Opponents of Plan to Close Rikers Prison Sue NYC

MANHATTAN (CN) — One of the nation’s most notorious prisons, New York’s Rikers Island, has been slated for closure by 2026, but community groups from its home borough of Queens have asked a judge to block the jail system that will replace it.

Queens Residents United and Community Preservation Coalition, both of which are based in Kew Gardens, filed their 45-page petition Tuesday in Manhattan Supreme Court.

“In the case of these ‘borough-based’ jails, in Queens and throughout the city, the government relied on fanciful assumptions, cut corners, broke rules, and short-circuited processes designed to inform city residents and give them a voice in shaping their own communities,” the petition states.

Activists erected a model of the Rikers Island jail complex outside City Hall on Sept. 5, 2019, before 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)

City spokesman Avery Cohen vowed to push ahead with the plan to shutter and replace Rikers prisons.

“Our borough-based jails plan is the culmination of years of collaboration between the city, local elected officials, and the communities they represent,” Cohen said in an email. “We will vigorously defend our work in court as we move forward with our commitment to close Rikers Island and create a justice system is that is smaller, safer, and fairer.”

Plagued by scandals and litigation, the Queens-based Rikers Island prison complex became a national symbol of civil rights abuses after a series of lawsuits and news stories about inmate rapes, beatings and deaths. Former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara described their juvenile prisons as a “Lord of the Flies” setting, before entering a class action lawsuit to clamp down on the solitary confinement of minors.

A series of related litigation — including civil lawsuits seeking reforms and criminal prosecution of killer corrections officers — sparked a movement to close the complex leading to City Hall’s historic vote to close the complex last October.

Not everybody is happy with the change.

Identifying the genesis of the plan with roadmap envisioned by New York Judge Jonathan Lippman and Mayor Bill de Blasio, the groups allege: “No matter how laudatory these goals, the strategies of ‘Smaller, Safer, Fairer’ for implementing them — and, therefore, the CEQR/ULURP for BBJS — are based only on unsupported assumptions, some of which are already proving to be incorrect.”

“Smaller, Safer, Fairer” was the title of the Lippmann commission’s report, which proposed replacement jails in four boroughs: 320 Concord Avenue, in the Bronx; 275 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn; 80 Centre Street in Manhattan; and 126-02 82nd Avenue in Queens.

Located in the same Queens neighborhood as the prospective site as the last jail, the two groups claim that city’s projections for detainee populations lacked rigor.

“As these numbers supposedly both require and enable the entire [Borough Based Jail System] project, the unreliability of these projections renders the entire project suspect,” the petition states.

Christopher Slowik with the firm Klein Slowik represents the groups. Slowik did not immediately respond to a phone call requesting comment.

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