The de Blasio administration’s plans to build four jails and close the Rikers Island compound were paused by the pandemic but are now on track to be completed by 2027, Department of Correction officials said this week.
Whether the borough-based jails will rise as now intended in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, however, depends on factors including that Mayor-Elect Eric Adams, while generally supportive of the plan as well as the decarceration philosophy supporting it, has expressed concerns about their footprints and locations.
Could Be Hard to Stop
But despite strong community opposition to the sites, particularly in The Bronx and Manhattan, the projects have cleared the city’s land-use process. Construction on the Queens facility in Kew Gardens has already started. With a parking lot and community space expected to be completed by this time next year, the borough-based $8.5-billion project’s symbolic cornerstone will be difficult to stop.
The expectation is that demolition and preparation contracts will have been registered for all four sites, with work to begin early next year in downtown Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn and Mott Haven in The Bronx, the DOC’s Executive Director of the Borough-Based Jail System, Sasha Ginzberg, said during a Nov. 22 Criminal Justice Committee hearing on the topic.
The request-for-proposals for the Manhattan facility is expected in December, with the three others likely shortly after that, and all four design-and-construction contracts figure to be registered in about two years, she said.
Little Input From Unions?
Ms. Ginzberg added that the DOC has been working closely with City Hall, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the city’s Office of Management and Budget, its Planning Department and others. “Completing an unprecedented $8.5-billion program by 2027 requires tremendous collaboration,” she said.
She said the department had been seeking input from community members, advocates, the formerly incarcerated, and current inmates, in workshops and otherwise. She did not mention unions, whose members are likely to be significantly affected, given that the philosophy underlying the borough-based system is alternatives to imprisonment. The new-jails model is predicated on treatment, job training and other rehabilitative programs and services. They will also easier be easier to get to for visitors and enable quicker and better access to courts. Altogether, the four facilities would have a capacity of 3,300 inmates. There were 5,444 in city jails as of Nov. 22.
Although the DOC’s First Deputy Commissioner of Programs and Training, Stanley Richards, said the department is not planning layoffs, he added that “staffing will be assessed” as the jail openings draw closer.
The president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association, Joseph Russo, said he cannot anticipate losing any of his 120 members, down from 145 just a few years ago, within the next few years.
'Skeptical It Will Happen'
“In theory, yes, it would trim the headcount, but we’re so many years from that,” he said of the new facilities. “I don’t see it going smoothly, I’m skeptical that it will happen, and certainly not any time in the near future.”
Mr. Richards, who is overseeing the borough-based initiative, said the DOC loses between 500 and 700 uniformed staffers every year, and intimated that staffing reductions would happen through attrition.
But neither he nor Marcos Soler, the Director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, had cost-savings figures on hand during the committee meeting. MOCJ officials did not respond to an email inquiry seeking those numbers.
Mr. Adams has said he supports closing Rikers Island, but has been lukewarm regarding the borough jails plan, which the City Council, after years of planning and debate, approved in October 2019.
'A Political Showpiece'
In his capacity as Brooklyn Borough President, he wrote in his recommendation on the city’s land-use application for the new jails that Rikers Island poses "a tremendous burden to families" seeking to travel there for visits. DOC facilities, he wrote, “should meet state-of-the-art spacial standards and include a wide range of support facilities that are currently lacking.” Still, he thought the footprint for Brooklyn’s planned jail was excessive and advocated for a much-smaller facility.
Mr. Russo, who said he had initial discussions with de Blasio administration officials and was in communication with the incoming Adams administration regarding the plans, remains opposed to closing the Rikers compound, and called the borough-based system “a colossal waste of taxpayer money.”
He said he was doubtful that the programming and other advertised amenities would take shape, and certainly not as they have been promoted. “It is basically like a feel-good moment, a political showpiece, and I don’t think we’re getting the bang for our buck,” he said, adding that the amenities comprising the borough-based package could be built on Rikers. “They want to make everything new and nice, they could do it on Rikers.”
Asks For Second Look
Patrick Ferraiuolo, the president of the Correction Captains Association, also questioned the borough-based plan given capacity questions. “Crime is only going up,” he said. “We’ve never been close to 3,300.”
“I’m hoping that the new administration takes a second look at this and listens to the city unions,” he said, adding that he plans on speaking with Adams administration officials “and giving my reasons for not closing Rikers Island.”
Benny Boscio Jr., the president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, said the union was never consulted regarding either the proposed closure of Rikers or the viability of the borough-based plan.
“Our position is that it’s not the location of a jail that matters it’s the polices that manage the jail that matters," he said in a statement. He blamed Mayor de Blasio's "politically-driven policies" for creating the "humanitarian crisis" that has befallen city jails. Mr. Boscio also questioned the viability of jails that can hold only 3,300 detainees, given violent-crime rates.
'Where Do Violent Go?
"Is the city planning to let out 1,200 violent felons or not going to arrest individuals who commit violent crimes and are not bailable?," he said. "Where are these violent offenders going to go? It’s simply absurd.”
Mr. Richards, who along with DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi could be replaced soon after Mr. Adams takes office, said that while plans call for Rikers’s closure within six years, there are a number of variables in play, including, crucially, the number of inmates, which jails are chosen to close, staff stabilization, and operational capacity.
“It’s a very fluid process,” he said, “but here’s what I can tell you: we are absolutely committed to closing Rikers Island and opening up the borough-based jail system in 2027.”
But he also underlined the need for correction and city officials “to be able to respond to whatever fluctuations happen with community public safety.”
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