Plans to close Rikers Island and open borough-based jails underway

The City Planning Commission has begun the approvals process for a proposal to replace Rikers with smaller borough-based facilities


Lauren Cook
amNewYork, New York

NEW YORK — There are few things in this world that New Yorkers can agree on but closing Rikers Island is likely among them.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has a 10-year plan to shutter the scandal-ridden jail complex for good, and the City Planning Commission has begun the approvals process for his proposal to replace Rikers with smaller borough-based facilities.

“Closing Rikers Island is a key piece of creating a smaller, safer and fairer criminal justice system in New York City,” de Blasio said in a statement on the Roadmap to Closing Rikers website. “It is the right thing to do, but will take time, the effort of many and tough decisions along the way.”

However, the plan to build smaller jails closer to courthouses in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx is being contested by some community groups and city officials.

The Diego Beekman Mutual Housing Association has filed a lawsuit against the city to stop the jail plan in Mott Haven from moving forward. Additionally, community advocates from Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx have banded together under the coalition Boroughs United to fight the proposal.

Why is Rikers Island so bad?

Rikers Island has become well known over the years for its corruption and “deep-seated culture of violence,” as described by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014.

The issues plaguing the jail complex, which mostly houses inmates awaiting trial, became so dire that the city and Department of Correction entered a consent decree with the Department of Justice in 2015 that mandates the monitoring of inmates’ civil rights after a consistent pattern of abuse was proven.

Years later, the corruption and violence – perpetrated by both correction officers and inmates – persist.

When will Rikers Island close?

De Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island is expected to be completed in 2027, 10 years after it was announced and long after he is out of office.

The George Motchan Detention Center was the first of the complex's nine jails to close, the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice said in June 2018.

A panel led by former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman issued a report in April 2018 that suggested Rikers Island could be closed by 2024. The report cited the quick process in which locations for replacement jails were chosen; a shrinking inmate population; and new authority granted by the state to cut red tape in new jail design and construction as reasons for the three-year jump in suggested closure date.

What is the plan to close Rikers Island?

The city’s ability to shutter Rikers hinges on significantly reducing the daily jail population to 5,000.

When de Blasio first unveiled his plan to close the jail complex in 2017, the daily population was around 9,400. Through a series of citywide programs and initiatives, the average daily population has dropped to 7,865, as of March.

The mayor’s office attributes the steady decrease to several factors, including a reduction in low-level crime arrests, refocused law enforcement, the citywide Supervised Release program and expanded diversion programs.

While not technically part of the 10-year plan to close Rikers, the Raise the Age law that went into effect in October 2018, which transferred all 16- and 17-year-olds to juvenile detention centers, has also helped reduce the daily population. In October, all 18-year-olds will be moved to juvenile detention centers.

What will replace Rikers Island?

The city has proposed to open four new 1,510-bed jails in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx, which would support a total population of 5,000 while leaving room for more inmates if necessary.

Existing detention facilities in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn would be remodeled in a more modern, humane design — a model that also would be used to construct a new jail at an NYPD tow impound lot in the Bronx.

The cells where inmates are housed would be designed to bring in more sunlight, offer corrections officers better observation points and include space for programming. The Queens jail would be outfitted to handle pregnant inmates and those with more severe medical needs.

The city also proposed to include neighborhood-friendly amenities like affordable housing, ground-floor retail and community spaces in the jail designs.

The Bronx jail plan in particular includes a proposed residential building that could offer more than 200 apartments in addition to ground-floor retail space. The proposal requires a rezoning of the western portion of the site.

Where will the new jails be located?

  • 320 Concord Ave., in Mott Haven, the Bronx
  • 275 Atlantic Ave., in Downtown Brooklyn
  • 126-02 82nd Ave., in Kew Gardens, Queens
  • 125 White St., in lower Manhattan

Why isn’t Staten Island getting a new jail?

Staten Island’s comparatively small jail population — about 250, as of August 2018 — does not warrant a new facility, according to the de Blasio administration.

Inmates from Staten Island would be housed at the new Brooklyn facility instead.

Are there benefits to borough-based jails?

The de Blasio administration believes that housing inmates closer to courts and their homes will make New York City’s criminal justice system “smaller, safer and fairer.”

The jails also would be paired with on-site supportive services to help inmates get their lives back on track and reduce recidivism rates.

How much are the new jails going to cost?

The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Director Elizabeth Glazer said it is too soon to offer cost estimates for the jails, which are expected to take five to six years to design and build.

Is there any pushback from the communities where the jails are being proposed?

Since announcing the planned locations of the borough-based jails in February 2018, the de Blasio administration has come under fire for a lack of transparency in its decision-making, particularly with regard to the proposed sites in Manhattan and the Bronx.

Assemb. Yuh-Line Niou, who represents parts of lower Manhattan, chastised the de Blasio administration after it changed the site of the borough’s proposed jail from 125 White St. to 80 Centre St. without any community input. Businesses and homeowners in lower Manhattan also banded together as a coalition to oppose the proposal.

Citing unforeseen logistical challenges at 80 Centre St., the city announced on Nov. 28 that it would revert back to its original plan to house inmates at a remodeled 125 White St. Mayoral spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas said the Manhattan Detention Center on White Street "better addressed their needs without the costly challenges created by using 80 Centre."

The White Street location isn't without controversy, either. The community group Neighbors United Below Canal opposes the jail site and issued a list of demands that included a full analysis of alternatives, a scoping meeting and six additional weeks of public comment on the plans.

De Blasio met with community stakeholders on Dec. 18 to address residents' concerns. Eric Phillips, the mayor's spokesman at the time, said progress had been made in the meeting.

The proposed jail site in the Bronx has been opposed by the Mott Haven community from the outset.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., his constituents and community advocates have rallied against the proposal on several occasions, and a lawsuit filed by the Diego Beekman Mutual Housing Association seeks to stop the jail plan in its tracks.

Diaz put forth an alternative site for the Bronx jail and has repeatedly urged the de Blasio administration to halt the process.

"Rikers Island must be closed, but the city cannot ignore community input and steamroll neighborhoods through the land-use process in order to do so," he said in May.

In response to the criticism, the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice has said that the administration worked closely with lawmakers and other stakeholders in determining the locations for the jails.

Will the communities be able to weigh in on plans?

The development of the jails requires the completion of a City Environmental Quality Review, which seeks to pinpoint negative impacts the facilities might have on the environment, including traffic, pollution and tenant displacement.

The city held four public hearings – one in each borough – in September and October. There is no word yet on whether future public meetings would be scheduled.

What are the next steps

The City Planning Commission certified the land use review process for the jail locations in March, which sent the proposal to the community boards where the jails would be built. All four community boards voted against the proposal, but the decisions are advisory and doesn't not keep the plan from moving forward.

Next, the borough presidents will issue opinions in favor or against the plan, but again the decisions are advisory.

The City Planning Commission will vote after hearing from the community boards and borough presidents. If approved, the proposal would go to the City Council for a vote, which is expected to take place this summer.

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©2019 amNewYork

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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