Statement from Vera on Today’s City Council Vote to Begin Closing Rikers Island

NEW YORK, NY – On October 17, New York’s City Council, in a historic vote, approved the construction of four new jails to replace the decrepit, decaying facilities that currently exist in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan—a critical first step in the decades-long battle to close Rikers Island. Driven by demands from advocates, reformers, and communities, the Council also approved a legal mandate ensuring that no jails will exist on Rikers after 2026, along with significant investments in community-based services and alternatives to incarceration.

“New York City has faced the decision to close Rikers Island twice before in recent history—once in the 1970s and again in the mid-2000s—but both times the plan succumbed to opposition and a failure of imagination to believe that we can truly have a justice system that is smaller, safer, and fairer for all New Yorkers,” said Nick Turner, President and Director of the Vera Institute of Justice. “Today marks a turning point, not only in the trajectory of criminal justice reform in New York City, but also in our vision of what is possible. We applaud the political courage of the City Council for rejecting the status quo and instead taking a bold step forward.”

“But the hard work is not over”, added Insha Rahman, Vera’s Director of Strategy & New Initiatives. “As important and historic as today’s vote is, it is just the beginning. We must continue to make significant investments in the resources, services, and programs that shrink the footprint of the criminal justice system, deliver true public safety, reckon with deeply rooted racism and bias, and help our neighborhoods thrive. The new jails must be built in a way that prioritizes the well-being of those incarcerated and ensures that the only loss they suffer is that of their freedom, not their safety or humanity.”

New York City has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build new facilities that defy our typical image of jails. Instead, the new jails can be built in a way that, over time as we build up communities and rely on incarceration less, can be repurposed for some other use—as community centers, office space, and more. Moreover, a radically different physical layout and footprint can inspire the kind of culture change—to relationships, programming, and services—that has long eluded New York City’s jails. Inspired by visits to systems in Europe rooted in human dignity, Vera has been working in New York and elsewhere to establish a new vision of justice and incarceration, and will continue to work with the Mayor and the City Council to make good on closing Rikers Island, transforming New York City’s criminal justice system, and truly closing the door on mass incarceration once and for all.

Read more about the path to close Rikers on Vera’s blog: https://www.vera.org/blog/closing-rikers-island