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City says closure of Rikers facility this summer starts shutdown of entire jail, but criticism ensues

RIKES ISLAND — Before the summer is over, one of the nine jail facilities on Rikers Island will be shut down.

That was the announcement on Tuesday from the Bill de Blasio Administration, which said that the move is the first step in a larger process of completely closing Rikers by 2027.

The announcement raised questions about the overall shutdown process, and also sparked criticism by the correction officers' union of City Hall's motives.

The facility that will be closing is the George Motchan Detention Center, or GMDC. It was built to house more than 1200 inmates, but is currently housing less than half that number, according to the New York City Department of Corrections, or DOC. Its commissioner announced at a frigid outdoor news conference in front of the GMDC on Tuesday that its days are officially numbered.

"This decision was made recently," said Commissioner Cynthia Brann. "Because of the reduction in the population" of inmates.

A lower overall rate of crime in New York City in recent years, as well as the implementation of a variety of city programs, including alternatives to incarceration for lesser crimes, has led to the population of Rikers being lower than it's been in three decades.

However, completely closing down the jail within 10 years, as Mayor Bill de Blasio has indicated he wants to do, may be easier said than done.

Rikers currently houses about 8,800 inmates — the lowest population in three decades, according to the DOC. It also reports that the total capacity for inmates in jails outside of Rikers Island is 2,300. That leaves a gap of about 6,500 inmates still in need of being housed somewhere instead of Rikers, should it close.

"Nobody's being realistic in talking about how they're actually going to shut the jails down," said Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, or COBA, the correction officers' union.

He also pointed out, in an interview with PIX11 News, that the GMDC is where an officer was attacked so brutally two years ago by inmates that he needed 26 stitches on his face and other parts of his head https://nypost.com/2015/11/06/rikers-guard-needed-26-stitches-after-inmates-slashed-him/. The union leader was downright skeptical that moving the GMDC's inmates to other buildings will increase safety for them, or correction officers.

In fact, Husamudeen said, relocating the facility's 580 inmates to other facilities on the 400-acre island will crowd cells and halls at those other facilities, making overall conditions less safe.

"We thought [the administration was] going to have a press conference to say we've figured out a way to make the jails safer," Husamudeen said. "But that's not what they're talking about."

However, Mayor de Blasio's chief administrator on criminal justice issues said that change at Rikers is well planned and well underway, including replacing the island of incarceration with new jail facilities spread throughout the city.

"We're in the process right now," said Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, "of selecting a bunch of engineers, architects and others" who will be "selecting" and "looking at sites in the different boroughs" for jail facilities, beginning in the next few weeks, Glazer said.

Because that process is still in its earliest stages, many questions remain, including what reaction local communities will have once the planners with whom the city has contracted designate locations for the new jails.