New York city council votes to close infamous Rikers Island jails

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York City Council voted on Thursday to close the city’s infamous Rikers Island jail complex by 2026, casting off a detention system plagued by chronic violence and decrepit facilities, as the nation rethinks mass incarceration.

The council approved an $8.7 billion legislative package to close Rikers and three other jails, replace them with four more humane facilities throughout the city, and eventually turn Rikers Island itself into a public space.

“Rikers Island is a symbol of brutality and inhumanity and it is time for us to once and for all close Rikers Island,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told colleagues before the vote.

“I don’t think I am overstating it when I say that for many of us this is one of the most significant votes of our entire career,” he said.

The 400-acre (160-hectare) island in the East River, connected by bridge to the borough of Queens, is home to nine jails with about 7,000 inmates. Most are defendants awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than one year.

Two decades ago, when the city’s crime rates were at their peak, Rikers’ population numbered more than 20,000 inmates.

In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed closing Rikers within 10 years, and in 2018 the city stopped holding inmates between the ages of 16 and 18.A U.S. Justice Department investigation in 2014 found their constitutional rights were routinely violated though inmate-on-inmate violence, virtual solitary confinement, and excessive force by guards.

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“Indeed, we find that a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers,” United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said.

A New York state Commission of Correction report in 2018 called for expediting the closure, citing a “spiraling year to year increase of violent incidents and degrading conditions facing both inmates and staff.”

Members of the mostly liberal city council said the city was trying to end a culture of mass incarceration and what critics across the United States call the “prison-industrial complex,” saying drug addicts and the mentally ill were too often wrongly punished in jail and that ethnic minorities were disproportionately locked up.

Besides Rikers, the city will also close jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, where inmates sometimes lacked heating in the winter or air conditioning in the summer.

“These facilities aren’t as famous as Rikers Island but they are equally horrific and inhumane,” Johnson said.

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Tom Brown and Clarence Fernandez