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NYC’s plan to close Rikers and build new borough-based jails takes crucial step forward

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The City Planning Commission approved plans to replace Rikers with new jails

One of eight jails on the infamous prison isle in the East River, Rikers Island.
Max Touhey

The de Blasio administration’s plan to shutter Rikers Island and replace it with four new borough-based jails by 2026 gained critical support from the City Planning Commission (CPC) at a raucous Tuesday hearing. The panel’s 9-to-3 approval moves the contested proposal into the last leg of the city’s land use review process, where the City Council will evaluate the effort.

Under the multi-billion dollar plan, a new 1,150-bed jail would rise in every borough except Staten Island. The goal is to shrink the city’s jail population from some 7,400 to 4,000 by 2026, which the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice claims is feasible due to recent criminal justice reforms; according to that office, there has been a steady decrease of the detainee population. (The city housed some 9,000 inmates when plans to close Rikers were first announced in 2017.)

Marsia Lago, the chair of the CPC dubbed the project “among the most consequential applications” to come before the commission in recent years.

“Today’s vote is so much more than a vote on site selection and special permits; it’s a vote to end a bleak era in New York City’s criminal justice history, and a step towards critical criminal justice reform,” said Lago.

But not everyone is on board with the city’s vision. Each community board slated for a jail voted down the plan, citing concerns with the proposed locations, the overall review process, and what they say is a lack of community engagement. So too did Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who each spelled out a laundry list of issues in their comments. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams technically recommended approval, but those endorsements came with several caveats.

The commission’s vote came after a marathon six-hour July hearing where more than 100 supporters and detractors testified on the plan. During Tuesday’s vote, shouts from anti-prison advocates and concerned locals often drowned out commissioners as they expressed both support and doubts about the plan. Commissioner Orlando Marín, who was one of three who voted against the project, pointed to a lack of concrete vision for the new facilities and their programming.

“At this point we are being asked to vote on an application but have few details,” said Marín, who stressed that there are “programming thoughts that are clearly not finalized by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and contradictions that exist in the thinking and planning of physical structures.”

Others shared reservations about the location for the new Bronx facility at 745 East 141st Street in Mott Haven, on what’s currently a tow pound for the New York Police Department.

That site in particular has drawn ire from community advocates and has even spurred a lawsuit from locals because, unlike the other facilities, it will not directly neighbor the borough’s courts. Commissioner Allen Cappelli, who voted in favor of the plan, stressed his concerns with the location, but ultimately said the less-than-ideal site is necessary for a swift closure to the infamous prison island.

“The fact that it’s so far from downtown Bronx takes away from part of the planning of this, which is to have people where they’re going to be going in,” said Cappelli. “Having said that. The overwhelming issue for me is closing Rikers Island. Closing a chapter on one of the city’s sorry institutions.”

Bronx Borough President Diaz has urged the de Blasio administration to instead build that jail at 900 Sheridan Avenue, where Bronx Family Court is currently located and next door to the Bronx Hall of Justice. But Dana Kaplan, the deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, says that the city has looked into the site but that its footprint is too small to meet the facility’s needs.

“It is unfortunate that the City Planning Commission has declined to listen to the serious concerns of the people of my borough, and has instead chosen to move forward with a plan to close Rikers Island that builds a new jail in the wrong place,” Diaz said in a statement. “It is now up to the City Council and its members to listen to the people of this borough and adjust this proposal accordingly.”

Now that the plan has earned CPC approval, the City Council has 50 days to evaluate the details before its own make-or-break vote. A Council hearing on the plan is scheduled for Thursday. The four City Council members who represent the neighborhoods where the jails will rise have each come out in tentative support of the proposal. Typically, the full City Council votes in line with the local elected officials.

In the meantime, the Department of Design and Construction, along with an interagency team, are laying the groundwork to develop the new jails and have brought on consultants Hill Engineering and Aecom to aid in the planning for the new facilities. A process that would work to answer many lingering questions about the design of the jails, the programming that will be offered there, and the buildings’ promised community spaces.

But more pressing concerns persist, including over the lack of legally binding mechanism to ensure Rikers will close when Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves office and of how the plan could change if the city’s jail population cannot be slimmed to 4,000 detainees. Regardless, de Blasio touted the CPC approval as a pivotal moment in the evolution of the city’s criminal justice system in a Tuesday statement.

“We are one step closer to closing Rikers Island and creating a smaller, safer, fairer jail system,” said Mayor de Blasio. “That’s one step closer to bringing people back to their communities and families, one step closer to ending the cycle of recidivism and one step closer to ending mass incarceration once and for all.”