Speaker candidates back closing Rikers, but Cornegy urges caution

The New York City Council speaker candidates all want to close Rikers Island – and half of the eight candidates specifically said Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 10-year timeline is too long.

The council members were asked what they would do about the plan to close the city’s island of jails in a forum co-hosted by City & State and WNET, and airing on “MetroFocus.” Part one, which can be viewed below, aired on Tuesday night. Part two will air on Wednesday night.

“I see the closing of Rikers Island as the most transformational achievement under the current speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito,” said City Councilman Ritchie Torres of the Bronx. “Closing it … represents the ultimate triumph of both racial justice and public safety.”

Mark-Viverito has been one of the loudest voices in recent years advocating in favor of closing the jails on Rikers Island, and convened an independent commission to study the feasibility. De Blasio eventually said he supported closing the complex as well, with a 10-year goal.

With Mark-Viverito term-limited out of office, the men vying to replace her all backed the broad plan of closing the complex, with inmates to be moved to facilities in other boroughs. 

“The next speaker is going to have to carry on the vision and the legacy of Melissa Mark-Viverito in closing Rikers Island and we can get there before 10 years,” said City Councilman Donovan Richards of Queens.

Richards and other candidates noted that 11 city council members from Queens had written a letter this fall backing a new jail in their borough.

“We have council members already standing up in neighborhoods around the city saying that they will support the establishment of a new jail in their courthouse – most prominently in Queens,” said City Councilman Mark Levine of Manhattan. “We can do this. We will do this. In less than 10 years.”

City Council members Corey Johnson and Jimmy Van Bramer also said they would like to close Rikers more quickly than the timeline put forward by the mayor.

City Councilman Robert Cornegy stood out for seemingly offering support for de Blasio’s plan.

“We have an opportunity in this long span of 10 years to make some significant reforms that can change the ways that the criminal justice system operates through Rikers Island,” he said. Cornegy urged taking “smaller bites” of the issues, because without changing the culture of Rikers, “moving everyone into smaller jails may not get the result that we anticipated.”

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