24 Feb A LOOK AT THE TUG OF WAR OVER CLOSING RIKERS
The recent brouhaha began when, at her State of the City address, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced proposals to reform Rikers and other laws to shrink its population so that it could eventually be shut down. Governor Cuomo added his support by calling her proposal “a very interesting and intriguing idea.”
Surprisingly to some, Mayor De Blasio was not enthusiastic. Citing money and new jail placement as the major difficulties, he said that it’s a “noble idea” but “The problem is, it would cost many billions of dollars, and I have to look out for what’s feasible and I have to look out for the taxpayer.” Surprising to no one, Norman Seabrook was also unenthusiastic. The head of COBA, the union which represents Corrections Officers in New York City, said with his usual rhetorical flair, “That’s not a dream. That’s a fantasy.”
Some might wonder why De Blasio, who claims to be fixing the Tale of Two Cities, is not onboard. Even his wife, Chirlane McCray, his No. 1 advisor, thinks “it’s a great idea.” It’s possible he doesn’t want his reform plan disrupted. In his proposed 2017 budget, he called for “nearly $100 million in new spending for the Correction Department, including $41.3 million for the Anti-Violence Plan he introduced last year and $58.3 million for training technology and extra staffing.” Of course, one might wonder why a large portion of that money can’t be used for closing Rikers. Especially since most plans to close Rikers include shrinking its population, and all alternatives to incarceration programs are cheaper than jail.
Almost certainly, the power struggle between Cuomo and De Blasio is a part in this story. De Blasio bristles every time Cuomo sticks his nose into city business.
Are there also back-door politics between De Blasio and Seabrook that may be influencing De Blasio’s stance? Despite Seabrook’s sniping at the Mayor, in some ways, they have a cozy relationship. Seabrook supported the Mayor’s campaign both in word – “it’s almost like Batman and Batwoman. Between de Blasio and Mrs. Clinton, let’s do what we got to do and get the caped crusaders in there and move the country forward” and in money – COBA gave the maximum allowed to De Blasio’s campaign. What is De Blasio’s side of this partnership? For the last few years of Bloomberg’s reign, COBA didn’t have contracts with the city. Now, they have a $364.7 million contract, which includes retroactive raises, that lasts through 2019. Finally, if Rikers stays open, while reforms slowly work their way into fixing the jail, Seabrook retains his seat of power. However, if the reforms are aimed at shrinking the jail population, he inherently loses the amount of people he has power over. If the much smaller amount of detained citizens of New York City are in smaller jails that are part of our neighborhood, Seabrook loses his hidden center of power in the East River.
Besides Cuomo’s anybody-but-De Blasio take on NYC politics, there may be another reason for Cuomo’s support to close Rikers. Cuomo may be betting his legacy on two big projects – replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge and overhauling LaGuardia Airport, which is, of course, right next to Rikers Island. In fact, one of the plans competing in the “Modernization and Revitalization Plan” for LaGuardia actually includes shutting down the Rikers Jail and incorporating the island into the airport.