The second iteration of the independent Rikers commission has unveiled its 41 members as it prepares an updated plan to close the embattled jails complex.
A revitalization of the special independent commission is the latest step in New York City’s longstanding fight to shutter Rikers Island. The Independent Rikers Commission 2.0, like its predecessor, is led by the state’s former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. The goal? Craft a new plan to get the closure of the troubled facility back on track as advocates and other elected officials fear Mayor Eric Adams’ administration is dragging its feet to meet the mandated August 2027 deadline.
The list of members, shared exclusively with City & State, includes a host of civic leaders, public safety experts and policymakers with backgrounds in corrections, business, nonprofits, community-based safety programs, and a variety of others. Newly appointed members like Ana Bermudez, former New York City probation commissioner, Grace Bonilla, president and CEO of United Way of New York City, former New York City First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice President Karol Mason will be joining original members, including Matthew D’Emic, administrative judge for criminal matters in Kings County Supreme Court, and Robert Fiske, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The new commission is much larger than the original, which had 26 members.
“We wanted to be up to date and current with people who can make contributions to the final recommendations that add credibility and represent broad constituencies,” Lippman told City & State of the bolstered membership. “We need a mosaic to look at the particular issues we deal with at Rikers to get that horrible, miserable place closed.”
The original commission was created under the leadership of then-Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams announced in October that she was reappointing the independent commission “to strengthen the roadmap” to close Rikers, building on the work of its predecessor to formulate the plan to close Rikers in 10 years and replace it with four smaller borough-based jails. Supporting the commission is one of the City Council’s priorities in the next session.
The renewed push to close Rikers Island comes as the threat of a federal takeover looms, which while unrelated to the city’s mandate to close Rikers, pitches further uncertainty into the mix. The commission will also contend with growing local resistance to building the new borough-based jails and an incarcerated population that’s ballooned to over 6,000 people – far more than the number of beds that’ll be included in the new facilities. Conditions at Rikers are dire. Nineteen people died in the city’s custody in 2022 – the highest death rate since 2013. Nine people have died so far in 2023.
A number of state officials, the City Council and former Mayor Bill de Blasio all coalesced around the original commission’s plan, ultimately leading to legislation that created the legal mandate for Rikers to close. Lippman said he hopes to build something met with the same level of support that is relevant to today’s conditions.
“(Rikers) is a stain on the soul of New York City. Virtually anybody in a position to do something about it recognizes that, but we also recognize that it’s easier said than done,” Lippman said. “This is a major, major public policy change in New York and it has to be done the right way.”
“Our administration looks forward to working with the commission on a refreshed plan that is reflective of our post-pandemic reality and takes into account the ongoing issues that are affecting our city today,” Adams said in a statement.
It’s unclear exactly when the commission will release its recommendations although Lippman said he suspects it’ll be sometime within the next year once members have time to really dig in and thoroughly understand what is going on.
“Every day that goes by is a day with continued violence that none of us want to see. So there is an urgency, and yet we want to do it the right way,” Lippman said.