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New York Mayor Pledges to Shutter Infamous Rikers Island Prison

Rampant violence, aging jails: The notorious Rikers Island prison complex could fade into history after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a political about-face, backed a plan Friday to close it.

AFP

Updated:April 1, 2017, 8:43 AM IST
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New York Mayor Pledges to Shutter Infamous Rikers Island Prison
File photo of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (REUTERS)

New York: Rampant violence, aging jails: The notorious Rikers Island prison complex could fade into history after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a political about-face, backed a plan Friday to close it.

"We had to do a lot of work to figure out a path that actually could achieve this goal," said Mayor Bill de Blasio as he announced the commitment, which he was previously reluctant to make.

"For a long time I have said publicly it was a noble idea but I did not see how it was attainable under the conditions we were facing," he said at a news conference.

The Democratic mayor, who is running for re-election this year, said it became clear that "we that had to adjust the time line if we were going to be honest about it -- that a decade was the minimum in which it could be done. That was the breakthrough."

For years many New York officials and legal experts have been calling for the closure of the huge complex, which shares its name with the island in the East River where it is located.

The site sits between the city's boroughs of Queens and the Bronx. The first jail there dates back to 1935.

Rikers Island is one of the best-known prisons in the United States, along with Sing Sing in New York state and San Quentin in northern California.

- Tupac and Strauss-Kahn -
Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols and the rapper Tupac Shakur have slept in its cells. So has then-managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was briefly detained in 2011 after a hotel maid accused him of attempted rape.

The lawyer for the high-flying French IMF chief asked for his transfer, pointing to the prison's bad reputation.

"For too long, Rikers Island has stood out as a symbol of injustice in our city and as a stain on our criminal justice system," said Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker of the City Council and longtime critic of the prison, at the news conference.

"Its legacy of systemic violence and abuse has been a blemish on New York City for decades," she added.

The first prison on the island dates back to 1935 and the complex now sees almost daily violence. In September, six guards were sentenced to several years imprisonment for assaulting an inmate.

And some 80 percent of the prisoners at Rikers are stuck there without a criminal conviction as they await trial.

Until now, de Blasio, who is up for re-election in November, has tried to improve its functioning by boosting staff training and limiting the use of solitary confinement.

- Falling crime -

De Blasio said that he could now envision a long-term plan for the prison closure because New York's crime rate has dropped. The number of deaths and shootings fell in 2016 to their lowest level since the early 1990s.

Detainee numbers on Rikers have effectively dipped by 18 percent since 2013, according to recent statistics, from a daily average of 11,696 prisoners to 9,756 in 2016, and 9,362 in March.

The mayor said that the decline would likely continue, with a target of reducing the number of inmates to 5,000 over the next five years.

But he acknowledged that the city cannot close Rikers without opening new, smaller prisons in New York neighborhoods.

And he said the long-term plan would require commitment from his successors.

Though public opinion polls now indicate de Blasio is well-placed to win a second four-year term in November, the idea of putting prisons in neighborhoods could raise hackles among New Yorkers.

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