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Rikers Island replacement plan heads to City Council for approval

Lawmakers are likely to pass the $8.7 billion borough-based jail plan

The full City Council will vote on the plan to replace Rikers Island with borough-based jails on Thursday.
Max Touhey

A key City Council committee approved the de Blasio’s administration’s plan to replace Rikers Island with four new borough-based jails, sending the proposal to its final hurdle in the lengthy review process: a full Council vote on Thursday.

Lawmakers on the Council’s land use committee voted Wednesday to pass the city’s $8.7 billion plan to erect four jails in every borough except Staten Island by 2026. The bulk of the land use applications for the project passed in a 12-4 vote, while two items connected to the proposed Bronx facility passed 11-5.

The vote comes amid a flurry of last-minute concessions by the de Blasio administration to secure Council member support. In the last week, officials have unveiled height reductions to the proposed jails, funds for criminal justice programs, and a city-backed provision by the Council that aims to permanently ban jails from Rikers Island to mollify critics.

“We believe that in securing this broad set of commitments, the Council sends a strong message that we understand our new approach must go beyond new jail buildings,” said Queens Council member Adrienne Adams, chairwoman of the landmarks and dispositions subcommittee, during a Wednesday hearing.

If passed, the proposal would also come with just shy of $470 million in funding commitments from the de Blasio administration toward “criminal justice-related programming and community-based investments,” according to Adams. Of that, $189 would go toward new expense funding, $158 million is previously allocated funds, and $122.4 million is earmarked for new capital projects, such as affordable housing and community centers, said Adams.

Lawmakers who represent the community surrounding the proposed jails—Margaret Chin, Stephen Levin, Diana Ayala, and Karen Koslowitz—each spoke in support of the plans at a subcommittee hearing. The Council traditionally follows the lead of local lawmakers on land use votes, but it is less certain if the full Council plan will have the necessary 26 votes to pass the controversial proposal. As of Thursday evening, the project seemed poised to pass with more than a half dozen undecided Council members unveiling their positions.

Some who are on the fence about the plan’s details have said they are reluctantly voting for the proposal with the greater goal of ensuring Rikers Island closure in mind.

“I feel this vote is necessary to close Rikers,” said Brooklyn Councilmember Mark Treyger, who was undecided until Wednesday. “Make no mistake, this plan is not sufficient to fully achieve justice for communities impacted by mass incarceration. But for me, a vote no would give credence to prevailing sentiments from just a few years ago that closing Rikers was overly idealistic and impossible.”

Others still have drawn a line in the sand over commitments they want to see from the de Blasio administration. Bronx Council member and land use committee chair Rafael Salamanca is steadfast in his belief that the Bronx jail, which is slated for an NYPD tow pound in Mott Haven, should be closer to that borough’s courts some two miles away. The city, Salamanca says, has also not clarified when precisely it expects to close the 800-bed jail barge floating off the shore of Hunts Point.

“I’ve been clear that should the mayor address my issue of the barge and should he address the issue of moving the Bronx location behind the courthouse he can sway my vote to a yes, completely,” Salamanca told reporters after Wednesday’s lad use committee vote. “That did not happen, and that’s why I voted the way I voted.”

The borough-based jails face continued scrutiny from prison abolitionist group No New Jails, which has racked up some prominent supporters such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Organizers with the grassroots group continue to call on the city to divetr the plan’s $8.7 billion price tag to new housing, and mental health programs. Meanwhile, criminal justice advocates and those formerly incarcerated on Rikers have maintained their push for lawmakers to approve the plan during Thursday’s final vote.

“City Council, if you’re not on the right side of history after October 17, we will not forget,” said Vidal Guzman, an organizer with Just Leadership USA and a former Rikers detainee, at a rally ahead of Wednesday’s committee vote. “We will not forget who turned their back on the people who have survived and been traumatized by Rikers.”