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New York City’s Rikers Island Jail Expected to Close by 2026

by Chad Marks

The Rikers Island jail complex, one of the largest urban lockups in the United States, will soon be closing its doors if New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has his way. Operating under a 2015 consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which found a consistent pattern of civil rights abuses at the jail, the facility’s population has shrunk to around 7,000 – one-third as many prisoners as the 21,000 housed there in 1991. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.32].

“Closing Rikers Island is a key piece of creating a smaller, safer and fairer criminal justice system in New York City,” de Blasio said.

Along with gang activity, prisoner-on-staff assaults and excessive use of force by guards – a “deep-seated culture of violence,” as described in a 2014 report by the DOJ – the jail complex’s nine facilities have steadily deteriorated. One, the George Motchan Detention Center, was shuttered in June 2018. But closing the rest of Rikers Island comes with a hefty price tag.

Even without detailed cost estimates, the city says it needs to budget $8.7 billion for a replacement plan to construct smaller, 1,150-bed jails in each of four boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, where existing detention centers are slated for renovation, and the Bronx, where a new facility is planned. The city’s fifth borough, Staten Island, has a relatively small jail population that can be housed in Brooklyn.

The smaller number of total beds – 4,600 – will also require reducing the total number of prisoners at Rikers by about 2,700, which the city claims can be accomplished though a combination of several measures that have already significantly decreased the Rikers Island population since de Blasio introduced the plan in 2016. Those measures include reducing arrests for low-level crimes, refocusing law enforcement efforts, expanding diversion programs for arrestees and fully implementing the city’s supervised release program.

“These reductions result from a paradigm shift in our approach to public safety, with New York City at the leading edge of what works,” said Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “New Yorkers are committing fewer crimes, police are arresting less often, and our courts are releasing more people, resulting in a dramatic decrease in the numbers entering the jail system – all while New York City remains the safest big city in the United States.”

Although not part of the plan to replace Rikers Island, new legislation that took effect in October 2018 has also reduced the population at the jail by requiring the transfer of 16-year-old and 17-year-old prisoners to juvenile detention centers. All 18-year-old offenders will join them as the next phase of the law goes into effect in October 2019. State bail reforms are also expected to contribute to a drop in the demand for jail beds, since most of the prisoners held at Rikers are pretrial detainees.

The new borough-based jails will have designs that feature more sunlight for prisoners and better observation by guards, plus more space for programming. Areas for pregnant prisoners and those with complicated medical needs are included in the Queens facility design. The Bronx jail includes retail space and over 200 affordable apartments – a mixed use that will require partial rezoning of the site. The New York City Council anticipates that construction will be completed in 2026. Meanwhile, opponents to the plan, including No New Jails NYC, have been mobilizing.

“This is supposed to be about rehabilitation,” said Councilman Donovan Richards, who promised not to back the plan unless meaningful changes in programming are made available to prisoners.

In the Bronx, Councilwoman Diana Ayla said she supported the current proposal. But borough president Ruben Diaz, Jr. opposed the proposed location of the new jail.

In September 2019, the Rikers replacement plan was approved by the city’s Planning Commission with the support of a group of faith leaders who said any flaws in the proposal were outweighed by the fact that Rikers Island “robs the imprisoned of their dignity, denies them justice, and deprives them of mercy.”

On October 17, 2019, the City Council voted to approve the $8.7 billion land use plan to build four new borough-based jails upon the closure of Rikers.

“Today is a day that the history books will look back on as a good day for New York City,” stated Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “This is a step forward, this is progress, this is the right thing to do.”

However, protestors at the Council meeting decried the construction of the new facilities as a continuation of mass incarceration in the city, chanting, “No new jails.” 

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Sources: correctionsone.com, nytimes.com, ny.curbed.com, amny.com, nydailynews.com, CNN