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Rikers Island closure provokes fierce debate at planning commission hearing

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New Yorkers weighed in on the plan during a more than six hour hearing

One of eight active jails on Rikers Island.
Max Touhey

At a lengthy, and at times raucous, City Planning Commission hearing on plans to replace the infamous Rikers Island with four new borough-based jails, New Yorkers scrutinized the future of the city’s criminal justice system.

The de Blasio administration’s proposal to replace the jail complex drew dozens of detractors and supporters to the Wednesday hearing, the latest step in the months-long land use review process. The more than six hours of testimony delved into the intricacies of an undertaking that would swap Rikers for new facilities in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, in an effort to create a smaller, more humane system for detainees.

“Our current facilities are designed for a different era of corrections,” said Cynthia Brann, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections (DOC). “We are moving into modern corrections.”

That overhaul is predicated on reducing the city’s jail population from more than 7,000 to some 4,000 by 2026. That population has steadily declined for years, dropping from over 9,000 in 2017 to less than 8,000 by the end of 2018, city data shows. Most on Rikers are not convicted of a crime and are waiting for their cases to be adjudicated.

Since announcing the plan, the city has modified its concept to account for concerns over the structures’ height and density, and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice indicated that additional tweaks are feasible as it works to study whether inmates with mental health and substance abuse issues could be held at other facilities.

Would-be neighbors of the proposed detention centers called for smaller buildings, expressed fears that the jails could spur neighborhood crime, and demanded a do-over on the land use review process. Many argued that each facility must undergo a separate Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) instead of being bundled into one massive application, as they are now. City officials say doing so shaves years off the approval process, and thus, allows for a speedier closure of Rikers.

Others still, including the grass-roots group No New Jails NYC, say the city should forgo building jails altogether, arguing that those spaces will only perpetuate the brutal culture that is a hallmark of Rikers Island. At one point, protestors at the hearing erupted into chants of “no new jails,” forcing a brief recess before the marathon meeting continued.

Many speakers lauded the city’s goal to shutter Rikers, but pushed back against the new sites. One formerly incarcerated woman instead called for greater investment in supportive services and affordable housing to better help transition inmates back into society.

“This is where the money should go: to better help us, not to keep abusing us in prison and then throwing us in the street with no help,” said Rona Love, a prison reform and LGBTQ activist, who says she has struggled to find adequate mental health treatment after her recent release from some 30 years of incarceration.

But others, including those who once led the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform that pushed the city to close Rikers, say developing a new plan at this stage would prolong the suffering occurring on the Island.

“With each passing day, the need to close the Rikers jails becomes increasingly urgent,” said former Chief Judge of New York State Jonathan Lippman, who chaired the independent commission. “We have a once-in-generations opportunity to shut the door on a dark chapter in our city’s history and open a new one in which our justice system can serve not only as a beacon of fairness for New York, but for our whole country.”

Another former detainee who spent time at Rikers recalled his shock at the conditions when he was transferred there from an upstate facility so his daughter could visit him. The plan may not be a catch-all for the city’s criminal justice woes, but it’s a crucial step forward, he said.

“Such conditions were so dreadful that I could not believe the treatment of a human being by our criminal justice system,” said Marco Barrios, with criminal justice reform advocates Just Leadership USA. “I am aware that the buildings will not fix all the problems by themselves, but they can provide important progress.”