There seems to be little disagreement among city officials that shuttering Rikers Island is a necessary, long-overdue step in reforming the city’s criminal justice system.
But the lack of definitive details may be holding some council members back from voicing more full-throated support of the de Blasio administration’s plan to replace the prison complex with four smaller jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
During a hearing last week before the Council’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Use — the council’s first formal review of the plan to close Rikers — members made a repeated request for a concrete timeline of the project.
Administration officials from the Department of Corrections and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice could not give specific dates for when the existing jails in the boroughs would be demolished, or when Rikers would be closed, but that the project as a whole would be complete by the end of 2026.
Council Member Keith Powers chided the administration officials testifying when they said it was not certain whether they’d have all of the specifics before the council is scheduled to vote in October.
“I just want to push you guys a little bit on this one. There are communities here that are here obviously concerned about what the plans are in their district — and I support the plan, and I want to be clear about that — but I think it’s a little unfair for us not to have the information about what the phasing will be like and what the plan will look like,” Powers said. “I do think that we, the council and the communities need to have some clarity about the impact the project will have in the coming weeks or at least by the time we vote.”
Cutting Down the Jail Population
The new facilities, according to administration officials, would be safer for detainees and provide a better quality of life by offering direct outdoor access from housing units, among other design elements aimed to improve the system. By operating facilities in each borough (except for Staten Island whose prison population is too small to warrant its own facility) the city hopes to cut down on expensive transportation of inmates to court.
Most significantly, the four new jails would house 4,000 detainees collectively, cutting down the city’s jail population from the present 7,400.
The Manhattan facility is planned for 125 White Street downtown where a detention facility currently stands. The existing building with be demolished and replaced with a high-rise jail that is planned to top out at around 40 stories.
Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents the district in which the jail will be built, brought up concerns of her constituency in regard to the height of the building as well as the demolition and construction process.
Chin expressed frustration with the location of the proposed new jail, as it would sit next to a senior living center.
“They have an outdoor garden at the senior building,” Chin said. “Will the city help build a glass enclave to keep dust out?”
Originally, Chin said, the jail was to be built at 80 Centre St., and that it would have been a superior location because it would be farther from the seniors. She asked why the location changed and how seniors would be protected during the construction process.
Administration officials explained that the original location was not able to accommodate the project, but offered no specifics in regard to the senior building.
Lastly, Chin told the administration that the building was too tall. She said it would tower over the senior building and the tenements.
“In the coming weeks, we have a lot of work to do,” she said.
Other council members spoke about the broader culture change needed to ensure these new facilities escaped the problems of violence and abuse for which Rikers has become infamous.
Council Member Inez Barron talked about how the prison system was born out of white supremacy, and made to house black and brown people. Member Mark Treyger said the focus should be on rehabilitation and closing the prison pipeline.
"Just Rearranging Where We Are"
Powers said he was concerned by the lack of discussion about these rehabilitative measures that are key to reform.
“One glaring thing here in the testimony is that we’re not necessarily proposing programmatic changes and operational changes in addition to the facilities,” Power said. “On programming, for example, we still don’t meet our mandate of five hours of programming [a day]. I think we’re going to be siting these facilities with the goal of looking towards the future, and if we’re not adding in programmatic, operational changes then this whole thing was just rearranging where we are.”
Council members from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx had concerns about the process and plans to implement the new facilities in their respective boroughs. Most notably, Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. insisted that the DOC needs to close Rikers’ annex at the barge before moving forward with the project. Additionally, he took issue with the two-mile distance between the proposed jail site and the Bronx court house, and wanted a closer location.
For Brooklyn and Queens, the height of the building and possible traffic problems were key concerns for council members.
Locals have been wary of the city’s proposed plan to build four new jails, particularly those who reside or work in the area. When the plan was up for a vote, Community Board 1 rejected the proposal.
“We have followed the progress and our position has not changed since our resolution on this,” said Community Board 1 chair Anthony Notaro.
Regardless, the measure will go before the council for a full vote in October.
"It’s a little unfair for us not to have the information about what the phasing will be like and what the plan will look like.”
Council Member Keith Powers