Dysfunctional, decrepit and dangerous.
That is how Zachary Katznelson, the executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, described Rikers Island jail in a recent interview.
But these long deteriorating conditions have hit a sad nadir. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an already dire staffing shortage to crisis levels, pushing the 400-acre complex into unprecedented levels of instability.
News reports detail a facility where prison gangs have overrun entire units and people detained walk around freely.
“What we see today is next level.” Katznelson told The New York Times.
“It is an inability to deliver even the basic services — something we haven’t seen in a long time, if not ever.”
As the crisis within continues, the Center for Court Innovation (an NPPJ partner) released a noteworthy report that details the early success of a city-backed early release program.
The program, known as Early Release 6A, began in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the release of nearly 300 people who had been sentenced to city jail for less than a year.
The program was modeled after a 2009 Supervised Release Program created by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. That program worked in collaboration with the state’s court system to provide an alternative to setting monetary bail as a condition to release.
More than half of the people released under the 6A program were charged with a low-level felony — possession or sale of a controlled substance or criminal possession of a firearm. The others, meanwhile, were charged with misdemeanors ranging from petit larceny, assault, or possession of a weapon.
As part of their release, they had to agree to remote check-ins daily, which included wellness checks and information about counseling services, housing, and food assistance.
CCI found the program has largely been a success.
The six months after their release (the most current data available), more than 20,000 check-ins were made. At the time, 78% had complied with the conditions of their release, and only 29 of the nearly 300 remained under supervision.
There were also 400 referrals made to community-based supportive services, the report notes, which include addressing employment and housing.
CCI will release a report next spring that details the overall effectiveness of the program.
A Roadmap to Permanent Closure
Interestingly, the Early Release 6A Program report comes at a time when CCI and the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice published a separate report on how New York City can permanently close Rikers.
That report, Closing Rikers Island: A Roadmap for Reducing Jail in New York City, provides city leaders a roadmap on how to close the jail and continue the years-long decline of the city’s jail population. Among its recommendations is reducing delays in processing cases, especially for those jailed pretrial. Doing so could reduce the jail population by as many as 550 people per day, according to the report.
The report also addresses the racial inequalities within the city’s criminal justice system and recommends policy changes that “can lastingly remake New York City’s approach to incarceration.”
The report follows a plan by de Blasio, New York City’s mayor, who vowed to close Rikers by 2027 and replace it with a series of smaller jails. It’s unclear the future of those plans — and Rikers as a whole — after de Blasio’s term ends in December.
By closing Rikers, however, the CCI and Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice report notes that New York City “will be building on decades of successful reforms that have already driven down both crime and incarceration.”