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NYC Council Speaker renews push to shut down Rikers

As part of a renewed push to shutter Rikers, Adrienne Adams wants to expand pretrial and alternative-to-incarceration programs

Rikers Island

City Comptroller Brad Lander predicted last year that the city would not meet its 2027 timeline to close Rikers.

Photo/Theodore Parisienne via TNS

By Michael Gartland
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams renewed a yearslong push to permanently close Rikers Island in her annual State of the City address Wednesday, saying the jail “is no longer serving our city.”

Adams made the argument that advancing the plan to close the jail complex is now more important than ever.

“People who work there and those detained are exposed to violence and trauma that maintain cycles of violence rather than interrupting them,” she said. “Week after week, we see someone lose their life on Rikers at levels that are nearly unprecedented. This is inhumane.”

Rikers has been in turmoil for years and official demands to shutter it goes back to one of Adams’ predecessors, former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who called for its closure in a State of the City speech in 2016.

Mark-Viverito’s push to close the troubled jail complex was followed by an $8 billion plan to create new jails in four of the five boroughs, with the exception of Staten Island, and to close Rikers by 2027.

Those efforts, enshrined into law under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, have moved slowly. Site preparation is proceeding on the new jails — but the city’s jail population has risen in recent years, an uptick that’s likely to make closing Rikers more challenging.

As part of a renewed push to shutter Rikers, Adams wants to expand pretrial and alternative-to-incarceration programs. She also intends to reduce recidivism, an issue Mayor Adams has highlighted repeatedly, through supportive housing with reentry programs aimed at helping the formerly incarcerated to reintegrate into society.

City Comptroller Brad Lander predicted last year that the city would not meet its 2027 timeline to close Rikers. At the time, Mayor Adams pushed back on Lander’s pronouncement, saying that “the law calls for the jails to be closed” and “we’re going to follow that law.”

But more recently, Mayor Adams has signaled that the current closure plan might not be realistic under the current circumstances and that the city may need to find a way to pivot.

In her speech, delivered Wednesday afternoon at the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses and Community Center in the Bronx, Speaker Adams attempted to drive home her point by highlighting the fact that her mother worked as a correction officer at Rikers.

“It was a civil service job that contributed to our family’s stability, and she was dedicated to serving the women in her custody,” Adams said.

“When I asked my mother what she thought about closing Rikers when we held a Council hearing a couple of years ago — I still had her with me — she said to me, ‘Baby, we should have closed that place a long time ago.’”

Speaker Adams argued the jail ultimately does more harm than good because it’s become a warehouse for the mentally ill who’d get a better shot at rehabilitation at a facility more suited to their needs.

“The conditions at Rikers are only creating harm for everyone there,” she said.

Her focus on closing Rikers drew immediate criticisms from the union that represents guards there, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, which questioned why she didn’t touch on a previous call for increased penalties for inmates who sexually assault correction officers.

“Speaker Adams will call for closing RI [Rikers Island] today, but what happened to her call to protect our officers from sexual assaults?” the union said on Twitter.

Adams, who is not related to the mayor, also proposed an expansion of the city’s Fair Fares program, which allows commuters living under the federal poverty line to ride subways and buses for half price.

Under that proposal, the city would expand eligibility to the program by making it available to city residents making less than twice the federal poverty threshold.

She re-floated a proposal to construct new public housing on existing open spaces and vowed to pass legislation banning noncompete agreements some bosses require employees to sign.

And she also announced that the Council will fund a multimillion-dollar expansion of workforce development centers to include sites at the Bronx’s Sedgwick Houses, Brooklyn’s Red Hook Houses and the South Jamaica Houses in Queens.

She included a couple of well-placed but subtle digs aimed at the mayor, saying at one point that the understaffing of city agencies that’s occurred during his tenure has created a “domino effect” that is now hurting the city residents the administration serves.

“When a New Yorker can’t access SNAP food benefits because of agency delays, a family is left hungry. When a CityFHEPS housing voucher is slow to be processed, a family faces eviction,” she said. “This is the cruel reality that our neighbors face, which not only hurts them and the stability of our communities, but also hurts our city.”

The speaker, who’s now in the midst of budget negotiations with Adams’ administration, added that the mayor must act “now” to fully fund and staff city agencies.

“That starts with the city budget, which must include investing in our essential agencies, and helping expedite the ability to hire,” she said.

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