Last week, in a letter to district court judge Laura Taylor Swain, one Manhattan U.S. attorney and two federal prosecutors threatened to request that the New York City Department of Corrections be placed under a federal court-appointed receiver—giving the federal government broad powers to make reforms to the department, including to its infamous Rikers Island jail. The letter mentioned the “state of crisis” in a system whose jails are experiencing an “extraordinary level of violence and disorder.” Indeed, dysfunctional practices, failure to follow basic protocols, and deficient supervision have put both inmates and officers at risk.
Intervention from Washington is a reasonable solution. New York City has failed to solve its egregious corrections problems for years. Yet local officials haven’t backed off a different objective: the plan to build borough-based jails, which would spread the mismanagement of Rikers—with the infamous jail’s uncontrolled violence and disorder—to a neighborhood near you. That Rikers is being misrun is old news—and that’s precisely why new community or borough-based jails under the same management are such a bad idea.
The controversial program to build new, borough-based jails, originating under former mayor Bill de Blasio, has run into problems from the outset. The plan met with protests from communities in the Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan’s Chinatown. Residents in Chinatown and adjacent Little Italy, whose neighborhoods already house four jails, don’t believe that a planned mega-skyscraper jail serves their communities. Meantime, the pre-pandemic city budget provided $9 billion to build the new borough-based jails—an optimistic figure for what would be the city’s largest infrastructure project, pursued simultaneously on four sites and overseen by the city’s Department of Design and Construction, which has a poor track record in cost management. With inflation and rising costs, the price tag for the borough-based jails will wind up much higher. Increased expenses will strain financial resources, and if funds run out, completion of the new jails could stall for years. In any case, the planned new jails will have far less capacity than Rikers.
Elevated violent-crime rates, high-profile murders, and dreadful conditions in city jails have generated calls to reduce crime, stop the new borough-based jails, and close Rikers. There is no logical way to achieve all three goals. Since new borough-based jails would take years to build, Rikers would have to remain open during that period unless the city forgoes crime control entirely. Eric Adams’s stated goals of lowering crime and improving public safety now mean that his administration’s only options are to build the new jails expeditiously or fix Rikers. Given the practical problems with the borough-based jails, he should pick the second option.
Rikers can be renovated, improved, and modernized to address the needs of detainees for far less than $9 billion. Architect William Bialosky created a plan that uses Rikers Island’s space to create a campus for detainees with facilities for appropriate services, and even addresses access to the island. The Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas has authored a report on the subject as well. Fixing Rikers would leave funds for better services for both detainees and citizens. With improved facilities and management—perhaps supplied by federal oversight—Rikers can be saved.
Rikers was built nearly 100 years ago to replace other mismanaged local jails. But buildings do not cancel the effects of bad administration. The type of oversight the federal government can provide would go much further to improve the city’s corrections system.
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