City Council Tackles Plan to Shutter & Replace Rikers Island

MANHATTAN (CN) – A municipal land-use hearing doubled as a highly charged referendum on the criminal-justice system Thursday as New Yorkers testified about plans to close down the notorious Rikers Island penal complex and open smaller jails in four boroughs. 

Technically, it was a hearing of the New York City Council’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses — all the trappings of a day-long snoozefest. But activists packed the City Council chambers in lower Manhattan, with a line outside of people waiting to get in. Nearly 200 members of the public signed up to testify. 

The office of Mayor Bill de Blasio, which proposed the idea of closing Rikers Island in 2017, says it wants to build four modern borough jails and shut down the Rikers complex by 2026. The nearly $9 million plan moved to the council after the City Planning Commission voted 9-3 in favor of it on Tuesday, despite a dearth of details from de Blasio’s office. The council has 50 days to act on the commission’s vote. 

Activist groups that attended proceedings this week splinter in their beliefs and ideas — for example, JustLeadershipUSA supports the four-borough jail plan — but all seemed to agree that Rikers should be closed. 

The prison has a notorious reputation: 85 percent of Rikers detainees have not been convicted of a crime, and are simply awaiting trial. Blacks and Latinos account for 90% of the inmate population.

De Blasio’s term is up in 2021. Councilmembers have term limits as well, so both opponents and supporters of the plan have expressed concern that future leaders won’t follow through.

One Brooklyn-based activist pessimistic about the city’s follow-through spoke in an interview Tuesday ahead of the commission meeting.

“Our communities who are directly impacted should not take this risk,” said Brittany Williams, 30. “We know what Rikers has done.”

Some activists say that, rather than opening for new facilities, the city should invest its money in communities. 

Thursday’s hearing, held on the first day of school, saw testimony from community leaders and at least a dozen formerly incarcerated people, as well as Jewish and Christian faith leaders who both called Rikers Island a “sin.” 

Many of the council members’ questions to the mayor’s panel, which lasted nearly four hours before public testimony began in the afternoon, focused on land-use issues like traffic flow, construction noise and mess, and cost. But the afternoon hammered home a deeper point for the day: people. 

The new plan is not just a change of address, said Councilman Mark Treyger — “it’s an entire shift on how we treat human beings.”

Proponents of the plan say it is the city’s best chance to get a handle on its criminal-justice system and on what many have said are inhumane conditions at Rikers.

Panelists from the mayor’s office cited studies that say holding detainees within their own communities, closer to family and friend connections, helps reduce recidivism rates when people are released. 

Another key factor for the new locations is proximity to courthouses in each borough, to reduce transportation costs. Currently the Department of Corrections spends $40 million per year on transportation and moves between 750 and 1000 people to another borough for a court appearance, a member of the mayor’s panel testified. 

The city has drastically brought down the number of incarcerated people on Rikers Island — more than 21,000 people in 1991 to just over 7,000 in July 2019, still above the goal of 4,000 inmates by the time the new jails open.

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