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City mulls ways to shrink Rikers-replacing Manhattan jail

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The city aims to shrink the blueprint of the 495-foot jail proposed for Lower Manhattan

Preliminary plans for the expanded Manhattan Detention Complex in Lower Manhattan
Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice

The city is working to shrink expansion plans for a high-rise jail in Lower Manhattan and three other proposed facilities across the boroughs after a chorus of concerns that the towering jails are out of scale with the communities they reside in, according to a top official with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

As part of plans to shutter Rikers Island by 2027, the de Blasio administration initially sought to erect a jail at 80 Centre Street. But the August proposal met fierce community opposition from elected officials and local leaders who for months were told the city aimed to expand the existing Manhattan Detention Complex, commonly referred to as “The Tombs,” at 124-125 White Street.

In another stunning reversal, the de Blasio administration switched gears again in November and nixed its controversial plans for a Centre Street jail in favor of enlarging the Manhattan Detention Complex to a staggering 520 feet. The city has since reduced the height of the proposed complex to 495 feet, but says it is actively looking to condense the borough-based facilities that are intended as “conduits of culture change” for the city’s criminal justice system, according to the mayor’s office.

“The key question that we are really focused on right now is how can we reduce the size and scale of these facilities while not losing the fundamental commitment to making sure the actual programming of these are better for people in detention,” Dana Kaplan, the deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said at a recent Community Board 1 Land Use Committee meeting.

Closing Rikers is part of a broader strategy to reduce the city’s jail population to 5,000 by 2027. Last year, that population averaged around 8,200—the lowest in three decades and 12 percent less than the year prior, according to city data. The proposed facilities—one in every borough except for Staten Island—would each have some 1,500 beds, for a total of 6,000 citywide.

As a more equitable alternative to Rikers Island, each facility will feature educational programming, therapeutic services, and an emphasis on resources to help detainees transition back into society.

But those services could be reduced with the city’s efforts to slim the sites, or alternatively, the city may shrink the number of beds at each jail while working to further slash the number of detainees in the system, according to Kaplan. Each jail accounts for what is known as swing space to ensure the complexes can handle a spike it population—that is currently set for 20 percent at each jail but the city is looking into shrinking that space closer to 10 percent. That would cut 300 additional beds to some 150 per a facility, and could translate to a roughly 600 bed reduction across the city.

“So that’s an open question,” Kaplan continued at the community board meeting. “Obviously, what we don’t want to do is have issues of overcrowding or have anything that would negatively impact the experience for people in detention or staff.”

Vidal Guzman, a community organizer with criminal justice reform group Just Leadership USA, says the city must focus on addressing systemic issues such as reforming the parole system so inmates aren’t sent back to prison for minor technical violations, and ensuring that those with severe mental health and substance abuse issues are housed in medical facilities better equipped for their needs.

“A lot of people are so busy talking about the buildings rather than the people and they’re not talking about certain issues that have become the barriers that we need to speak to,” Guzman told Curbed.

At the Community Board 1 meeting, Kaplan emphasized the city’s support of legislative reform for the parole system and that it is looking into if some inmates with mental health, behavioral health, and substance abuse issues can be housed outside of the proposed borough-based jails.

Guzman, who was in detention at Rikers Island as a teenager for two years on robbery and drug charges, says it is crucial that the city not sacrifice programming at the new borough-based facilities.

“When I returned back into society I ended up being reincarcerated and I met others who were reincarcerated and everyone’s story was similar,” said Guzman. “We weren’t able to return to society in a proper way, we were traumatized, we didn’t know things like how to make a resume, how to sit for job interviews—we needed those services and those are still needed today.”

The expanded Manhattan Detention Complex is designed with detainee housing on the upper levels. Typically, the Department of Correction places 50 beds per unit but the new design aims to slash that figure dramatically, though a number of beds per unit has yet to be finalized, according to Matthew Snethen with Perkins Eastman Architects, who is consulting with the city on the facility’s design.

Inmate services, visiting, and some 20,000 square feet of yet to be determined community space will occupy the base of the structure, said Snethen.

The city plans to issue a draft environmental impact statement—an analysis of potential neighborhood impacts from the proposed jails—on March 25. Come April, the extensive Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) will kick off with community board hearings before progressing to the borough presidents’ offices, the City Planning Commission, and finally to the New York City Council for a vote.