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New York Is Getting Serious About Closing the Hellish Jail on Rikers Island

After decades of brutal incidents in the notorious jail complex, reformers are getting closer to the ultimate prize.
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
Photo by Flickr user Kevin Case

Americans have been hearing horrible stories for years now about life on Rikers Island, the miserable New York City jail complex where suspected criminals often languish for years and sometimes die. After fighting, with some success, to improve conditions there, reformers gravitated toward a more drastic solution in 2016: shut the hellhole down. And now they seem to be on the cusp of some kind of victory, with city hall poised to get onboard, the New York Times reports.


According to Judge Jonathan Lippman, who headed an independent commission tasked by the city council with examining how best to reform the jail, Mayor Bill de Blasio is set to announce his own support for closing Rikers as early as this week. This comes after the mayor previously expressed skepticism of closing the place. Meanwhile, the commission's own recommendation, which will be made public on Sunday, is apparently to transfer inmates out of Rikers and into smaller jails throughout the five boroughs at the cost of about $10.6 billion.

Opening a system of modern complexes across the city could improve safety and make it easier for family members to visit inmates—which can be critical to keeping them grounded in society. And the plan could help New York begin to repair its reputation for mistreating people who haven't even been convicted and focus on redeveloping the notorious island.

"It's good for the quality of justice in this city and beyond," Herbert Sturz, a member of Lippman's commission, told the Times. "Rikers after all these years can change."

Many view Rikers as the epitome of what's wrong with America's jail and prison system. Reports by the media and federal government have painted it as a place where guards beat inmates—especially the young and mentally ill—without cause or punishment, and where merely being on a correction officer's bad side can land you in solitary confinement for long periods. Perhaps most infamously, Kalief Browder, a teenager from the Bronx accused (but never convicted) of stealing a backpack, committed suicide after spending three years on Rikers, despite ultimately being freed.

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