In a historic vote, the New York City Council approved a plan to replace Rikers Island with four new borough-based jails—a momentous step toward shutting down the infamous 84-year-old complex.
The $8.7 billion plan, which the de Blasio administration initially announced in 2018, is a sweeping overhaul to the city’s network of jails that aims to move away from the violence-plagued legacy of Rikers Island with four smaller, more humane jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. The new facilities will eventually house 3,300 people, nearly half of the city’s current detainee population, and is expected to culminate in the 2026 closure of the 400-acre island and the 800-bed Vernon C. Bain jail barge floating off the coast of the south Bronx.
“We are closing a penal colony in the East River, which symbolizes inhumanity and brutality,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson Thursday. “We cannot solve all the world’s problems in today’s vote. That is not possible. I wish we could. But we are doing something very, very significant here today.”
The vote came after an impassioned three-hour hearing with Council members giving testimony for and against the plan. At one point, opponents with the prison abolitionist group No New Jails interrupted the vote, shouting, “You have blood on your hands” and raining fliers onto Council members from the chamber’s balcony. In the end, the jails proposed for Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens passed 36-13. Bronx Councilmember Rafeal Salamanca, who says the Bronx jail is too far from the courts and wants an imminent closure of the jail barge, voted for the other facilities but against two land use items related to his borough’s component of the plan; the Bronx site cleared the Council 35-14.
Just hours before the vote, the city detailed $391 million in funding commitments for programs intended to reduce mass incarceration. Those dollars, of which $126 million was already budgeted, will go toward supporting restorative justice programs, community services, and housing, Council officials said. Much of that spending will be implemented over the next three years, those officials said.
The Council also approved a resolution that seeks to bar jails from Rikers by the end of 2026—the city’s target date to shutter the island complex. That resolution will have to go through its own lengthy review process before it is officially enacted.
“Today, we made history,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said after the vote. “The era of mass incarceration is over. This action today means that New York City is set on a new path.”
Queens Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, who represents the district where her borough’s jail will rise, said this was the “hardest vote” she’s made on the Council because of backlash she received from constituents. But she ultimately cast a vote in favor of the plan because an effort to close Rikers is the “humane thing to do.”
“I have been to Rikers. I have been to the Kew Gardens jail. They weren’t cells. They were cages,” said Koslowitz.
In recent days, the city slashed the size of those facilities—which is a source of ire for neighbors of the new jails—as well as a reduction of the number of incarcerated individuals those new jails will hold. The de Blasio administration’s original plan for replacing the infamous complex was based on a projection that the detainee population would be some 5,000 people by that time. Officials now claim the latest estimates—accounting for bail reforms to limit those who can be remanded, an expansion of the supervised release program, and other measures—allows the city to build facilities with some 886 beds.
But some critics say those projections are unrealistic. The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents more than 10,000 correctional officers, blasted the city’s estimates as overly ambitious. Staten Island Councilmember Steven Matteo, who voted against the plan, questioned at what cost will the city reduce the detainee population.
“This plan is not only ill conceived, ambiguous and extremely costly, it is contingent upon further reducing a jail population … it will require putting more potentially dangerous offenders back on the street, jeopardizing public safety,” Matteo said.
Thursday’s vote was proceeded by a full-court press by the de Blasio administration to hash out community investments and earn support from tentative Council members. Brooklyn Councilmember Stephen Levin, who represents the district where his borough’s jail will go up, delayed Wednesday’s land use committee vote for 90 minutes while he worked to negotiate $10 million more in funding commitments for restorative justice measures, said Council officials. But last minute changes to the jails and new funding commitments did little to sway some lawmakers.
Brooklyn Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, the chair of the Council’s immigration committee, said the plan does not go far enough to tackle the “root causes” of mass incarceration and that lawmakers must work to “build communities, not new jails.”
“I believe this vote only enriches developers in the short-term while leaving the fate of Rikers in the hands of a future Mayor and a future Council,” Menchaca said during the vote. “Yet the Mayor asks us to trust him. I do not trust the Mayor. Do you?”
Menchaca took a similar stance to No New Jails advocates, who have called for the city to divert the billions it is investing in building jails into supporting public housing, building new apartments, and funding mental health programs. Ahead of Thursday’s vote, protestors railed against the plan on the steps of City Hall, confronting Mayor Bill de Blasio as he entered the building with chants of, “No new jails.” One protestor chained himself to the gates of City Hall; the group said at least two of its members were arrested.
One advocate argued that the city’s announcement to further reduce the new jails capacity is an indicator that what the group is asking for isn’t as unfeasible as lawmakers say.
“The lower the projected jail population goes the more that proves No New Jails’ point,” said Nathan Yaffe, an immigration attorney and No New Jails member. “It’s getting closer and closer to existing capacity, and every number that the city announces is a number that they previously said wouldn’t be possible.”
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who took issue with the site proposed for that borough’s new jail, said that the de Blasio administration “has weaponized the land use process in a manner designed to steamroll any opposition to their plans to build a new Bronx jail on the wrong site—the Mott Haven tow yard.”
Diaz objected to the fact that the city did not conduct separate reviews of the four new jails, instead preferring to lump them into one uniform land use review procedure (ULURP) for expediency’s sake. Bronx residents filed a lawsuit to try and force the plan through separate review processes. That suit could be a precursor to new legal challenges the city may have to fend off as the plan moves forward.
On Thursday night, de Blasio and reform leaders took a victory lap after the vote and touted the plan as a watershed moment for the city’s criminal justice system.
Judge Jonathan Lippman, who led the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, called the vote a “historic moment” for the city, and said that “our blueprint for transforming New York City’s criminal justice system is becoming a reality.”
“By working together, we are building a justice system that can serve not only as a beacon of fairness for New York, but for our whole country,” Lippman continued.
The borough-based jail plan is not a silver bullet solution to mass incarceration, but is a key starting point on the path toward meaningful change and closing Rikers Island, said the mayor.
“We should strive for a day when we don’t need any jails,” said de Blasio during a post-vote press conference. “But this is an extraordinary step in the right direction.”