The Slatest

New York City Council Votes to Close Notorious Rikers Island Jail

Aerial view of Rikers Island under a blanket of snow.
Rikers Island jail complex on Jan. 5, 2018, in the Bronx borough of New York City. John Moore/Getty Images

The New York City Council voted Thursday to shut down one of the country’s most notorious jails on Rikers Island as part of an $8 billion plan to replace the second largest correctional facility in the U.S. with four facilities spread across four of the city’s five boroughs. The plan would see the jail that became synonymous with the worst parts of the American legal system—mass incarceration, pretrial detention, a flawed bail system—close by the year 2026. “For decades, this city and this country’s answer to every societal problem was to throw people in jail,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said Wednesday. “Nothing symbolizes those failed policies in this city more than Rikers Island.” Johnson called the the jail “a stain on New York City.”

The 10,000-bed complex, located on a 90-acre island between the Bronx and Queens, was hailed as “the most perfect prison in the world” when it opened its doors in the 1930s. Today, there are roughly 7,000 inmates held at the facility each day, a steep reduction from the nearly 22,000 that were imprisoned there in 1991 as the country carried out its so-called war on drugs at the height of the crack epidemic. With crime at all-time lows and abuse rampant at Rikers, calls for reform got louder. “Mayor Bill de Blasio and Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, embraced the jails plan, throwing their political weight behind the measure despite steady opposition from neighborhoods whose residents worry that towering new jails will harm their quality of life,” the New York Times reports. “Corrections officers also criticized the plan as unrealistic.”

“This is about valuing our people, no longer condemning people and sending them on a pathway that only made their lives worse and worse,” de Blasio said. “Today we made history: The era of mass incarceration is over.”

Correction, Oct. 18, 2019: This post originally misidentified the correctional facility set to be closed down on Rikers Island as a prison; it is a jail.