‘I’ve always been upset’: de Blasio tours Rikers Island, touts progress, points fingers of blame

A jail on Rikers Island.
Photo Dean Moses

Five years after his last visit, Mayor Bill de Blasio finally set foot on Rikers Island on Monday, Sept. 27 — touring the troubled correctional facility amid a public outcry over inhumane conditions for inmates and corrections officers alike.

While providing generalities about his previous promises to address the situation in the short-term, de Blasio said that Rikers Island has always made him “upset” over its deplorable conditions — but touted that finally moving forward with closing the jail by 2026 was the be-all, end-all solution to the crisis.

“This place is a place that should no longer be a jail in general,” de Blasio said, adding, “I was upset when I took office. I was upset four years ago. I remain upset. This is a place that should have been shut down a long, long time ago.”

More than a dozen inmates have died at Rikers Island this year alone. Protest groups and elected officials have demanded changes in recent weeks, with some breaking down in tears after touring the facility over what they witnessed — including an attempted suicide.

No reporters were permitted to accompany the mayor on his tour of the jails Monday afternoon, though he addressed the media at a press conference afterward crammed within a tiny office. De Blasio said he didn’t speak with any inmates, and declined to provide many specifics about what he saw.

The mayor visited two main sites, the Eric M. Taylor Center and the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, and he shared that there were a lot of “improvements that needed to be made.”

At the press conference after his tour, which he made sure to stress that it was a check-up on progress, de Blasio shifted the blame to various factors that have contributed to the crumbling 85 year-old facility, including the COVID-19 pandemic, corrections officers calling in sick, the deteriorating infrastructure, among other scapegoats.

“The union has exacerbated this crisis. The union has acted in an incredibly irresponsible manner. Today was about the work we have to do,” the mayor said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio addressing the media after his tour of Rikers Island on Sept. 27, 2021. Photo Dean Moses

“Here is the bottom line: We got a lot of changes we have to make and what I came here to see was the work that is being done to immediately address the problems,” de Blasio added, listing the issues that need to be immediately addressed.

The mayor also states that his overall goal is to shut Rikers Island down, which he asserts has been something he has always planned since he was first elected.

De Blasio, who became visibly agitated over the course of the briefing, said this process started with reducing the prison population to well under 5,000 incarcerated individuals at present, while also increasing support to healthcare teams and speeding up the intake process.

“Fewer inmates, faster intake, a better, more secure healthcare situation, and getting back to work the folks who have not been working,” he said, adding that those corrections officers who have not returned to work will be suspended.

DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi thanked the mayor for his support over the past few weeks to address the “upsetting” conditions at the facilities.

“Things have demonstrably improved. I still think that we have a lot of work to do and we are going to do that work, but triples are down, sick leaves are down, AWOLs are down, the population is down and now every living unit has programming available to them in units. We can’t get them all out to rec because we still don’t have enough staff to take them out to recreation,” Schiraldi said.

Officers outside a Rikers Island facility. Photo Dean Moses

Both Schiraldi and de Blasio stated that the biggest issue was solving staff coming to work, which has been addressed by suspending those who are AWOL or have not returned. Also, he shared that intake was once 24 hours and has been improved to 10 hours.

Following the press conference, COBA president Benny Boscio stopped the press in their tracks outside the facility and denounced the mayor, claiming he did not truly see Rikers but instead was given a “sugar-coated” version.

COBA president Benny Boscio. Photo Dean Moses

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