Cardinal, Religious Leaders Support Closing of Rikers Island

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Cardinal Dolan was among New York’s religious leaders speaking to support the closing of the jails on Rikers Island at a morning press conference in front of the New York County Courthouse in Lower Manhattan Sept. 19.

The New York City Council is expected to vote next month on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to construct borough-based jail facilities in Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, which would result in the closing of Rikers Island by 2026.

“God has told us Jews, us Christians and our members of Islam to bring compassion, mercy and justice for those who are incarcerated,” Cardinal Dolan said. “We are experts in the protection of human dignity and the common good of the community that we love and cherish. We happen to visit prisons like Rikers a lot. We meet with those who are incarcerated and their worried families.

“We’re bound to advocate for them. That’s why we agree that Rikers has got to go. It’s contrary to the Bible’s teaching to treat folks like this so harshly. It’s contrary to our American values of fairness, hope and justice. It’s just plain contrary to common sense to keep spending billions of dollars on a complex that not only doesn’t work but happens to worsen things.”

Jonathan Lippman, former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, chaired the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which in 2017 released a plan to reduce the jail population, creating a more humane criminal justice system and close the jails on Rikers Island by transitioning to a borough-based community justice model.

“Rikers is a stain on the soul of New York City,” Lippman said. “It is by any plan an accelerator of human misery. Whether there for three days, three weeks, three months or three years, you come out of it far far worse than when you came in.

“It is the epitome of what we call the mass incarceration model. Even across the political spectrum, everyone left to right, understands mass incarceration does not work. It cannot be fixed. You can make it a little better around the edges, but you cannot fix it. Rikers is a symbol of everything that’s wrong for the criminal justice system.”

Cardinal Dolan, chairman of the Commission of Religious Leaders of New York City (CORL), made remarks, as did the commission’s president, Rev. Dr. A.R. Bernard Sr., and vice president, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik.

Also in attendance were Auxiliary Bishop John O’Hara, episcopal vicar of southern Manhattan and Staten Island, and Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of archdiocesan Catholic Charities. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn was also present.

Following the speakers, the media was given the opportunity to ask the panel questions, and Cardinal Dolan was asked about his visits to correctional facilities.

“We have high respect for the staff at Rikers,” the cardinal said. “They’re hard working people. Some of the tough things we’ve said about Rikers, we’re talking about the place, the atmosphere, not the people who work there.

“We get into a lot of prisons. I’m always in admiration of the people who work there, their skills, their devotion, their professionalism, as I am at Rikers. What strikes me immediately when I go to Rikers is the dreariness of it, the isolation of it, the darkness of it, the scattered nature of it.

“These are things I don’t quite sense at other correctional institutions.”

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