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City Council seeks to pass ‘ironclad’ provision to close Rikers Island

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The proposal must work its way through the city’s land use review process

Rikers Island, New York City’s infamous jail island.
Max Touhey

The City Council moved forward a provision Thursday that would set a hard deadline for closing Rikers Island amid mounting criticism that the city’s plan to replace the complex with four new borough-based jails is not legally binding.

The Council’s land use committee passed a resolution in a 11-2 vote that calls for a zoning map change to formally prohibit jails on Rikers Island after December 31, 2026. The deadline is meant to align with the de Blasio administration’s target date to complete four new 1,150-bed jails in every borough except Staten Island.

“By setting a date firm that is codified in law, the zoning law, we send a clear message to the public that Rikers is going to close,” said Brooklyn Councilmember Stephen Levin, whose district includes one of the proposed jails. “This is not an expansion plan this is a reduction plan.”

Thursday’s vote marks the first time the City Council has introduced a land-use proposal, according to officials with the legislative body. The unprecedented plan is seemly a response to criminal justice advocates concerns that the de Blasio administration’s borough-based jail proposal lacks a legal commitment to shutter the island’s notoriously violent and inhumane complex. City Council speaker Corey Johnson touted the vote as showing the “council’s deep commitment to moving away from the failed policies of mass incarceration.”

Skeptics of the borough-based plan fear that it could result in four new high-rise jails without a Rikers closure unless there is a legal caveat that mandates the city shutter the island regardless of the mayoral administration in office. This measure takes that step, says Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“We’re making our commitment ironclad and ensuring no future administration can reverse all the progress we’ve made,” de Blasio said in a Thursday statement.

In passing the resolution, the land use committee authorized the City Council—in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the city’s Department of Correction—to file an application for the map change with the Department of City Planning. The proposal seeks to designate the island a “public place;” this would “ensure future development on the site will be solely for the public benefit,” according to City Hall.

But some lawmakers have reservations about the resolution. Queens Councilmember Barry Grodenchik, who is in favor of shuttering Rikers, said he did not receive a copy for review until 11:30 a.m.—just before the committee meeting started—and says he’s doubtful that the city can meet its construction deadline for the new jails.

“I am concerned, given the history of construction in the city of New York, that these jails as they are proposed will be finished by the end of 2026,” Grodenchik said.

Bronx Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, on the other hand, wants the Council to include stronger language when it comes to the closure of the Vernon C. Bain jail barge that was originally pitched as temporary but has floated off of Hunts Point for nearly 30 years.

The proposed map change to Rikers will have to snake its way through the city’s months-long Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) before it will return to the City Council for a final vote. The full City Council will cast a make-or-break vote on the borough-based jails plan on October 17.