Rikers Island Could Be Closed And Replaced With Smaller Jails Around New York City

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday that he’s developing a plan to shut down the Rikers Island jail complex, seen in 2014.

Seth Wenig/AP

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Seth Wenig/AP

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to close the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail. But even he acknowledges that the process will not be quick or easy.

“It will take many years,” de Blasio said at a news conference today at City Hall. “It will take many tough decisions along the way. But it will happen.”

There are currently about 10,000 inmates at the Rikers Island jail complex, most of them waiting for trial. Amid reports of widespread violence by inmates and guards, the push to replace Rikers has been gaining momentum.

Last year, de Blasio called that a “noble concept.” But he stopped short of endorsing the idea because of concerns about the high cost. His administration pushed to reform Rikers Island instead. Now de Blasio is throwing his support behind a plan to phase out and replace the jail over the next decade.

The pressure to close Rikers Island has been mounting since a scathing report issued by the Department of Justice in 2014 that found a “pattern and practice of excessive force” against adolescent inmates at the jail. That pressure grew after the suicide of Kalief Browder, a young man who was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder spent three years at the jail — much of that time in solitary confinement — before the charges were dropped.

“The death of Kalief Browder was a wake-up call to this city,” de Blasio said. “His death shook the whole city and opened everyone’s eyes and made people think twice.”

An expert panel that’s been studying the issue for more than a year is expected to release its recommendations on Sunday. According to a draft plan obtained by The New York Times, the panel recommends replacing the Rikers Island complex and building smaller jails in each of the city’s five boroughs, at a total cost of more than $10 billion.

De Blasio would not say where those new jail facilities might be located. Any potential locations would require approval from the city council, and would likely face significant local opposition.

“Right now, Rikers is an abomination,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, because inmates are “warehoused” on an island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, far from their families and friends. “That does not help anyone on a path to rehabilitation,” Mark-Viverito said, “so the idea of a community-based approach is laudable, I think. And it will have to lead to tough conversations and tough decisions.”

Mayor de Blasio, who is running for reelection this year, said he was reluctant to close Rikers Island until a viable replacement was in sight. But de Blasio says falling crime rates and bail reform efforts convinced him that the city jail population could be brought down to about 5000 within a decade, making the plan to replace Rikers possible.

“A year ago, we didn’t think it could be done,” de Blasio said. “It would been irresponsible for me to say we had a plan if we didn’t have a real plan. We now have a real plan.”

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Episode 762: The Fine Print

Giant stacks of paper.

Martin Mistretta/Getty Images

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Martin Mistretta/Getty Images

On today’s show: stories about what happens when you actually read the fine print.

The fine print sends a Midwestern family on a two-thousand-mile road trip to open dozens of bank accounts.

It leads to a multi-million-dollar fight over the essence of the Snuggie. (Blanket? Or robe?)

And the fine print starts a fight over printer toner that goes all the way to the Supreme Court.

Also: cold beer. Via a loophole.

Music: “Wasting Away” and “Feel It Now.” Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

Subscribe to our show on iTunes or PocketCast.

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Twitter Drops Its Egg, The Unintended Avatar Of Harassment

Sometimes you’ve gotta crack a few eggs… Twitter’s new default avatar is aggressively generic.

Twitter

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Twitter

Since 2010, the default avatar on Twitter has been an egg. The idea apparently was that a new user was like a gestating bird, soon to make its first tweet. It was designed to be playful and cute.

But over time, Twitter’s eggs came to symbolize something different: users who remain shadowy on purpose, in order to harass their fellow tweeters.

Today, Twitter announced that it was doing away with the egg as its default avatar, opting instead for a nondescript person-shaped figure. No more bright colors, either — the new avatar is all gray.

In a blog post, the company gave three reasons for the change, which it seemed to list in order of least to most important.

First, the company says, it has a new look as of last year, and it wants users’ avatars to reflect the “diversity and expressiveness” of the platform.

Second, it says, the egg was cute — too cute. The egg didn’t inspire enough people to want to change their avatar. So Twitter is making the default avatar … worse on purpose: “The new default image feels more like an empty state or placeholder and we hope it encourages people to upload images that express themselves.”

(It’s as if Twitter is giving the “flair” talk to its users: “You do want to express yourself, don’t you?”)

Since 2010, the egg has been the avatar given to new users on Twitter. But it came to be associated with anonymous harassers.

Twitter

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Twitter

Third, Twitter addresses the elephant in the virtual room: that the egg often became a symbol of harassment:

“We’ve noticed patterns of behavior with accounts that are created only to harass others – often they don’t take the time to personalize their accounts. This has created an association between the default egg profile photo and negative behavior, which isn’t fair to people who are still new to Twitter and haven’t yet personalized their profile photo.”

As anyone who has been trolled can attest, the most virulent tweets often come from people not using their real names. And many of those accounts sport the egg avatar, because when you’re creating an account for the sole purpose of harassing others anonymously, why take the time to upload a picture and risk giving clues to your identity?

One problem that the egg had obviated, Twitter’s design team explained, was that “generic person” avatars employed by social networks often look masculine. (Those generic people rarely have long hair, for starters.)

To make its new avatar more gender-neutral, Twitter explained that it gave the generic figure narrower shoulders and made the head less circle, more oblong.

Twitter says egg avatars were being associated w/harassment. Instead of working on harassment, they changed the avi.https://t.co/fj0qOX4jdIpic.twitter.com/Ddjh00m4vO

— Jill Pantozzi ♿ (@JillPantozzi) March 31, 2017

Perhaps the eggs were ready to be cracked when Twitter added functionality earlier this month to filter out tweets from accounts that had the default avatar.

The company has been under pressure to deal with the harassment that plagues certain reaches of the platform. The abuse was reportedly one of the factors that dissuaded Salesforce from buying Twitter last year.

Naturally, people used Twitter to criticize Twitter.

“Twitter says egg avatars were being associated w/harassment. Instead of working on harassment, they changed the avi,” tweeted Jill Pantozzi, a pop culture writer. “This is like, a comedy at this point.”

“We hope this new default profile photo encourages more people to express themselves on Twitter!” the company wrote in its post.

But not the trolls presumably.

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In Germany, A Syrian Refugee Is Reunited With His Family

Syrian refugee Monzer Omar, 34, was recently reunited with his family in Germany. Wife Walaa Ahmed, 26, holds 14-month-old Lossin. Omar holds Lamar (left), age 4, and Lojain, 2.

Esme Nicholson/NPR

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Esme Nicholson/NPR

Here’s an update on a story that NPR started following almost two years ago in Izmir, Turkey, a city on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. That’s where NPR’s Ari Shapiro first met a teacher from Syria — a father in his early 30s named Monzer al-Omar.

Omar had been in Izmir for a week, waiting for a phone call from a human smuggler who would put him onto a crowded raft heading for Greece. Once the call came, Omar said, he would have just five minutes to gather his belongings, run to the beach, get on a raft and go.

Over the months that followed, NPR reporters followed Omar on his journey — joining him by foot, bus and train across Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and finally to Germany, where he settled in the city of Dortmund.

Omar, originally from a village near the city of Hama, had left his pregnant wife, Walaa Ahmed, and two young daughters in Syria with his parents. He didn’t want them to risk their lives making the dangerous journey with him to Europe. But every day, he would send a voice message home to his wife, children and parents, whom he missed terribly.

“Maybe I will never see them again,” he said of his parents. But he held out hope that he’d someday see his wife and kids.

By last summer, his wife had given birth to another girl. In June, Omar, still in Germany, was among a group of refugees who met Samantha Power, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

By then, he was feeling increasingly anxious.

“Maybe my family will die. Maybe my children will die, OK? What’s the use of coming here? I came here just to help them,” he said. “What’s the use if I come here and I lose my family?”

“I think his heart is breaking,” Power told NPR.

But a few weeks ago, Omar got back in touch with NPR with some good news.

“My life completely changed,” he said.

His wife and daughters arrived in Germany in January.

First, they were smuggled overnight across the Syrian border into Turkey. Walaa Omar carried their baby, now 14 months old, during the 10-hour trek in November. Lamar, 4, and Lojain, 2, walked alongside. Once in Turkey, they registered with the German embassy, which contacted Omar.

Omar described the January day when he saw his wife and children for the first time in more than a year.

“I feel my heart will go out of my chest,” he said. “I’m waiting at the airport and I look to the people who get out from the airplane — no, not my wife, not my family.” And then, he said, “I saw my little girl, she saw me, and I run immediately to hug my daughter and I was crying with my daughter and my wife. Everyone in the airport was taking photo for us.”

Omar says that for the first five days after the reunion, he couldn’t sleep. He would wake up and look at his daughters sleeping beside him.

“I’m not dreaming,” he said. “I ask myself — I’m not dreaming. I speak with my wife. We are here together again. We are not dreaming.”

This is the end of a chapter, but not the end of Omar’s story. Omar’s wife and children only have a temporary visa. They’re hoping for permission to stay permanently in Germany.

Omar, who has been granted a three-year asylum period, is working on getting his teaching qualifications and enrolling the kids in school. His wife wants to start learning German. And the entire family is about to move into a new, bigger home, with a garden.

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Manatees Escape The Endangered List — But Maybe Too Soon

A young manatee swims at a zoo in France in 2017.

Guillaume Souvant/AFP/Getty Images

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Guillaume Souvant/AFP/Getty Images

Sure, the news from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service arrived just a little late for Manatee Appreciation Day — but it’s unlikely the gentle finned blimp will be too upset about the belated gift: The announcement that the agency is removing the West Indian manatee from the list of endangered species is welcome, no matter when it arrives.

In some ways, this moment marks nothing less than a “success story” for the giant marine mammal, which roams from the Southeastern U.S. into the Caribbean. That’s what Phil Kloer, spokesman for the agency, tells Reuters.

#WildlifeWin! Thanks to working together, increases in habitat & population, manatees are now listed as threatened. https://t.co/4FjnIN0zj6pic.twitter.com/OH3ZS8IJ4J

— US Fish and Wildlife (@USFWS) March 30, 2017

“It has been doing very well,” Kloer says. “It has been coming back.”

“While there is still more work to be done to fully recover manatee populations, particularly in the Caribbean, manatee numbers are increasing and we are actively working with partners to address threats,” the agency’s acting director, Jim Kurth, said in a statement.

The FWS says there are about 6,620 manatees in Florida waters now, the third straight year the agency has recorded numbers above 6,000. The agency attributes the comeback partly to the establishment of sanctuaries, the retrofitting of locks and levees, and regulations to reduce boater collisions.

So, great news … right?

Many conservationists argue the manatee’s reclassification from “endangered” to “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act is far from the unalloyed victory it may appear to be.

“We believe this is a devastating blow to manatees,” Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said in a statement:

“A federal reclassification at this time will seriously undermine the chances of securing the manatee’s long-term survival. With the new federal administration threatening to cut 75% of regulations, including those that protect our wildlife and air and water quality, the move to downlist manatees can only be seen as a political one.”

The organization argues that the FWS “failed to adequately consider data from 2010 to 2016, during which time manatees suffered from unprecedented mortality events linked to habitat pollution, dependence on artificial warm water sources, and record deaths from watercraft strikes.”

And GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida tweeted that the “decision to weaken manatee protections” was “HUGELY disappointing.”

.@usfws decision to weaken manatee protections HUGELY disappointing. Bad for manatee, bad for Fla. Will contact @secretaryzinke! #sayfiepic.twitter.com/ozpXXawrmS

— Rep. Vern Buchanan (@VernBuchanan) March 30, 2017

As The Washington Post points out, “the Center for Biological Diversity also opposed the federal reclassification, calling 2016 ‘the deadliest year to date’ for the animals.”

Still, the FWS emphasized that the downlisting will not have an appreciable effect on existing federal protections and that the manatee will “continue to be protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”

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