By Peter Szekely
NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York state officials on Wednesday recommended speeding up New York City’s timeline for closing its Rikers Island jail, saying the troubled facility is violating inmates’ constitutional rights and state laws.
Although New York Mayor Bill de Blasio last March laid out a timeline of up to 10 years for closing the jail, the state Commission of Correction, called the schedule unreasonable, given the rise in “violent incidents and degrading conditions” at the complex.
“Consequently, given the city’s inaction and protracted 10-year proposal, it is now time for the commission to examine steps to expeditiously close Rikers and to ensure that the constitutional rights of inmates and staff are protected,” the commission, which is appointed by the governor, said in a report to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
A mayoral spokeswoman noted that a federal monitor overseeing the jail is charged with raising concerns about inmates’ constitutional protections, but has yet to do so.
De Blasio, meanwhile, on Wednesday announced an agreement with the City Council to streamline the approval process for setting up four other jails throughout the city, three of which already exist, into which Rikers Island inmates could be transferred.
“This agreement marks a huge step forward on our path to closing Rikers Island,” de Blasio said in a statement that did not specify by how much, if at all, the agreement would speed up the timeline.
De Blasio’s statement said there was no immediate way to safely close the complex because the current capacity of the city’s other jails is only a combined 2,300, while Rikers Island handles about 9,000 people per day.
Under the agreement, the mayor said the jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens as well as a new site in the Bronx would create space for 5,000 Rikers Island detainees.
Cuomo’s chief counsel, Alphonso David, called the agreement the “first positive step” for shuttering Rikers, where he said conditions were intolerable, and chided city officials for agreeing to a 10-year closing plan.
The state report examined five other county jails, but found Rikers Island to have many more incidents of violence, including sex offenses, even though it has less than half the number of inmates in the state’s county jails.
State officials have the power to order hearings leading to the closing of correctional facilities that are “unsafe, unsanitary or inadequate to provide for the separation and classification of prisoners.”
(Reporting by Peter Szekely; editing by Susan Thomas and G Crosse)