Having failed to make Rikers Island comply with civil rights settlement, de Blasio agrees to close jail complex

Rikers Island would be closed in ten years, after decreases in the jail population would make it feasible to construct new, smaller jails that would be dispersed across the five boroughs of New York City.

By LOUIS FLORES

In advance of the anticipated release of a blue ribbon panel report, recommending the closure of the troubled Rikers Island jail complex, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) has reportedly reversed course -- and will support the troubled jail complex's closure, whereas he had previously defended efforts to keep the jail complex open and even went so far as denying one year ago a report published by DNAinfo New York that the administration was reviewing the possibility of a closure of Rikers Island. News of the panel's recommendation and of Mayor de Blasio's reversal were noted in a report published Thursday evening by The New York Post. The final report, which recommended the closure, was issued on Friday evening -- two days ahead of schedule -- by the blue ribbon panel, formally named the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.

Arial view of Rikers Island, the large jail complex in New York City, as seen in March 2006. Rikers Island had been the subject of a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's southern district under the leadership of then U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. A team of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, which included Jeffrey Powell and Emily Daughtry, led a Civil Rights Unit investigation of Rikers Island, producing a landmark 2014 report of civil and Constitutional rights violations, including of the violations of rights of inmates, notably of adolescent inmates. Source : U.S. Geological Survey/Public Domain

Arial view of Rikers Island, the large jail complex in New York City, as seen in March 2006. Rikers Island had been the subject of a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's southern district under the leadership of then U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. A team of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, which included Jeffrey Powell and Emily Daughtry, led a Civil Rights Unit investigation of Rikers Island, producing a landmark 2014 report of civil and Constitutional rights violations, including of the violations of rights of inmates, notably of adolescent inmates. Source : U.S. Geological Survey/Public Domain

The capitulation by Mayor de Blasio followed reports that the New York City Department of Corruption was unable to curtail violence at the jail complex. Even before Municipal corrections officials confirmed a rise in jail violence, including an 18 per cent. spike in stabbings, inmates at Rikers Island had reportedly complained that they perceived a continuation of violent conditions. Inmates at Rikers Island had complained that violent conditions were so bad that inmates were induced into accepting plea agreements to which they would otherwise not consent -- in order to get out of Rikers Island, according to a report published by The New York Post.

By changing course, Mayor de Blasio appears to be admitting that his administration was unable to bring Rikers Island into compliance with the framework of a settlement of a Federal investigation into civil and Constitutional rights violations at the Municipal jail complex. That settlement also applied to a class-action lawsuit that led to, in part, the appointment of a Federal monitor over Rikers Island. The decision to close Rikers Island also appears to validate the findings made by a team of prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's southern district, who investigated Rikers Island. Some of those findings included inadequate protection for adolescent inmates from bodily harm due to excessive and unnecessary use of force by staff and deficiencies described as systemic, which led to excessive and unnecessary use of force by staff. These and other conditions were compounded by high levels of inmate violence, according to the civil rights report issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office. The framework of the settlement included requirements, such as the development of a new use of force policy, robust requirements for reporting use of force, investigations of the use of force incidents, and the implementation of a pilot program for body-worn cameras, amongst other recommendations, which were intended to address the violations identified in the civil rights report.

Because of, in part, the perception that Mayor de Blasio was unable to follow-through on his promised reform of Rikers Island, the grassroots movement that has been calling for complex criminal justice reform began to escalate long-existing calls for the closure of Rikers Island. The loss of life of inmates due to the violent conditions at Rikers Island, and the physical and emotional toll of the violent conditions, also acted to create urgency to close the Municipal jail complex. The tragedy that led former Rikers Island inmate Kalif Browder to commit suicide also swayed public opinion to support the jail's closure. The final report of the blue ribbon panel cited the U.S. Attorney's Office's investigation as evidence of the culture of violence on Rikers Island, and the protests to end the New York Police Department's stop, question, and frisk procedures, the death of Eric Garner, and the suicide by Mr. Browder as evidence of the race-based injustices of the criminal justice system.

It is not known if the failure by the Department of Correction to bring Rikers Island into compliance with settlement agreement was the direct cause of the sudden decision by Mayor de Blasio to support the closure of the Municipal jail facility. The City Hall press office did not answer a request for an interview for this report, and the press office for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to answer advance questions submitted by Progress Queens for this report.

The 2017 Mayoral race may have been on Mayor de Blasio's mind when he decided to suddenly support the closure of Rikers Island.

A few days before Mayor de Blasio changed course on the future of Rikers Island, the police reform advocate Robert Gangi announced a bid to challenge Mayor de Blasio for this year's Democratic Party primary in the 2017 mayoral race. Mr. Gangi had publicly announced that he planned to highlight Mayor de Blasio's failures to enact the criminal justice reform that he had promised during his 2013 race for mayor. As Mayor de Blasio discovered in 2013, invoking the language of criminal justice reform allowed him to make major inroads with critical Democratic Party primary voting blocs. Had Mayor de Blasio continued to oppose the closure of Rikers Island, he would have been handing Mr. Gangi a powerful campaign theme on which to run.

By agreeing to close Rikers Island, Mayor de Blasio no longer has to bear the brunt of material failings by his administration to bring Rikers Island into compliance with the settlement agreed to by Federal prosecutors and the parties to the class action lawsuit. Furthermore, since it wasn't Mayor de Blasio, who originated the idea to close Rikers Island, he will not bear primary political responsibility for complications that may result from the winding down and eventual transfer of operations from Rikers Island to new jails that will need to be constructed. To further distance Mayor de Blasio from any responsibility for the outcome of the closure of Rikers Island, he delayed the deadline to close Rikers Island ten (10) years into the future. It is not known how rigorously the U.S. Attorney's Office, or the Federal monitor in charge of Rikers Island, Steve Martin, will enforce the settlement agreement, now that Rikers Island will be closed in due course.

In a statement, Mayor de Blasio thanked New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Spanish Harlem), who, Mayor de Blasio said, "has helped fuel the progress toward a more just criminal justice system." The blue ribbon panel was headed by the Hon. Ret. Justice Jonathan Lippman, and that panel was formed at the behest of Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, according to a report published by The New York Observer. The move to close Rikers Island over its apparent violations of civil and Constitutional rights of inmates was a contradictory move by the Council speaker, who had, in the past, refused to reign in other forms of law enforcement abuses, such as the NYPD's race-based philosophy of policing known as Broken Windows. In 2014, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito refused to say that race was a factor in the Broken Windows arrest that led to the homicide of Mr. Garner.

No thanks were immediately observed to be given by Mayor de Blasio to Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeffrey Powell and Emily Daughtry, who led the Civil Rights Unit team investigation of Rikers Island. Their report, which garnered support from the U.S. Department of Justice, was the catalyst that created agreement amongst senior Government officials, Mayor de Blasio excluded at the time, that Rikers Island was grossly and violently breaking the law by infringing the rights of its inmates. Because of the dynamic tension created by the settlement agreement, the appointment of a Federal monitor, the potential for embarrassing on-going failures to comply with the settlement agreement, and Mr. Gangi's insurgent campaign, Mayor de Blasio was forced to adopt a new political calculus during a reëlection year that The New York Times had otherwise predicted would be an easy win for Mayor de Blasio. Because of the media policy of the U.S. Attorney's Office that prohibits Assistant U.S. Attorney's from generally speaking with the media, it is not known if Assistant U.S. Attorneys Powell and Daughtry anticipated that their civil rights investigation was going to eventually lead to a milestone in criminal justice reform in New York City. Because of that prohibitive media policy, Mayor de Blasio was given free license to claim credit for closing Rikers Island.

Whereas the recommendations made in settlement agreement were limited to bring Rikers Island into compliance with the civil and Constitutional rights of inmates, the final report of the blue ribbon panel made recommendations that included bail reform, notably by recommending an ending to money bail, amongst other recommendations, to combat the over-incarceration of individuals. The final report, and Mayor de Blasio's plans to close Rikers Island, hinge on decreasing the jail population by implementing criminal justice reforms that Federal prosecutors did not conceive in the civil rights report. In a foreshadowing of what City officials would plan to do with a vacated Rikers Island, the blue ribbon panel received assistance from, and consulted with, real estate development and Big Business executives, indicating that one important buy-in to bring about major reforms to Government would be to earn the endorsement of real estate speculators and economic development corporation officials.

The complexity and paradox of criminal justice reform

There are instances when some public officials appear to be on the right side of progressive reform, like when Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) endorsed the idea to close Rikers Island and appeared to shame Mayor de Blasio for his lack of political courage to embrace closure plans sooner than he did. At the same time, though, Gov. Cuomo has been faulted for refusing to fully embrace criminal justice reform on the State level.

Likewise, the Federal prosecutors' office, which produced the landmark civil rights report on Rikers Island, has also been criticised for the over-prosecution of people based on their race, levels of income, and other social or economic factors. As noted in an editorial column written by the journalist and activist Josmar Trujillo, former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was celebrated for prosecuting political and campaign corruption and whose office produced the civil rights report of Rikers Island, was faulted for using Federal racketeering laws to target public housing tenants in criminal charges prosecuted against alleged gang members. Attempts made by Progress Queens to open up a dialogue with the U.S. Attorney's Office about seemingly contradictory issues about policies and procedures have never resulted in any willingness by the Federal prosecutors' office to engage in a discussion, even explanatory.

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