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Rikers Island: The perfect place for a jail

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If one had to imagine the perfect jail, it would probably include high fences, lots of barbed wire, swift currents, and only one way on or off — a bridge. These are the characteristics of Rikers Island. Yet, Mayor DeBlasio and the Council are moving forward with plans to close this perfectly placed facility.

Earlier this month, His Honor and his cronies announced plans to replace Rikers within 10 years with four proposed jail sites, one each near residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. Once that happens, those communities will have accused and convicted criminals as neighbors.

If someone escapes from one of Rikers’ many jail facilities, a dangerous prisoner is still contained on a heavily secured island, and not roaming the streets of our neighborhoods.

Rikers may need to be improved, but this can be achieved with temporary facilities there and a phased redevelopment plan. Other problems at Rikers, including violence against our correction officers, are the result of administration policies and mismanagement, not the location.

Last week, a state Correction Commission report highlighted that there were 1,479 assaults on Rikers Island staff by inmates in 2017, a 34 percent increase from 2016. In addition, statistics from the Mayor’s Office of Operations show that serious injuries to correction officers from prisoners increased 68 percent in the last six months of 2017, compared to the same period the previous year. A change of venue will not alter these facts.

In 2016, Mayor DeBlasio ended punitive segregation, or solitary confinement, for those under 22 years old, and limited its use for all others. We were all horrified watching the surveillance camera coverage of the beating that correction officer Jean Roston Souffrant took from a gang of inmates at Rikers Island a few weeks ago. This officer is recovering from a spinal fracture and bleeding in his brain, among other injuries. The four who attacked Souffrant were all 21 years old or younger.

Elias Husamudeen, President of the Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association, who opposes the closing of Rikers, said after the attack that punitive segregation was the best way to keep inmates and officers safe.

“It gives us the right to segregate; separate these particular types of inmates from the other inmates and from correction officers, which further protects us,” he said.

Of course, closing Rikers Island and opening new jails in our communities will not make life safer for correction officers.

Rikers, which is a 400-acre island located in the East River between Queens and the Bronx, currently houses about 9,000 inmates. The 10 jails on the island can hold up to 15,000. In order to close Rikers and have enough space for the inmates in the new jails across the city, the inmate population must be cut to 5,000. Does anyone doubt that, come hell or high water, this mayor and Council will make sure this happens?

I do not understand how an arbitrary number of prisoners can be determined. Only 20 years ago, Rikers Island was filled to capacity with a barge to hold additional prisoners docked off the island. If there is a rise in the prison population, we will be kicking ourselves for closing Rikers and spending more taxpayer money to build additional jails in our communities.

What New Yorkers should fear is the possibility that, in order to force the prison population down to 5,000, we will see early release for criminals, little or no jail time for more crimes, and turning a blind eye to others.

Maybe we have already seen a preview of this with Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s recent announcement that he will no longer prosecute fare beating on subways. When Vance downgraded turnstile jumping to a civil last year, the Brooklyn District Attorney has indicated he would do the same. Will he adopt this new policy as well? What other crimes will be ignored because our district attorneys think they are not worthy of prosecution, or to make sure the prison population goes down so we can close Rikers Island?

Rather than correcting the mismanagement, violence, and corruption at Rikers Island, it is unfortunate that our city leaders are supporting policies and plans that put correction officers and law-abiding citizens at risk.

Bob Capano has been an adjunct political science professor at the City University of New York who has worked for Republican and Democratic elected officials in Brooklyn.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019: UPDATED: An earlier version of this column said that the Brooklyn District Attorney had indicated that he would adopt the Manhattan District Attorney’s recently announced policy of not prosecuting fare beaters at all. That is not the case.
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