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Rikers Island closure explained: Plan to shutter the complex and open borough-based jails

Closing Rikers Island is an important part of creating a “smaller, safer and fairer” criminal justice system in New York City, de Blasio said.

Rikers Island is projected to close by 2027,

Rikers Island is projected to close by 2027, with smaller, borough-based jails replacing the massive complex. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

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 on Monday the City Planning Commission gave his borough-based jails proposal the greenlight. 

“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.”

The plan to build smaller jails closer to courthouses in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx has been contested by some community groups and city officials.

Scroll down to learn more about the problems at Rikers Island, the plan to shut it down and the proposed community-based jails.

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 persist.

A correction officer suffered a gash in his head during an attack carried out by purported gang members in August, according to DOC and Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association officials. It was the sixth assault on a correction officer over a two-week period, the union said.

Also in August, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark announced the indictments of three inmates, a correction officer and two civilians in connection with a marijuana smuggling scheme.

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.

On June 30, The George Motchan Detention Center was the first of the complex's nine jails to close, according to the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice.

Earlier this year, a panel led by former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman issued a report 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, the daily population was around 9,400. Through a series of citywide programs and initiatives, the daily population dropped over the summer to around 8,200 — the lowest level in more than 30 years, according to the de Blasio administration.

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

On Oct. 1, all 16- and 17-year-olds were removed from Rikers Island and placed in two juvenile detention centers as the state's Raise the Age law went into effect. The new law moved the age of juvenile delinquency up from 16 to 17. The age will be raised again to 18 on Oct. 18, 2019.

While not technically part of the 10-year plan to close Rikers, the transfers did help reduce the daily population at the jail complex.

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 Queens jail would be outfitted to handle pregnant inmates and those with more severe medical needs.

The cells where inmates are housed would be designed to bring in more sunlight, offer guards better observation points and include space for programming. 

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 — 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, 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. More recently, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., his constituents and community advocates rallied against the proposal on the steps of City Hall ahead of the City Planning Commission's hearing to start the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

Diaz had urged the de Blasio administration to halt the process, citing a lack of community input on the jail's location.

“No one who made the decision for us in the Bronx, lives in the borough of the Bronx,” Diaz said.

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

City Planning Commissioner Marisa Lago said impacted communities would have another chance to weigh in on the proposal during ULURP hearings. 

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

Now that the City Planning Commission has certified the land use review process for the jail locations, the proposal will go to the community boards where the jails would be located. The community boards have 60 days to hold a public hearing and issuing a non-binding decision.

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.

With Sarina Trangle, Ivan Pereira and Matthew Chayes


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