Powers aims for safe closure of Rikers

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A Q&A with Council Member Keith Powers on the city’s steps toward closing the jail complex


  • Council Member Keith Powers, pictured here speaking at his Jan. 21 inauguration at the CUNY Graduate Center, will serve as chair of the City Council’s criminal justice committee in his first term representing District 4. Photo courtesy of Keith Powers.

City Council Member Keith Powers, who this year took office as the representative for District 4, will serve as chair of the Council’s criminal justice committee in his first term. In this role, one of Powers’ chief responsibilities will be overseeing the closure of the notoriously violent Rikers Island jail complex.

Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio laid out a plan for closing Rikers and moving the city’s jail population to borough-based facilities within ten years. Some activists and Council members have advocated for a more aggressive timeline. The administration says it needs to reduce the city’s jail population to 5,000 from its current average of roughly 9,000 to be in a position to transition from Rikers to borough-based facilities.

The mayor’s office announced in January that it plans to close the first of the nine jails on the island this summer. In January, the city awarded a $7.6 million contract to an architecture and design firm to conduct a 10-month study of the design and location of borough-based jails that will replace Rikers Island.

Powers joined Straus News to outline his priorities for the criminal justice committee, which he said extend well beyond the key objective of closing Rikers Island.

“That’s the big issue, but that’s not the only one,” he said. “There’s going to be a whole host of issues about the process leading up to people going to Rikers Island or other facilities, the fair treatment of people that are coming into the system, and ensuring that no matter what zip code you come from, no matter what your income level, that you have a fair opportunity in the criminal justice system and you receive equal treatment.”

The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed.

What is your perception of where the Council stands on this issue of closing Rikers Island in relation to the administration?

It’s a new Council, a new speaker, new chairs of every committee, so we’re still figuring out where the entire body lies on all issues, but I think certainly the Council will still be leading on this. I think we see an opportunity to close it ahead of the 10-year schedule the mayor has outlined.

We’re not sure yet whether we’ll be at odds with the mayor on that or not. The mayor just awarded a contract to work through the process of siting and locating borough-based facilities to replace Rikers Island, and he did award it a little bit ahead of schedule, so that was good. I think we will continue to move timelines faster than the anticipated 10-year timeline the mayor has outlined, but we have to address the realities of getting the population from 9,000 to 5,000 and actually siting the facilities. That will take some time, so we’ll have to work through that.

For what it’s worth, on the award of the contract, I thought this was potentially an impediment to getting this closed earlier. I hope it’s not, but it could be. I don’t want us to get to the end of this year and find out answers that we already know, like where the facilities might go in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. I think we have a pretty good idea of that and we’ve talked about it often.

What is the likelihood that Manhattan’s existing jail — the Manhattan Detention Complex, commonly known as the Tombs — can be renovated to accommodate the borough’s jail population, as compared to the likelihood that an additional jail facility will need to be built in Manhattan?

I think the plan will be, and is, to expand the Tombs to accommodate as many people as it can hold and to be the only facility in Manhattan. I think it is the easiest path forward. We recognize that siting facilities is difficult and that siting them at a place where there are existing facilities is the easiest path. This is a pragmatic thing more than anything. I think everybody realizes that the less siting we have to do, the easier it becomes and the more you can do to expand an existing facility versus open a new one.

What other topics will be on the committee’s agenda?

We are going to look at some safety considerations around making sure that the people that work [at Rikers] are more safe. We’re going to look at inmate treatment — everything from costs that inmates have to take on, phone calls and other pieces of legislation that have been in previous Councils — and I think we’re going to look at the cost of bail.

Online bail is supposed to be, no pun intended, online. It’s not yet. We should make this a reality as promised. Rikers is predominately people who can’t afford bail. We want to make it so that people are not spending time on Rikers Island because we have made the cost or process of paying bail too inaccessible to communities or individuals.

What should happen with Rikers Island itself after the jails are closed?

I have been adamant in not taking a position on the future of it, because I think it presents a big opportunity but I don’t want the future of it to distract from the reality of it today. I don’t want it to become a conversation about what it should be before we’re even at the point of getting on an efficient timeline to close it.

With that said, I’m planning to do a hearing at some point on the future of Rikers Island to hear the best ideas on how the city should be using that piece of land in the future. We may not rule out having some corrections facility out there, whether it’s an academy or a small facility, but I do think there’s a lot of opportunity there. I’ve been pretty open-minded about what the future can look like there, because any time we have a piece of property in New York City of that size it deserves careful thought about whether it should be housing or economic development or higher education or something else.

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