Four boroughs’ rejections of a proposal to replace Rikers Island with community jails represent setbacks to years of deliberations over what to do about the notoriously dangerous and overcrowded Rikers complex.
Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to replace Rikers Island with smaller jails in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx, in part to move prisoners closer to their homes.
But the plan is facing intense backlash from residents after community boards soundly rejected the city’s proposal.
The rejections are not fatal blows to Mr. de Blasio’s plan, but they negate years of deliberations over what to do about the notorious complex.
The plan would decrease the total number of jails in New York City to four, from 11. It would eliminate the eight jails at Rikers, expand jails in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and add new jails in the Bronx and Queens.
“While we are confident this plan enables New York City to achieve historic criminal justice reforms, we also believe it is vital that we continue working together with community members who are providing invaluable feedback to help ensure this is the best possible plan,” the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice wrote in a statement. “We are grateful for everyone participating in the land use review process and we will continue to take all input seriously as we move forward with the plan to achieve our shared goal of closing Rikers and building a smaller, fairer justice system.”
The votes came as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the first step in getting zoning clearance to build the jails.
Queens Community Board 9, Bronx Community Board 1 and Manhattan Community Board 1 voted against the jails. Members of Brooklyn Community Board 2 did not vote on the mayor’s plan, and instead rejected their own Land Use Committee’s proposal that would have approved the mayor’s plan but with conditions.
The boards expressed concern about the size of the jails, their impact on the safety of their communities and the repeated changes that the plan has undergone. Their votes are only advisory, but board members said they hoped that their input would be taken into consideration. The final say on the project rests with the City Council, which must vote to approve it, and the mayor, who must sign off on it.
“No one can convince us at this point that we shouldn’t go on fighting,” said Sylvia Hack, co-chair of Queens Community Board 9’s Land Use Committee. “The four boroughs who are involved have joined together. We have united and if the City Council wants to do what they’re going to do, then we’re going to know who they are.”
Several community members from each of the boroughs said they worried about the plan’s changing numbers.
The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice recently reduced the projected jails’ population to 4,000 inmates from 5,000 and accelerated the closing date of Rikers by a year to 2026. Some, including Michael Blake, an assemblyman and Democrat, expressed uncertainty about plausibility.
“To me that is then indicating there are adjustments that are still possible within this plan,” he said at the recent Bronx Community Board 1 vote. “If that is the case, then we truly need to understand what are the conditions of this. Let’s understand the true dynamics that are in place before we go down that road.”
Some of the community board meetings became raucous this month, with residents advocating both for changes to the borough-based jail plan and against having jails at all. Some speakers were interrupted with chants of “No new jails” from members of No New Jails NYC, an organization that favors closing Rikers but opposes the $8.7 billion community jails plan. Instead, it urges the city to invest in ways the community could help marginalized people and prevent them from having to go to jail in the first place.
Rikers, which opened in 1932, has expanded over the decades and now holds roughly 5,500 inmates in its eight facilities, which include men’s and women’s units and two hospital prison wards. (Two smaller jails in Brooklyn and Manhattan hold a total of roughly 1,200 inmates and generally have not caused a stir in the community).
Bronx residents said they worried about the construction of a jail near residential neighborhoods. The Bronx jail would be built at the site of the Mott Haven tow pound, across the street from homes on Concord Avenue. Proposed jails in Brooklyn and Manhattan would be expansions of existing jails in Boerum Hill and Lower Manhattan. The Queens jail would be constructed on a former jail site in Kew Gardens. The city has not included plans to create a jail on Staten Island because of the borough’s small percentage of jail inmates.
In Brooklyn, board members also objected to the size of the proposed expansion of the Brooklyn Detention Complex in Boerum Hill. The plan called for a height increase to 40 stories from 11 stories and the construction of a parking lot. Robert Perris, the district manager of Brooklyn Community Board 2, compared the height of the proposed building with the 22-story Brooklyn Law School dorm two blocks away.
“Local people who live near the current jail and the proposed jail site would like to see a smaller building because they think the building that the city has proposed is just too large for the existing context,” Mr. Perris said. “There’s nothing else on Atlantic Avenue—or that is part of Atlantic Avenue—that is anywhere as near 40 stories tall.”
The jail sizes proposed in the plan were simply the maximum that could be allowed, but the city could decide to make them smaller, the mayor’s office said. New laws on bail reform, discovery and speedy trial adopted in April could adjust the jail population downward, city officials said. But the new legislation will not take effect until January, leaving some doubt about the accuracy of current projections.
But several community members who have served time at Rikers urged the Bronx board to support the mayor’s plan, calling it a step forward to closing Rikers. “We need smaller, safer community-based jails operated by staff who want to help people be better for themselves, their families and their communities,” said Natasha White, a member of JustLeadershipUSA, a jail and prison reform group, who added that she has been incarcerated in Rikers 26 times for drug addiction. “Correctional officers are security and not mental health workers. We need to address our untreated mental health and substance use.”
Edwin Santana, who was jailed in 2009 on charges of illegally carrying a loaded firearm and is a leader of JustLeadershipUSA’s #CLOSERikers campaign, said the call to close Rikers came directly from those impacted, not the mayor. What they want to see, he added, was more care and support for the incarcerated.
Mr. Santana and his fellow #CLOSERikers advocates are in favor of the borough-based jails, but want, among other things, for them to be smaller than what the city is proposing and offer more social services for inmates.
“I understand the frustration of a jail and a lot of the ideas that a person might have as far as escape and congestion when it comes to traffic and things of that nature,” Mr. Santana said. “We understand that, but at the same time we’re trying to connect those who are incarcerated with the people that are trying to help them.”
Update June 20, 2019: A photo caption with this article has been corrected to indicate that the people pictured support borough-based jails so that the Rikers Island complex can be closed, They were not protesting the local jails.