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Manhattan Jail Design Forges Ahead Even as Plan to Replace Rikers is Delayed to 2027

A visitor entrance to the Manhattan Detention Complex, April 2, 2020.
A visitor entrance to the Manhattan Detention Complex, aka The Tombs
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city officially delayed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan for opening new jails to replace Rikers Island — but the project is moving full steam ahead in Manhattan, despite a judge’s ruling barring construction.

New lockups to be built in every borough except for Staten Island are now projected to be complete in 2027, a year after City Hall’s original goal, according to an update presented Monday to the City Planning Commission.

Meanwhile, the city plans to solicit design and construction proposals this month to replace the Manhattan Detention Complex, known as The Tombs, on White Street, according to the presentation.

That move comes less than a month after a Manhattan Supreme Court judge blocked the city from proceeding with demolition or construction at the site pending a lawsuit from Chinatown locals.

The city is appealing that decision. And the Department of Correction announced on Oct. 9 it would be moving inmates from The Tombs back to Rikers Island and a facility in The Bronx in order to close the Lower Manhattan jail in November.

“The city’s commitment to closing the jails on Rikers Island has not wavered,” said B. Colby Hamilton, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice spokesperson.

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

“The updated schedule reflects the ongoing dynamics forced on the city by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added. “The completion of new, modern facilities closer to communities and families will remain within the 10-year time frame established by Mayor Bill de Blasio.”

He added that the impact of the updated schedule on the $8.7 billion price tag of the borough-based jail project remains “under review.”

The City’s ‘Puzzling’ Move

Jan Lee, a co-founder of Neighbors United Below Canal, which brought the lawsuit challenging the review process for the new jail in Lower Manhattan, said the city’s choice to close The Tombs now is “very concerning.”

“The city, in a really puzzling way, is sneaking people back to the place where, universally, everyone has agreed that this is a horrible place,” he said of Rikers.

In its design presentation to the planning commission on Monday, the city painted a picture of a future jail light years from the notorious reputation of Rikers Island.

Officials described a facility that aims to provide a “calming and dignified atmosphere” with natural light, “non-institutional materials,” single cells for privacy and outdoor space for a garden and plants.

The Manhattan Detention Complex, known as “The Tombs,” where a former detainee alleged a correction officer used inappropriate force.
It’s unclear whether the end is near for The Tombs.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The presentation also touted a car-free arcade on White Street that would be “active, inviting, and hospitable to pedestrians” as well as a “welcoming and prominent visitor’s entrance.”

Lee got a glimpse of the new jail design and a chance to weigh in during a community meeting held by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice last week — but said the feedback opportunity amounted to “grade school-level” multiple choice questions on various design options.

“We had accumulated some really detailed questions that we were hoping we were going to be able to discuss,” he said.

While Lee and his group want to see the jail plan stopped and brought back to the drawing board for more environmental review, supporters decried the delay revealed by the city on Monday.

‘Things Can Change’

Jonathan Lippman, the former state chief judge who chaired the independent commission that pushed the city to create new jails to replace Rikers Island, called the timeline change “unacceptable.”

“The events of 2020 – from the pandemic to the economic crisis to a sharpened focus on racial equity – have made the need to shut down institutions of racial injustice like Rikers more, not less urgent,” he said in a statement Monday.

One aspect of the plan to remove jails from Rikers Island is still moving forward, however. On Tuesday, the planning commission will consider a City Council measure approved in October 2019 to ban incarceration facilities on the island after Dec. 31, 2026.

The bill has the support of the Council, Speaker Corey Johson and the mayor. But even with that, Lee doubts there is “the same vigor” among city officials to push forward with the promise to close Rikers Island and build four new jails than there was in the past.

“In this City Council, 34 of those people will not be here in the next City Council,” he said, referring to the huge turnover expected in the 2021 election, due to term limits. “So, things can change.”

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