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City lawmakers question vague roadmap for $8.7B plan to replace Rikers Island

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“We have to get these answers and we have to get these commitments before we recommend,” said one Councilmember

Under the city’s plan, the 11 jails on Rikers Island would be replaced with four new facilities across the boroughs.
Max Touhey

The City Council’s only hearing on a multi-billion dollar plan to replace Rikers Island with four new borough-based jails left lawmakers with more questions than answers as officials shared few new details on the contested proposal.

Frustrated councilmembers pressed the de Blasio administration for concrete timelines, budget details, and commitments to shrink the size of the new jails during a marathon Thursday meeting. The hearing kicked off the final phase of the land use review process for the plan that aims to replace Rikers with a new 1,150-bed jail in every borough (except Staten Island) by 2026.

Although many city lawmakers have expressed support for shuttering the infamous prison complex, most were hard-pressed to lend enthusiastic support to the plan while so many components are up in the air. The city is still solidifying a schedule to close the 11 crumbling jails on Rikers and to open the quad of new lockups that will eventually replace the island. Budget projections remain at a staggering $8.7 billion, even though the amount of detainees the city expects to house recently shrunk from 6,000 to 4,000. And there is little information on how the new jails’ programming will concretely differ from the services offered to current inmates—a pivotal part of revamping the city’s criminal justice system.

“I think it’s a little unfair for us not to have information about what phasing will be like and what the plan will look like,” charged Manhattan Councilmember Keith Powers, who is the chair of the Council’s criminal justice committee. “We’re here at a land use hearing to talk about this and we don’t have clarity on which of these districts will get the facilities in what order.”

When asked if the city will have a phasing schedule for the old and new jails before the full City Council votes on the plan, Jamie Torres Springer, a deputy commissioner for the Department of Design and Construction, admitted, “I’m not sure that we will in full.” This is mostly because, as Springer noted, the new jails would be erected using design-build, in which design and construction services are contracted by a single entity for a more integrated approach.

“It is true that because we’re using design-build, there’s a level of design that will be advanced after this process, and so we’re thinking very carefully about how we put reviews in place,” said Springer. Those additional “reviews” include a design advisory group that will incorporate input from the City Council and the borough presidents’ offices.

Among those concerns is the proposed density of the new jails, which has emerged as a central concern for lawmakers whose districts are slated for those buildings. Lower Manhattan Councilmember Margaret Chin, whose district is set to receive a 450-foot building—the tallest of the jails—emphasized that height is a “big problem” for her and the neighboring Chinatown community. Councilmember Karen Koslowitz, who represents Kew Gardens, railed against the 27-story jail in her area as “absolutely, absolutely, absolutely unacceptable to me,” she said. Tensions have also simmered in Brooklyn where the new building would climb to roughly 395 feet, more than twice the height of the current Brooklyn House of Detention.

But no site has, arguably, caused more agita than the new structure planned for the South Bronx, which would not neighbor the borough’s court system for speedy access, unlike the other three facilities. Diana Ayla, the local Councilmember, has signaled that she supports the current proposal, but Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and community advocates have fiercely opposed the Mott Haven location, even filing a lawsuit against the city over the review process for the proposed jail.

Complicating matters is the borough’s history with the Vernon C. Bain Center, a jail barge that has floated off of Hunts Point since 1992. The 100-cell barge has operated for nearly three decades despite being billed as a temporary facility. South Bronx Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, who represents the region, slammed the city for being unable to commit to a firm timeline of that site’s closure and echoed concerns about the Mott Haven location.

“It’s clear the proposed location is not the right one for the community,” said Salamanca, who chairs the council’s land use committee, which could have major sway over the jail project. “Until the city acts on its long overdue promise to close the barge, the South Bronx cannot and will not accept a new jail.”

Concerns about programming took a back seat in questions raised by most lawmakers, but Rockaway Councilmember Donovan Richards stressed that “this is supposed to be about rehabilitation” and that he would not back—and his colleagues should not back—the plan unless meaningful, explicit changes in the programming available to inmates is made in the new borough-based system.

The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) is quick to acknowledge that if the proposal does clear the major hurdle that is the uniform land use review procedure (ULURP) with a green-light from the City Council, this is merely one of many more steps to come as officials stitch together a cohesive vision for the four facilities.

“Our proposed jails reflect a future that we have begun to sketch with many partners,” Elizabeth Glazer, the director of MOCJ, testified during Thursday’s hearing. “[We are taking] a vital step forward on a path towards creating the safest and most humane justice system possible.”