Nothing about Rikers Island is easy for Bill De Blasio.
Two months after responding to activist pressure and dropping his longstanding resistance to a shutdown of the troubled prison complex, de Blasio released the framework of a plan to do just that. But just as quickly, he seemed to pass the buck — suggesting on the Brian Lehrer show that the City Council — not his administration — should take the initiative in finding new jail sites.
“We want to have the additional jail capacity so that we can get off of Rikers. We need to see a commitment from the City Council members in the districts that have been initially proposed to specifically start the land use process to achieve it," de Blasio said during his weekly appearance on the Brian Lehrer show. De Blasio suggested that a lack of leadership from the council would kill any hope to close the facility.
It was a not-so-subtle attempt to shift some political responsibility to the Council on an issue that has long bedeviled the mayor. De Blasio spent more than a year publicly dismissing the idea of closing Rikers before switching gears in April, but it’s clear that he remains concerned about proposing new jails. More broadly, de Blasio has sought to strike a balance between pushing liberal agenda items and keeping a grip on the city’s historically low crime rates and plummeting number of arrests.
Any facility siting, including the construction of a jail, a public school or any other project requiring City Council approval, is typically first proposed by the administration.
But de Blasio, who formerly served on the City Council and is familiar with the city’s land use process, seemed to imply that council members should draw up proposals for where to site new jails — a key part of any plan to close Rikers, and one that was not outlined in his report.
"All of it is theoretical unless a council member comes forward and says ‘I’m going to support the placement of this facility and we're going to have a public process to make sure it's done the right way,’” de Blasio added.
Councilman David Greenfield, chair of the Council’s Land Use Committee, said members do not have the authority to draw up plans.
"That's just not the way it works. Council Members don't have the authority to select sites, negotiate purchase prices and enter into construction agreements,” Greenfield told POLITICO. “The city charter is clear — the administration needs to tell the Council where they want to put a city building like an office, school or a prison. Only then does the Council review begin."
The mayor’s comments also seemed to ignore recent public statements by a group of council members whose districts have been singled out for the possible construction of facilities.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said Thursday that she was reviewing de Blasio’s plan. She stressed that her colleagues had already expressed willingness to work on a plan to site new jails.
“We already have indicated our willingness to work collaboratively with the administration on the siting of jails,” Mark-Viverito told reporters during an unrelated event on the steps of City Hal. “And that fact that that wasn't included in the report, which is what I'm being told, is unfortunate, because that is a place where we really need to start and be aggressive.”
Council members Steve Levin, Margaret Chin and Karen Koslowitz have all said they are open to supporting a plan for jail facilities in their districts.
Levin, who represents parts of downtown Brooklyn where the Brooklyn Detention Complex is located, said the jail has operated in his district without any incidents. He notes that downtown Brooklyn has seen a growth of commercial and retail spaces around the neighborhood, in addition to a boom in construction, despite the jail's presence.
The proposal to site smaller jails around the city was first floated by the Lippman Commission — a panel of experts impaneled by Mark-Viverito, who first called for the jail’s closure and formed the group to study how it could be done.
In a report released in March, the commission recommended shuttering Rikers in support of smaller state of the art facilities to be constructed near each borough’s courts and civic centers.
The commission believes that putting inmates closer to courts and in their home boroughs will both significantly decrease the cost of transporting inmates to court, and also allow family members to be closer to detainees.
Before the Lippman commission released its report, de Blasio had publicly opposed any plan to close the jail, saying any effort to do so was a “noble” but impossible idea.
A steady drumbeat of activists and jail reform advocates have pressured de Blasio to support closing the jail. After a year of opposition, de Blasio announced in Aprilthat he would support a broad outline of the Lippman commission recommendations — but continued to say he would oppose building new facilities.
Asked if his position had changed on Thursday, de Blasio provided contradicting answers.
"No,” de Blasio said after being asked if he is now supporting the five borough jail plan. "We need to figure out which places, which council members are ready to come forward and work with us to get that done that's the bottom line," he added.
Councilman Rory Lancman, chair of the Council’s Court and Legal Services Committee, chided de Blasio for what he said was a lack of commitment to close the jail.
“This is a ridiculous cop-out,” Lancman said. “The mayor should take ownership of his professed commitment. ... This isn’t about the Council having cold feet, this is about the mayor having cold feet."
Gabriel Sayegh, co-founder and director of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, who has worked to bring attention to mass incarceration, said the activist community was disappointed by the mayor’s lackluster plan on Thursday.
“Reading through the mayor’s report, what it reads like is this is somebody who has been forced into doing something and now wants to do it their own way,” Sayegh said. “It’s a report that lacks [the] vision or detail found in the Lippman report which was far more acute in specificity.”
The mayor’s report, titled “Smaller, Safer, Fairer: A Roadmap To Closing Rikers Island” calls for continued efforts to decrease the city’s inmate population. It also sets aside more than $1 billion in capital funding for the Department of Correction and recommends that the city keep working to implement new strategies, including bail and court reforms, as a way to reduce the inmate population. The report calls for “bringing all existing jails, both on and off-island” to state of good repair within the next five years and renovations to existing jail facilities to address structural issues, fire safety and air conditioning.