lippman Commission and the Center for Court Innovation issued a roadmap in 2021 detailing how tweaking the criminal justice system’s approach in several areas would reduce the population below 3,330.
Criminal justice reformers propose using “population review teams” to see who can be safely released into the community before their court dates. To prevent recidivism, they want more funding for housing for those leaving jail. And Zachary Katznelson, executive director of the Lippman Commission (also known as the the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform), says the city should allow more people to await their court hearings on the outside while wearing electronic monitoring bracelets, just as other jurisdictions do at greater rates than New York City.
With 18% of incarcerated people in the city suffering from serious mental illnesses, according to the city, advocates also think the city should increase the number of available mental health beds that can be used as an alternative to incarceration. And as drug overdoses spike at Rikers, they want to boost drug addiction services and alternatives to jail for those whose addictions cycle them through the justice system.
Well-resourced schools and more economic opportunities are also effective ways to reduce the jailed population, said Darren Mack, co-director of the advocacy group Freedom Agenda.
But many reform-minded programs have been met with skepticism by Adams and others who believe Rikers detainees pose a danger to New Yorkers if they are free. “You have to work really hard to go to Rikers, for the most part, being placed in Rikers means that you are a bad person, that you did something probably extremely violent,” he told news site The City last month.
Adams’ spokesperson did not return a request for more information about his Plan B for Rikers Island.