Closing Rikers won’t solve underlying problems, DOI commissioner says

Closing Rikers won’t solve underlying problems, DOI commissioner says

Closing Rikers won’t solve underlying problems, DOI commissioner says
February 26, 2016

A proposal to close the violence-plagued Rikers Island jail complex has won key support in recent weeks, although New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, while describing the idea as “noble,” has suggested that such a move would be prohibitively expensive. 

Mark Peters, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation, which has been investigating conditions at Rikers Island, is concerned that relocating inmates and jail personnel to smaller facilities across the city could simply spread the problems around instead of solving them.

“The problem is that whatever the policy issues are on closing Rikers, and I leave that to others, the problems that we are seeing on the ground as Rikers’ inspector general – too many guards that are willing to sell their offices and engage in smuggling, too many guards willing to engage in brutal violent behavior, too many gangs engaged in narcotics trafficking – those problems are not going to be remedied by simply breaking up Rikers,” Peters told City & State.

The New York City Department of Correction will be adding more than 1,500 new officers over the next year or so, which Peters, a de Blasio appointee, called a “huge undertaking.” But that is only about 20 percent of the total number of correction officers, Peters said, an indication that it will take years to fully retrain or root out and replace offending personnel.

At the same time, many new correction officers have been hired despite red flags in their applications, Peters pointed out, undercutting efforts to root out violent and criminal behavior among the jail’s employees. A Department of Investigation report released in January 2015 found that more than a third of newly hired officers had prior arrests and convictions, ties with gang members or inmates, or other similar issues.

Peters also pointed out that the jail complex is already made up of 10 separate facilities. Having all of them in one centralized location makes it easier and more cost-effective to oversee and regulate them, he argued.

“If we were to take those facilities and put them all over the city, which is what the breakup Rikers proposal suggests, then you’d still have 10 separate facilities, you’d still have the same guards engaging in the same violent behavior, you’d have the same smuggling going on,” Peters said. “And so my fear is, if we did this, we’d wake up six months after we did it and find we still had the same problems with the same guards because we’d still have the same guards, the same problems with same gangs because we would still have the same gangs – and these are the folks who, regardless of what kind of bail reform proposals one is in favor of, there’s no proposal out there that has these folks not being incarcerated – and we’ve got the same troubles with mental health treatment.”

Editor's note: City & State and City Limits published a four-part special report in November 2015 exploring the politics and logistics of closing Rikers Island. 

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s editor-in-chief.