As Mayor Bill de Blasio welcomed guests for a private re-election fundraiser in Park Slope Monday night, a group of uninvited visitors gathered outside to give them an earful about the problems at the Rikers Island jail.
“We usually have 300 to 1,000 people at our marches. This is a smaller more intimate group of our 50 to 60 most passionate supporters who can engage the most important influencers to get the mayor to listen to the issues,” said Glen E. Martin, head of an organization demanding that the jail complex be shut down.
“The majority of the people don’t belong at Rikers,” he told Metro.
Eighty percent of people at Rikers are being detained awaiting trial because they were unable to make bail at arraignment, he noted, citing figures from a 2014 report made by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. And 90 percent of those detained at Rikers are black and Latino — despite making up only 56 percent of the city’s population. Another 40 percent have diagnosed mental conditions.
The mayor and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have taken measures to reduce the suffering at Rikers and reform dysfunction in the criminal justice system. Martin acknowledged that the mayor’s move to take 16 and 17 year olds off the island, and the decision not to build a new jail on the island, were steps in the right direction. But the activists maintain that he is “not living up to the rhetoric of being a progressive leader.”
The #CLOSErikers campaign advocates sending detainees to local, safer borough jails instead of housing them in the decaying facility where each inmate costs up to $208,000 in taxpayer money to house each year. (On an average day there are approximately 8,000 people detained at Rikers).
“[de Blasio] has said publicly it’s too expensive, too difficult, and that the advocates don’t realize how complicated it is to close RIkers,” said Martin, who served a year in the jail. He pointed out that Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Comptroller Scott Stringer are among lawmakers who have expressed support for closing the jail.
The mayor, who has invested $500 million in criminal justice reforms, is not disputing the advocates’ reasoning and he’s still considering the viability of closing Rikers, said Natalie Grybauskas, a de Blasio spokesperson.
“Creating a culture of safety in our jails is our top priority," she said. "While the city continues to examine whether Rikers Island’s closure is feasible and to work with Lippman's Commission, our focus today remains on reform of the correctional system that will make our jails safer now.”
The protesters were emboldened by Cuomo’s pronouncements about criminal justice reform made earlier on Monday at his first State of the State address.
In his speech the governor said he will “honor the promise of a speedy trial because Rikers Island is an insult to Lady Justice.”
Also included in Cuomo's criminal justice reform package: reforms to the bail system in which judges will set bail based on both risk to the public and financial ability, and raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18. He also proposes that police interrogations for serious crimes be recorded and that the rights of indigent defendants to free legal representation be extended.
“We wholeheartedly agree with the governor that the institution is an embarrassment to Lady Justice,” Martin and Gabriel Sayegh, co-founders of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice wrote in a joint statement. "It is critical that reforms account for addressing and reducing racial disparities and ensuring we repair the harm caused by mass incarceration and institutional racism in the criminal justice system.”