Jail plan: So what’s new?

Proposals to replace Rikers with smaller borough sites have been rejected before

  • Signs at the sometimes-raucous June 11 forum that Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer hosted at Pace University. Photo: Stuart Marques

  • At the June 11 meeting at Pace University. Photo: Stuart Marques

  • A rendering of the new jail the city plans to build at 124-125 White Street in Lower Manhattan, currently the site of the Manhattan Detention Complex. Image: Perkins Eastman

  • Chinatown residents at a Sept. 12, 2018 meeting at P.S. 124 voiced their opposition to a plan to build a 1,510-bed jail at 80 Centre Street. Photo: Michael Garofalo

“We live two blocks from here. It’s crazy to spend $11 billion for new jails. For $11 billion, they could fix every NYCHA apartment.”

Neighborhood resident Lauren Gee, of the proposed White Street jail

If you think the city’s plan to get rid of Rikers Island and replace it with smaller community jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx and Queens — and the pitched battle against it — feels like déjà vu, you’re not hallucinating.

Back in 1978, the Koch administration hatched a plan to lease Rikers to the state for $200 million for a state prison and use the money to defray the costs of building borough jails. Many of the arguments were the same as today’s — that Rikers was dangerous, violent and inhumane.

An October 1979 report called the Rikers Island Working Project — one of many documents about the plan housed in the Municipal Archives — said Rikers, originally built in 1932, was decrepit. It estimated the city’s capital costs for the smaller jails at $351 million.

Hearings were held, at which Herb Sturz, then the city’s criminal justice coordinator, said the lease deal would allow the city to make a “fresh start” in building a modern jail system. Then-Corrections Commissioner Ben Ward testified that the smaller jails would be easier to control. But opposition from criminal justice activists, corrections officers and residents kiboshed the plan.

Fast forward to today and the city’s new plan to shutter Rikers and replace it with four smaller jails, which critics say would cost $11 billion. (The city says it’s too early to put a definitive price tag on it).

One of those new ones would be a 40-story jail at 125 White Street, hard on the edge of Chinatown. There have been several community meetings about that plan, the latest of which was a sometimes-raucous June 11 forum that Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer hosted at Pace University.

A Cut in Population

Speakers in the crowd of about 200 ranged from mostly Chinatown residents who said the building was “fatally flawed” and out of character with the neighborhood to criminal reform advocates and “abolitionists” who want to shut Rikers and not build any new jails.

One caveat of the new plan is that the city slashes the Rikers population from the current approximately 8,000 to 5,000. Dana Kaplan, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Matters, told the crowd that several factors, like the reduced crime rate and elimination of cash bail for misdemeanors, would lower the population to closer to 4,000 by the time the new jails are finished in 2026.

Kaplan said the White Street jail would be “fairer, safer, and more efficient,” and that the city was “committed to not displacing anyone at the nearby Chung Pak apartments,” an 88-unit low-income senior housing building at 96 Baxter St.

Three Manhattan community boards have rejected the proposal and at least two in the outer boroughs have done the same. A Bronx community board has sued to try to stop the plan, which is winding its way through a long approval process that will culminate in votes in the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

Patricia Tsai, of the Ling Sing Association on Mott St., said the city has not adequately measured impacts of such “mammoth construction projects,” and she accused officials of demonizing opponents of the plan which, she said, amounts to just “shuffling detainees around” and putting four mini-Rikers Islands across the city.

Neighborhood resident Lauren Gee called the proposed White Street jail “a monstrous high-rise building,” that doesn’t belong near Chinatown. “It’s easy to be for a big new jail if you don’t live here,” she said. “We live two blocks from here. It’s crazy to spend $11 billion for new jails. For $11 billion, they could fix every NYCHA apartment.”

Opposition from “Abolitionists”

Jonathan Hollander, who lives on White Street, said the proposed new jail “is not what New York City needs.” He said it would too close to Columbus Park at Mulberry and Baxter Streets, “where people do tai chi in the morning and where children play in the afternoons.”

Many of the speakers were criminal reform advocates and “abolitionists,” who said Rikers should close and not be replaced because jails symbolize “the mass incarceration ... that targets black and brown people.”

King Downing, a lawyer and founder of the Human Rights Justice Center, said “I am an abolitionist. Shut Rikers and don’t build any new jails.” He and other speakers noted the death of inmate Layleen Polcano, whose lifeless body was found in her cell on June 7.

After the forum, Nancy Kong of Neighbors United Bellow Canal, told Our Town the plan was “fatally flawed and ill-conceived” and would destroy Chinatown’s character.

Noting the city’s failed attempt to get rid of Rikers some 40 years ago, she said she hopes community opposition will once again “be able to successfully fight this ... It’s just such a bad idea.”

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