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What You Need to Know About the Rikers Replacement Vote

Rikers Island hearing
An activist supports closing the Rikers Island jail complex during a City Council hearing, Sept. 5, 2019.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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When the City Council meets Thursday, it will cast a vote that will be both routine and transformational.

Routine, because the Council’s 51 members will simply be weighing in on land use changes proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio that will allow new jails to be built in Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, with the expectation of eventually closing Rikers Island.

Transformational, because in order to ultimately shutter Rikers, the Council will have to count on de Blasio and future mayors — as well as judges, prosecutors, parole officers and other criminal justice system players — to deliver on expectations of a historic drop in the jail population.

This week, the mayor’s office revised its projections of the city’s future inmate ranks to 3,300 people on any given day by 2026, down from more than 7,200 today. The City Hall criminal justice team says that will allow for smaller jails — and they’ve committed to lowering the height of the four planned towers, which were due to rise up to 45 floors, by about 20%.

That change addresses objections from neighbors who’ve pleaded with Council members to rethink the jails plan. It’s unlikely, though, to sway incarceration abolitionists who have loudly protested under the banner “No New Jails” — a cause that recently won the attention of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Queens/The Bronx).

Here’s a rundown of the borough jails effort so far and what could be coming next:

What is the Council voting on?

Council members will vote up or down on land use changes that will permit four new jails to be built in Chinatown in Manhattan, Mott Haven in The Bronx, Kew Gardens in Queens and Boerum Hill in Brooklyn — all on sites of existing lockups, except in The Bronx. Under an agreement between de Blasio and the Council, the Manhattan and Brooklyn buildings will reach 295 feet, while the others will sprout 195 feet.

The Council will be weighing in on only the maximum height and bulk allowed on each site, not on any specific design plans for the jails. Ahead of Thursday’s vote, two Council committees will consider the measure Wednesday.

Why the push to close Rikers Island?

Spurred by criminal justice reformers and galvanized by the 2015 suicide of former detainee Kalief Browder, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito spearheaded a study by criminal justice experts to consider options for closing Rikers Island. Retired Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman led the inquiry.

The group’s landmark 2017 report concluded “rebuilding on the Island is not an option.” Only on the eve of the study’s release did de Blasio get behind the idea of closing Rikers for good. In mid-2018, his administration released its own plan for shutting the jails on the island.

Really? Rikers is going to close? When?

That’s the goal, according to City Hall. The mayor’s office says the new jails will be completed by 2026 at a cost of $8.7 billion, but has offered no specific construction timeline.

During the buildout, inmates currently housed in Manhattan and Brooklyn’s borough facilities will be moved to Rikers, officials have said. As THE CITY previously reported, Brooklyn’s current detention facility is slated to empty in the coming months.

Rikers Jail Closing Meeting
Criminal justice reform advocates demand the closing of all jails on Rikers Island during a community board meeting in The Bronx, May 23, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Critics flat-out don’t trust the Rikers closure will happen — on time, or at all. To appease them, the Council came up with a last-minute measure to force the end of jails on Rikers: a proposal to ban incarceration on the island after Dec. 31, 2026. That measure passed a Council committee 11-2 last week and must go to the full Council for approval.

Is the jail population really going to drop so quickly?

The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) says the city jails population will fall to 3,300 by 2026. That’s down from the more than 7,200 people incarcerated today.

How will that happen? The transformation is already underway, City Hall says, following a downward trajectory of crime and arrests that are both at historic lows.

Criminal justice analysts point to a state bail reform law that will take effect on Jan. 1. The measure bars judges from holding many defendants in pretrial detention and urges courts to employ alternatives, such as supervised release programs, for all but those charged with serious violent offenses.

“Our crime and jail projections indicate that reaching a 3,300-person average daily jail population is completely feasible,” said Alacia Lauer, a MOCJ spokesperson.

Riker Island Jail
The Rikers Island jail complex.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The mayor’s office also intends to increase the number of detention beds in hospital facilities for people with serious mental illness who’ve been charged with crimes.

Still, a sizeable chunk of the city’s jail population is not under City Hall’s control. State parolees take up space in city lockups, and their numbers are growing. And despite reforms in Albany, judges will maintain discretion to hold defendants in felony cases.

But that doesn’t worry Lippman, the first architect of the roadmap to get out of Rikers. He told THE CITY Tuesday the City Hall estimates are realistic, given ongoing changes in the criminal justice world.

“Just with what has been done so far — with so many of the diversion programs, the major changes in police arrests, prosecutorial charging and now with the new legislation — this is a trajectory that is unmistakable,” he said. “This is not pie in the sky.”

Who’s against the idea?

Abolitionists: The group No New Jails has shouted down the jails plan for months, fiercely opposing the proposal at public hearings and rallies. They found an ally in Queens Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, who is running for borough president. In the final runup to Thursday’s key vote, Ocasio-Cortez came out against City Hall’s Rikers plan.

Neighbors of the proposed jails: Across the board, neighbors of what will become new jail sites have fought them, with vocal opposition and, in The Bronx, with a lawsuit that’s pending. Mott Haven neighbors say their community, struggling with ongoing crime troubles, is not a suitable home for inmates.

A chunk of the Council: By THE CITY’s count, at least 14 Council members are planning to vote no on Thursday, or are leaning that way.

Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel
Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel

Their reasons for doing so vary. Robert Holden (R-Queens) cited the large cost of abandoning Rikers. Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Brooklyn) said through a spokesperson she is leaning no because constituents in her Brownsville district do not support mayor’s plan. The spokesperson added that Ampry-Samuel believes the city is not doing enough to fund programs that could keep people out of jail and help them when they leave.

What do we still not know?

A lot. Among the unknowns are the specifics of what the new jails will look like, inside and out. Elements such as the layout of floors and visitation rooms, what type of services will be offered to inmates and where incarcerated people get exercise will be hashed out much further down the line.

It’s unclear how solitary confinement will be handled at the new jails. The Board of Correction is currently mulling changes to rules on isolating prisoners in the wake of the June death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who passed away while in solitary at Rikers.

Layleen Polanco in a photo from 2012
Layleen Polanco in a photo from 2012.

And whether the culture and atmosphere of the new jails will mark an improvement over Rikers is an open question — particularly for critics of the Department of Correction, which runs Rikers and will operate the new jails.

Even for backers of the borough-based jail plan like the Katal Center, a group involved in the #CloseRikers campaign, the lack of specifics remains a point of concern — and for further action.

“Because people will still be detained in New York City after Rikers is shut down, conditions of confinement must go hand in hand with the fight for decarceration,” the group said in a statement last week. “For people who are subject to detention, the conditions of confinement must be more humane … We have to keep pressuring city government.”

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