Op-ed: Replacing Rikers with jails in Brooklyn, other boroughs a bad move

Signage outside of Rikers Island.
Signage outside of Rikers Island.
REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

For too long the New York City Council has ignored the needs of those that keep us safe. As a public servant, I’ve spoken with our law enforcement on the streets and our corrections officers who keep dangerous criminals behind bars about staffing shortages, subsequent back-to-back 12-hour shifts, and dangerous environments for both guards and inmates on Rikers Island. To deny any of this is to ignore countless news stories, and even worse, the testimonies of those that serve our communities as corrections officers themselves. 

Assaults on officers and inmates on Rikers Island are at an all-time high. For officers alone, assaults are up 24 percent, while inmate-on-inmate attacks are up 18 percent in the last year. According to reports, slashing and stabbings have increased 100 percent, now at 247 for 2021 up from 123 in 2020. Because of staffing shortages and lack of specialized units, requests for backup during attempts to break up large-scale gang fights have gone unanswered, further placing officers and the growing inmate population at risk. 

Just as we’ve seen an alarming 75 percent spike in NYPD officer retirements due to anti-police policies and rhetoric, the “impossible working conditions” at Rikers are causing corrections officers to leave in droves. Efforts to replenish the ranks have fallen short, however, with only one class of 75 cadets graduating from the academy over the last three years. According to the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association (COBA), an estimated 2,500 officers must be onboarded if there is any hope of remediating these dangerous situations or making working conditions safer. 

What’s even more disturbing is the lack of attention our city officials have given to the number of female corrections officers and nurses falling victim to heinous sexual attacks while on the job. In the last 12 months, over two dozen reports have been filed by female corrections officers and nurses at Rikers who’ve been sexually assaulted or raped while simply attempting to perform their duties. These facilities are understaffed, our corrections officers are under-supported, and unless the City Council corrects course, things will only get worse, all at the expense of those who are trying to keep our communities safe. 

While I’m encouraged that Mayor Eric Adams has vowed to bring solitary confinement back as a punitive measure for violent inmates, I remain extremely concerned with his willingness to continue former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island by 2027 in favor of the so-called “Borough Based Jail System.” We can all agree that the facilities on Rikers are in desperate need of investment and modernization, however, the closure of Rikers and the creation of several smaller facilities will not do anything to address the problems we’re seeing at Rikers today — in fact, it may only make them worse. 

Rikers’ proximity to four of the five boroughs and the natural security of an island, surrounded by swift currents and connected to the mainland by a nearly mile-long bridge is obvious. In fact, recent reports have highlighted that escape attempts have been unsuccessful specifically because the jails are on a controlled island. 

Setting aside enormous challenges in construction, financing, and swaying public opinion, there are already indicators that this “borough-based” plan will fail. In total, the four proposed jails are expected to have a bed capacity of only 3,544, when the city’s own estimates suggest that a reduced jail capacity would still need 5,000 beds. Before these borough-based jails have even been built, they are already unable to handle the city’s minimum needs. 

In addition to the logistical difficulties, we must also consider the opinions of residents who would live and work around these facilities. My constituents are adamantly opposed to the disruption the construction of these facilities would create, on top of the potential danger of having a Rikers-like facility down the block. Likewise, residents and community members in the Bronx and Manhattan have protested or have gone so far as to take legal action to stop the proposed jails in their neighborhoods. 

Over the past 20 years, we’ve witnessed amazing growth and development in downtown Brooklyn. What was once a fairly desolate stretch of Atlantic Avenue, has transformed into blocks filled with boutiques, restaurants, apartment buildings, a new YMCA, hotels, and large chain stores like Marshalls, Michaels, and Pet Smart. Within a block or two sit multi-million-dollar townhouses and Brownstones that make up the neighborhoods of Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and the Southeastern fringe of Brooklyn Heights. Beautiful neighborhoods that will be dwarfed by the 295-foot-tall jail, which is twice as tall as the current facility. This is far from an ideal site to locate approximately 900 dangerous inmates.

It is time to invest in Rikers Island, not abandon it. In 2017, the plans to build these jails were proposed at a price tag of $9 billion. Considering inflation, labor shortages, and supply chain issues our country is facing today, the true cost is much higher. 

On March 23, 2022, I submitted written testimony to the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee calling for a portion of these funds to rehabilitate the existing Rikers Island buildings and make long-overdue improvements to protect both inmates and officers, address staffing shortages, provide protective equipment, and increase inmate access to health care. 

We as a community must advocate for our corrections officers — give them what they need to do their jobs, modernize Rikers Island, and strike the plans to put jails in our neighborhoods.

Nicole Malliotakis is a US Representative currently serving New York’s 11th Congressional District, made up of southern Brooklyn and Staten Island.