NYC Council Passes Surprise Measure to Close Rikers Jail

Activists with the group No New Jails rally in the park on Sept. 5 across from City Hall ahead of a land-use hearing on a proposal to close Rikers and replace it with four new borough jails. (Photo by AMANDA OTTAWAY/Courthouse News Service)

MANHATTAN (CN) — As the clock ticks on a deadline for the New York City Council to vote on a controversial new borough jails plan, legislators voted Thursday to pass a proposal they say would force lawmakers to shutter the notorious Rikers Island jail complex by 2026.

Though he acknowledged the still-considerable work left to do, Councilman Donovan Richards of Queens said closing down Rikers would have an impact on the criminal-justice system nationally, if not internationally.

“Today is a major step, I just have to underscore that,” said Richards at the Land Use Committee hearing where the application passed 11-2, with two abstentions. 

“We have a chance right here to send a national message: That Rikers Island, the most notorious jail in the country, is closing. Do you know how much of an impact that this has?”

The council faces an Oct. 17 vote over whether to build four new borough-based jails, part of a larger plan to decarcerate and ostensibly dismantle the notoriously hellish Rikers Island jail complex. Until today, there was no stipulation Rikers would actually close, and opponents feared the new plan was just an expansion.

“Not another person should ever have to suffer through the inhumane conditions and the culture of abuse and violence that Rikers fosters,” Brandon Holmes, New York City campaign coordinator at #CLOSErikers, said in a statement.

News of the map plan broke yesterday afternoon on NY1, and multiple members of the Land Use Committee this morning criticized the hastiness of the vote, with Councilwoman Inez Barron saying it did not leave time to consider unintended consequences. 

Queens Representative Barry Grodenchik, who said he supports closing Rikers, said he’d only seen the map change proposal for the first time about 15 minutes before Thursday’s meeting started.

The proposal would apply a use restriction to the city map so the area could not be used to incarcerate people after Dec. 31, 2026. It would also designate the land as a “public place.”

A City Hall spokesperson said the change would codify Rikers’ closure.

If the full city council approves the application, it will file a map-change application with the City Planning Commission, which voted 9-3 in a raucous hearing last month to approve the new jails plan. 

The spokesperson said City Hall found no records of the council having taken such an action before. 

The proposed map change will require a time-consuming Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. Separately, that same procedure was fast-tracked for the initial proposal, which combined all four new jail plans into one review. Opponents have criticized the speedy process and what they say is a lack of transparency from city officials. 

The review procedure can take months. City Hall did not immediately respond to questions about how this timeline would play out with the borough jails vote this month.

Councilman Andy King voted no on the proposal Thursday. 

“I don’t see how closing Rikers corrects the system,” he said. “I’d like to see that these reforms actually have a positive impact before we start putting jails in everyone’s neighborhoods.” 

Councilwoman Inez Barron voted yes — but reluctantly, she said, as she supports the closing of Rikers but not the borough-based jails plan.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Mayor Bill de Blasio agree on the map proposal, sources told NY1.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens, came out against the new jails last week on the station.

“The actual proposal on the table does not have the closure of Rikers in ink,” she said then. “There’s no timeline that is codified.”
It’s the same argument the most vocal opponents of the plan, like No New Jails, have been making. Other groups have protested the construction of new jails in their neighborhoods.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Councilman Stephen Levin said the proposal addresses shutdown concerns.

“We are giving the public an assurance that we are going to close Rikers for good,” he said.

Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz added an additional suggestion in a statement Thursday.

“As we look forward we should make sure that the name of the island is changed to make sure the island represents a new future,” she said.

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