Rikers Island

A timeline on the closure of Rikers Island

The long-awaited decision on a federal takeover will have to wait till an unknown date.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has said that he doubts Rikers Island will close by the 2027 deadline set by his predecessor.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has said that he doubts Rikers Island will close by the 2027 deadline set by his predecessor. ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

The question of whether or not a federal judge will strip New York City of its control over Rikers Island is moving forward – albeit slowly. 

While judge Laura Swain again acknowledged a desperate need to address the violence that’s long plagued city jails during a July 9 status hearing in Manhattan federal court, she didn’t end up appointing a third-party authority known as a federal receiver to take over control of city jails. That long-awaited decision will have to wait till an unknown date. 

At least a partial decision may come toward the end of the year though. Swain ordered a hearing for Sept. 25 in which the Legal Aid Society attorneys – who represent people incarcerated at Rikers – will have an opportunity to argue the New York City Department of Correction should be held in contempt for failing to follow court orders to bring down jail violence. 

New York City jails have a long history of abuse and negligence toward the incarcerated population. Rikers was heavily criticized in the 1970s and ’80s for overpopulation, dangerous conditions and violence against incarcerated adolescents. Under then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch, the public began calling for the island to be closed. Those calls have only amplified in recent years as violence, dangerous conditions, understaffing and self-harm skyrocketed, pushing then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to support plans to shut down the facility.

The city has continued to struggle to manage conditions under Adams as it attempts to convince a federal judge not to strip leaders of their authority over the jails. While 

At least 19 people died in the city’s custody in 2022 – the highest number of deaths since 2013. At least nine people died in 2023 and three have died so far this year.

All this comes as it looks increasingly unlikely that New York City officials will shutter  Rikers Island by the legally mandated August 2027 deadline.

Pointing to the fact that capacity at the replacement jails is much less than the current Rikers population, New York City Mayor Eric Adams has repeatedly cast doubt on the plan. The capacity of the four borough-based jails intended to replace Rikers Island has grown to 4,160 from the initial 3,300 beds, but even that still falls far short of the roughly 6,300 people incarcerated in New York City jails as of March.

The city has also made little progress so far in building the four facilities. Costs to build the borough-based jails have ballooned over the past year and documents associated with the Queens and Bronx facilities show that construction may not be completed until 2031.

Here is a brief timeline tracking the ongoing effort to close the jails complex, what steps have been taken so far and how movement has steadily built for a federal takeover. This article was last updated on July 10.

August 2014

The U.S. Justice Department released a report after an investigation of Rikers Island found “a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates.” The department learned there was a “deep-seated culture of violence” that was pervasive among adolescent youth and that staffers frequently used force “not as a last resort, but … as a means to control.”

March 2015 

Following increased calls for action, de Blasio and then-city Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte announced a 14-point plan to create a safe environment for incarcerated people at Rikers Island.

November 2015

Then-New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced his support to close Rikers Island.

February 2016 

In her State of the City address, then-New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called for reforms to reduce the incarcerated population at Rikers Island and, ultimately, to shut down the island. Mark-Viverito’s call for the island’s closure gained support from then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, while de Blasio shot down the proposal.

March 2017

De Blasio pledged to shut down Rikers Island alongside Mark-Viverito in an announcement at City Hall.

April 2017

An independent commission led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman released an in-depth report pitching borough-based jails. 

June 2017

De Blasio released a roadmap for the jail complex’s closure, including safety protocols, reduced capacity and reduced isolation for inmates.

February 2018

Alongside then-New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, de Blasio announced four borough-based jails in every borough except Staten Island to replace Rikers Island and introduce a fairer and smaller criminal justice system.

October 2019 

De Blasio and Johnson agreed to close the jail complex by 2026 and open four new jails at a total cost of $8.7 billion. A week later, the City Council approved the deal.

August 2020

Gothamist acquired planning documents that showed delays would stretch the closing of Rikers Island well into 2027.

October 2020

The city officially delayed the plan to close Rikers Island and build new jails until 2027.

November 2020

New York City Department of Correction officials announced the city would shut down the Manhattan Detention Complex, commonly known as “The Tombs,” in Lower Manhattan and the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island.

June 2021

The New York City Board of Correction approved new rules aimed at reducing the use of solitary confinement in city jails. The rules require incarcerated people in punitive segregation to spend at least 10 hours outside of their cells a day and limit the length of stay in the most restrictive tier of punitive segregation to 15 days in most cases. Advocates said the rules fell short of de Blasio’s promise to completely ban the practice.

September 2021

New York City Congressional Democrats called on President Joe Biden to launch a civil rights investigation into the humanitarian crisis at Rikers. 

October 2021

Then-mayoral candidate Eric Adams expressed support for closing Rikers Island, telling NY1 he believes it should be closed and replaced with borough-based jails. “Yes, I do,” he said when asked by anchor Errol Louis if he agreed with the plan promised by de Blasio. “And I believe we need to change the ecosystem of our incarceration system.”

October 2021

Gov. Kathy Hochul and de Blasio announced that nearly all women and trans individuals incarcerated at Rikers Island would be transferred to state custody, amid safety and staffing concerns.

December 2021

Advocates and community leaders expressed concern that Adams’ plans for Rikers Island are unclear. He had said repeatedly that he supports closing the island jail complex, but his comments on how the city would go about that – and whether borough-based jails would be a part of his plan – were “intentionally ambiguous,” Tracie Gardner of the Legal Action Center told Politico.

December 2021

William Brown was found dead at the Anna M. Cross Center, marking the 16th death at Rikers Island in 2021 – more fatalities than the last two years combined and the most since 2016.

December 2021

Adams appointed Louis Molina, chief of the Las Vegas Department of Public Safety, to lead New York City’s jail system as commissioner of the Department of Correction.

January 2022

Hundreds of incarcerated people staged a days-long hunger strike in protest of abhorrent conditions at the island jail complex, including a lack of heat and hot water in some units, inconsistent medical care, rampant fighting, and issues with security and sanitation.

April 2022

More than 8,400 people missed medical appointments in city jails in February alone, according to city data released in April. That’s up from 1,600 missed appointments in January 2022, what advocates called “further proof that DOC remains unwilling to protect the health and safety of the New Yorkers in its custody,” the Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services and Milbank law firm said in a statement “We once again call on the courts, prosecutors, and elected officials to use every avenue to effect immediate decarceration.”

June 2022

A federal judge approved the city’s plan to make long-sought changes on Rikers Island, essentially eliminating the threat of a federal takeover for at least the next several months. 

July 2022

The city missed its deadline for transferring unused Rikers facilities to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, as required by the Renewable Rikers Act of 2021, The City reported. “We are not in a position to transfer (the Otis Bantum Correctional Center) to DCAS. Population estimates that were made under the prior administration, that we would only have only 4,000 or less people in custody, have not not borne out,” Molina said in a statement to the outlet.

August 2022

Michael Nieves became the 13th person to die on Rikers Island in 2022 in a suspected suicide, The New York Times reported. A Department of Correction captain and two guards were suspended for allegedly watching him bleed for 10 minutes after he slit his throat with a razor, The Times wrote, citing sources familiar with the incident. 

September 2022

Adams expressed doubt that Rikers Island could close by the 2027 deadline set during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure, because, Adams said, the jail was full of violent criminals who couldn’t safely be let out.

Later in the month, three men died either while they were held in city custody or shortly after being released. Kevin Bryan, 35, was suspected to have died by suicide on Sept. 14 and Gregory Acevedo died nearly a week later after jumping into the East River from a recreation yard on the roof of a barge. Elmore Robert Pondexter died at a hospital a few days later after he’d complained to family members that he was having chest pain and trouble breathing. The Daily News reported that Molina appeared to have told staff to grant Pondexter compassionate release shortly before his death in order to keep him off the Department of Correction’s growing list of people who’d died in city custody. 

October 2022

Erick Tavira, 28, was suspected to have died by suicide and Gilberto Garcia died from a suspected overdose about a week apart. The federal monitor that’s investigated New York City jails since 2015 issued its latest report, which found they remain “dangerously unsafe” and “trapped in a state of persistent dysfunction,” with “a few glimmers of progress,” according to Gothamist. That progress largely came in the form of fewer fights and assaults on guards and the fact that staff are replacing broken cell doors.

November 2022

The Board of Correction issued a report analyzing nine of the recent deaths in city jails  the night before the Nov. 17 court hearing, which found each individual had missed medical appointments leading up to their death.

A Manhattan federal judge ruled against a request from detainees’ lawyers to strip New York City’s control of Rikers Island and transfer it to federal oversight, siding with city leaders who’ve argued that doing so would be premature. Attorneys from the Legal Aid Society and several others representing incarcerated people had filed a brief in hopes of holding the city in contempt of a court decree issued in 2015 to improve New York city jails. The judge’s decision struck a major blow to the hopes of criminal justice advocates and elected officials who’ve long urged the courts to appoint a third-party federal receiver to oversee the system. The decision will be revisited in April.

December 2022

Edgardo Mejias, 39, became the 19th person to die in city jails and hospitals in 2022, officially bringing the death rate to the highest it's been in at least 12 years. While the correction department provided few details about how he died, sources told the Daily News he likely died of a drug overdose.

A few days later at an oversight hearing, Molina told members of the City Council that Rikers Island’s population is growing at a rate that indicates that, without changes, the number of people incarcerated will exceed 7,000 in less than two years. He said this is likely to prove problematic as there will be more than 3,300 people incarcerated there in 2027 – the number the complex is legally required to be at in order to close as mandated. 

February 2023

Marvin Pines, a 65-year-old man, was the first person to die in city custody in 2023 on Feb. 4. According to a report from the Board of Correction later in the month, several correction staffers were suspended following Pines’ death, with the Board finding that Pines had been sick in a bathroom, where he was later found unresponsive, for more than an hour without an officer checking on him, and that officers had failed to properly tour his housing unit.

March 2023

In her State of the City address, New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams carved out time to renew the council’s commitment to shutting down Rikers by 2027. It’s a goal that Adams’ late mother, a former correction officer, called a long time coming. “When I asked my mother what she thought about closing Rikers when we held a Council hearing a couple of years ago – I still had her with me – she said to me, ‘Baby, we should have closed that place a long time ago,’” Adams recalled at the March 8 speech.

But with less than five years to go before that deadline, there are new reasons to doubt that it will happen on time. According to a public notice posted in mid March and first identified by the the Daily News, a proposed city contract to build a new jail in Brooklyn – one of four borough based-jails meant to replace Rikers – wouldn’t finish until 2029, two years after the 2027 deadline to close Rikers. A mayoral spokesperson attributed the 2029 completion date to supply chain delays and construction costs.

April 2023

Manuel Hernandez, the head of the city correction department’s investigation division,  resigned in wake of questions about how he handled probes into excessive force cases, the Daily News reported April 2. According to sources, Hernandez opted to close several extreme use-of-force cases instead of charging the offending officers or after he filed lighter, reduced charges. 

May 2023

On May 29, federal monitor Steve Martin filed a special report that highlighted five “serious and disturbing incidents” involving incarcerated people who’d been harmed over a two-week period. The report slammed Molina and his team for suppressing information about the incidents, questioning whether they are “capable of managing such serious incidents.” One of the incidents involved an individual named Rubu Zhao, 52, who died May 16 after suffering a skull fracture from an apparent fall, according to the Times.  Another was Joshua Valles who died at Elmhurst Hospital on May 27. While the Correction Department said Valles died of a suspected heart attack and it wasn’t a “use of force case,” the monitor said it couldn’t independently verify the claim due to a lack of information.

The Daily News reported that Molina urged the federal monitor not to release the report because it would “cause great harm to the department when we are making great strides.”

June 2023

Swain, the federal judge tasked with deciding whether to appoint a federal receiver, said that recent reports raise profound questions about the city’s ability to protect incarcerated people and correction department staff. While she said during a hearing that she’s not ready to hear arguments on the matter yet, she said her faith is significantly shaken, signaling that she may be open to considering a federal takeover. 

July 2023

Four incarcerated men died throughout July: William Johnstone, Ricky Howell, Felix Taveras, and Curtis Davis. According to the Daily News, four Rikers Island staffers were suspended in wake of Tavaras’ death, believed to be caused by a drug overdose – two of whom were correction officers accused of failing to act quickly enough to save him.

In a significant shift that could persuade Swain to strip the city of its power over Rikers Island, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams called for a federal receiver to assume control of city jails on July 17.

A day after William’s remarks, Swain wrote that the Adams administration had failed to “address the dangerous conditions that perpetually plague the jails and imperil those who are confined and who work there.” While her words don’t necessarily prove she will end up appointing a receiver, it suggests it could be likely in the months ahead. 

August 2023

While momentum for a federal receiver continued to build in the first few weeks of August, the jail complex gained a handful of defenders: members of the New York City Council’s Common Sense Caucus who went on a tour of the complex Aug. 8. The group’s positive remarks about observed conditions – “freshly painted walls,” air conditioning, “working locks” and programming geared toward young adults – garnered a wave of pushback. 

A few days later, Swain began the process of potentially stripping the city of its control  during a key Aug. 10 hearing. Amid Martin’s arguments that pointed to “real, abject harm” happening every day at Rikers, Swain said “transformative change” is needed if the city is to maintain its stewardship.

On Aug. 22, Donny Ubiera died in his cell on Rikers Island, becoming the eighth person to die in DOC custody this year. The department reported that Ubiera received immediate medical care after being found unconscious, but two people detained in the same unit on Rikers told City & State that correction officers didn’t respond to Ubiera’s calls for assistance in the hours before his death.

With four years left before a 2027 deadline, the Adams administration has again suggested there’s a need to revisit the plan to close Rikers Island and replace it with four smaller borough-based jails. In a conversation at New York Law School on Aug. 29, Adams suggested that the City Council needs to revisit the plan it approved in 2019, in part because of Rikers’ growing population and the smaller capacity of the borough-based jails.

October 2023

A new report from the federal monitor slammed the city and Department of Correction’s attempts at reform, pointing to the 74 fights, 23 suicide attempts, 15 fires, 34 assaults on staff, and one sexual harrassment allegation that occurred in city jails over a one week period. Martin’s report – his 10th evaluating operations at Rikers Island – said that conditions have only worsened and accused Molina and his staff of trying to hide multiple assaults.

A few hours after the report was filed, 27-year-old Manish Kunwar was found unresponsive in his cell on Oct. 5, becoming the ninth person to die in the jail system this year. 

On Oct. 31, Adams announced that Molina would be receiving a “promotion,” leaving his post as the head of the city jail system to become the “new assistant deputy mayor for public safety.” 

November 2023

The federal government formally joined efforts to appoint a federal receiver on Nov. 17 when Williams wrote in a court filing that an outside authority was the only solution to the violence that has consistently plagued Rikers Island. In the filing submitted to Swain, he cited how staff “use force against incarcerated people at an extraordinarily high rate”and a “a pattern of unnecessary force.” 

December 2023

While state Attorney General Letitia James has long raised concerns about conditions at Rikers, her office publicly voiced its support for a federal takeover for the first time in early December. In a letter to Swain dated Dec. 1, James’ office pointed to the string of recent deaths and said that it sees receivership as the “way forward for the good of all the people who live and work in the NYC jails.” Swain also issued a contempt order against the city and the Department of Correction for failing to cooperate with the federal monitor on Dec. 14.

On Dec. 8, Adams appointed Lynelle Maginley-Liddie as the new Department of Correction commissioner, making her the second Black woman to ever hold the position. Maginley-Liddie, who most recently served as the department’s first deputy commissioner and chief diversity officer, touted her “strong working relationship” with the monitoring team and said she would focus on restoration and investment in a safe environment in city jails.

On Dec. 15, the second iteration of the independent Rikers commission unveiled its 41 members as it prepares an updated plan to close the embattled jails complex.

January 2024

Chima Williams, 43, died in custody Jan. 4 after collapsing after playing basketball on Jan. 4, becoming the first person to die in city jails this year. A few weeks later, 30-year-old Manuel Luna was found unresponsive in his cell on Jan. 19. A cause of death was not immediately released.

February 2024

Citing progress on tracking excessive force cases at Rikers, Swain lifted a contempt order against the city and the Department of Correction on Feb. 27, saying the department has followed her directive to bolster cooperation and communication with the federal monitor. The decision, which came just a few months after Maginley-Liddie’s appointment, was an important step in aiding the city’s efforts to avert a potential receivership.

According to documents provided to Gothamist, the city plans to house hundreds more detainees than initially planned at  New York City’s borough-based jails. The jails in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens will each have 1,040 beds, bringing the total capacity to 4,160 people. Still, with roughly 6,000 people currently incarcerated at Rikers, the plan would still fall short of the current population. City officials did not explain how they would reduce the city’s incarcerated population or whether they would add additional space to the jails.

March 2024

During a March 4 preliminary budget hearing, Jiha told council members that the borough-based jails won’t be ready to replace Rikers by the August 2027 deadline.

On March 19, the city and the Department of Correction filed its long-awaited response brief to the Legal Aid Society, which argued a receiver isn’t necessary to improve conditions on Rikers Island while citing improvements and pointing to Maginley-Liddie’s appointment.

On March 22, 51-year-old  Roy Savage died in Department of Correction custody at Bellevue Hospital while receiving ongoing medical care for an unspecified long-term illness. He was the third incarcerated person to die in the city this year. 

May 2024

New York City issued contracts totaling nearly $7 billion with two construction partnerships to build the new Queens and Bronx borough-based jails. Timelines for both projects placed completion in 2031 – four years after the 2027 Close Rikers deadline. 

July 2024

On July 9, Swain ordered a hearing set for Sept. 25 to determine whether the Department of Correction should be held in contempt of court failing to bring down the amount of violence in city jails. Federal prosecutors and the Legal Aid Society will present oral arguments.  The hearing’s focus is slated to be narrower than expected, focusing on a potential contempt order as opposed to a federal takeover. As a result, the long-awaited decision on whether or not a federal receiver should be appointed may be pushed to 2025.