HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio last week endorsed a proposal to close the jails on Rikers Island, which are notorious for their history of violence among inmates and brutality at the hands of guards. The facility has been the subject of multiple investigations by the city and federal government. The plan calls for Rikers to close over the next decade and its 7,500 prisoners to be placed in new jails in the city’s five boroughs.
Joining me now to discuss the feasibility of all this is “Crain’s New York Business” reporter Rosa Goldensohn.
So, you know, this is a national program but Rikers is a nationally famous jail.
ROSA GOLDENSOHN, CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS REPORTER: Yes, you know, there aren’t a lot of island penal colonies left. I was in San Francisco recently and we took the ferry to Alcatraz. It’s a tourist site.
GOLDENSOHN: And same in South Africa.
So, it’s really rare and the — in the study that just came out, they call it a 19th century solution to a 21s century problem.
SREENIVASAN: So, what were the things that actually finally tipped it over the edge? Because it’s had a long history of problems.
GOLDENSOHN: It has. And I think there’s a consensus that built in the last year, that there was a story about Kalief Browder, the 16 year old who spent three years on Rikers and later killed himself. He spent a year in solitary confinement. And that drew a lot of attention to the court delays and the sort of systemic problems there, like why, why are people spending so much time there.
So, that story and his death in 2015 drew a different kind of momentum. “The New York Times” editorialized that the place should close last year and the speaker of the city council came out saying this was her goal.
SREENIVASAN: How much does it actually matter in terms of the money spent on keeping people on this island? Because it is where it is, if the crimes are in the boroughs, they have to kind of go back and forth.
GOLDENSOHN: That’s exactly right. It’s $80,000 a day just transporting people to the courts and back. And 85 percent of the people on Rikers are pretrial detainees, or people who have to go to the court. They are not people serving out sentences for misdemeanors. So, a lot of people think it’s a prison, it’s a jail and that means people are — you know, they spend a lot of money bringing people back and forth to the courts.
And it’s also the physical plant of Rikers, just the layout and its age, the age of the building. The head of the Department of Corrections has said it’s that physical layout that actually is what makes the staffing requirements so high there. So, there are 10,000 correction officers for fewer than 10,000 total inmates in the system.
SREENIVASAN: So, you know, one of the things of New York City is struggling with and this happens around the country is that if you close this down, where are you going to move it? And everyone says not in my backyard.
GOLDENSOHN: The report that came out today, or was released Friday, announced today, called for the facilities to be near the courts. And so, you know, there are already some holding facilities like Brooklyn House of Detention, they’re in Manhattan, what are called The Tombs. So there are jails next to the courts in some of the boroughs. These would have to be built out.
So, there could be opposition but it’s not like you’re going to need to have a jail in the middle of a residential neighborhood on your block. You know, this —
SREENIVASAN: Right. All right. Rosa Goldensohn from “Crain’s New York Business” — thanks so much for joining us.
GOLDENSOHN: Thank you.