MANHATTAN (CN) - The New York City Council voted Thursday to pass historic legislation that will close the notorious Rikers Island jail complex by 2026 and authorize the construction of four new borough-based jails.
At a press conference before the vote in City Hall, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson championed the body’s work on the plan as muted chants of protesters seeped through the closed windows.
“We are closing a penal colony in the East River which symbolizes inhumanity and brutality,” he said. “We cannot solve all of the problems in today’s vote … but we are doing something very, very significant here today.”
Thursday’s bill passage was expected, according to the Brooklyn Eagle, which confirmed 26 yes votes in the moments before the stated meeting began, a majority in the 51-member council.
The votes took place in packed and lively chambers at City Hall. Members voted on separate bundles of legislation, but the collection of measures to build new jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens passed 36-13, and the Bronx jail plan passed 35-14.
The new facilities, with less capacity than the city’s 11 current jails, are intended to force lower incarceration numbers in the city, which has already begun decarceration efforts. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office announced this week that the 2026 projected jail population is just 3,300. In 2014, the jail population was 11,000; today it’s about 7,000.
The city also announced it has committed $391 million in community investments as part of the plan.
The most controversial pieces of legislation are the plans to build the new skyscraper jails, which are expected to range from 19 to 29 stories tall. The city says they will put incarcerated people closer to their families and communities, improve and humanize their conditions, and lower costs.
It has received pushback both from self-described abolitionist activists like No New Jails, which says it’s merely an expansion plan and a promise to jail people long into New York’s future. Neighborhood NIMBYs fear construction hazards and worry the new structures are too tall or won’t fit into their communities, though several of the sites already house detention centers.
Seemingly in response to calls for codifying the closure of Rikers Island, the council introduced a workaround last week: It will apply to the City Planning Commission for a map change, designating Rikers Island as a public place and adding a use restriction that would prohibit the land from being used to incarcerate people after December 31, 2026.
Other supplementary legislation Thursday included bills to establish a reinvestment commission, a demand for reports on the progress of closing Rikers, and a new bill of rights for incarcerated people.
Even the council members who voted yes acknowledged they could not predict the future, and that the plan wasn’t perfect. But it was a crucial start and their best chance to close Rikers, they said, and only the beginning of a long process.
“This is the hardest vote I have taken in my entire career,” longtime Queens representative Karen Koslowitz said at the press conference. “But you know what? I go to sleep at night and I sleep very well.”
The vote was interrupted a little before 5 p.m. by protesters who unfurled a banner, screamed “No new jails!” and threw leaflets from the balcony before being escorted out by security.
Council members who voted no on the plan said they felt it didn’t go far enough to address the mass incarceration crisis.
The existing borough jails are old and “irredeemable,” said Johnson on multiple occasions Thursday, and cannot simply be renovated. Rikers, too, is a stain on the city, he said, adding he had recently visited solitary confinement cells there.
“It was like a bad horror movie,” he said. “It is sick and unacceptable.”
Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman with epilepsy, died in solitary confinement at Rikers in June.
Over the last few weeks, several council members have discussed the personal and emotional connections they have to incarceration in the city. Yesterday in a related land use hearing, Adrienne Adams said she had a son go through the system -- and that she was raised by her single mother, a corrections officer at Rikers Island.
When Adams told her mother the council was working on a plan to close the complex, the matriarch said, “Baby, they should have closed it a long time ago.”
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