A contentious proposal to shutter Rikers Island and build four jails to replace the notorious Queens lockup gained a key but lukewarm endorsement Sept. 3 from the City Planning Commission.

And during a roughly 10-hour public hearing held by a City Council subcommittee two days later, nearly all of the planning panel’s caveats and questions about the plan—regarding design, site selection and cost, among others—were brought to the fore by both Council Members and residents.  

The initiative, projected to cost nearly $11 billion and to be operational by 2026, now goes to the full City Council for a vote, which is expected next month.

Controversy

The so-called borough-based jail system would establish 1,150-bed detention facilities in the south Bronx, downtown Brooklyn, lower Manhattan and Kew Gardens, Queens. Its cornerstone purpose, though, would be to close the eight jail facilities on Rikers Island, which has been plagued by violence, controversy and overcrowding for nearly the entirety of its existence. Some of the jail complex’s infrastructure, too, is badly deficient. Its location and geography also poses visitation challenges because it is off the mainland and relatively far from all city courthouses.

Both meetings, as expected, were raucous, with abolitionists and activists repeatedly trying to drown out speakers, and even each other.

But while nearly everyone who addressed the issue, including dozens of city residents at the committee meeting, agreed that closing Rikers was imperative, Council Members were frustrated by city officials’ inability to detail the plan.

“It is a little unfair for us to not have information about what the phasing will be like and what the plan will look like,” Councilman Keith Powers, the chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, said. “We don’t have clarity on which of these districts will get the facilities and in what order...I do think it’s important that the Council and us and the communities that are impacted here have some clarity on what the plan might look like” before the full Council’s vote.

But the most-pointed rebukes of the plan—and of Planning Commissioners and Council Members who said they were in favor—involved the idea of jails.

Planning Commission member David Burney, who voted to support the city’s plan, said that while he was sympathetic to those who wanted to make jails obsolete and believed that such a scenario could come to pass, “now is not the time.”

“In the meantime, we do need humane facilities to process the criminal-justice reforms that we have on hand,” he said over the shouts of activists, many of whom waved white signs and wore T-shirts emblazed “Close Rikers No New Jails” and “No Cage is Humane.”

‘Curious’ Omissions

Planning Commissioner Allan Cappelli, like many of his colleagues and Council Members, said he was wary of the plan’s so-called “design/build” model, by which a single team of architects, engineers, contractors and others would work on construction from the start.

“It would be a lot more satisfying if we were looking at an actual design as opposed as to having to guess as to what’s occurring,” Mr. Cappelli, a criminal-defense attorney, said before being interrupted by sustained shouts of “No new Jails! Close Rikers Now!” Still, he said, “the overwhelming issue for me is closing Rikers Island, closing a chapter on one of the city’s sorry institutions, creating a more modern and humane place.”

Counts on Fewer Inmates

The combined 4,600-bed facilities would mean the current jail population would have to decline significantly. The city’s average daily jail population is about 8,000.

Mayor de Blasio has for years said he wants to trim that number to 5,000. And while bail reform, diversion programs and anti-recidivism initiatives have all become politically palatable and gained traction, even the Mayor and Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill have said continued record-low crime is not a guarantee.

The president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Elias Husamudeen, categorically opposed the jail project and characterized it as a boondoggle.

“This is a land-grab, a con game,” he said of the jail project, adding that it would be completed years after current city officials, including the Mayor, had left office. “It’s a pipedream.”

He said rehabbing Rikers, for what he estimated would be one-third of the cost of the borough-based initiative, was the far-better option. “Let’s create safe jails where we have them right now,” he said during a Sept. 4 phone interview.

Safety Concerns Remain

Mr. Husamudeen said the $10.6 billion could and should be spent on addressing other, more-pressing city infrastructure problems, such as those within the city’s public housing and schools.  

“Our major concern is how safe the jails are now,” he said. Violence within the Rikers complex and other facilities was up, he said, and the proposed designs of the jails—on vertical rather than horizontal planes—could further compromise safety of both Correction Officers and inmates, he said.

“Regardless of where the jails are located, we’ll be there,” he said. “But we want the jails to be safe.’

Queens Councilman Barry S. Grodenchik, whose district is just east of where the Kew Gardens facility is planned, said at the City Council’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses hearing on Sept. 5 that while he was in favor of closing Rikers, he also had a  responsibility to taxpayers, and the paucity of design and cost details coming from city officials, including from the Department of Correction and the Department of Design and Constructionmade him uneasy.

‘Are Numbers Accurate?’

“How do I have any confidence taking this vote that these numbers are accurate?” he said, echoing remarks by several Council colleagues. “I have a great deal of difficulty with these numbers you are not able to provide...We needs answers.”

Jamie Torres-Springer, the Design and Construction Department’s First Deputy Commissioner, said the design/build approach allows for leeway, with regard to both construction and cost.

“There’s a level of design that will be advanced after this process,” he said. He also would not commit to a design timeframe.

In the end, nine commissioners voted in favor of the changes, while three opposed the plan, with Commissioner Anna Hayes Levin summing up prevailing sentiments, saying that while it was imperfect and that the Bronx site was “seriously flawed,” the jail plan was an urgent corrective and even an imperative.

‘Unanswered Questions’

“The proposed buildings are intimidating in their scale and there are many unanswered questions about how they will be designed, how they fit in their neighborhoods, and how they will be paid for,” she said, adding that the special permits land-use applications “have come far too soon.”

Still, she concluded before voting in favor, “This is just the beginning. But it’s time to begin.”


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