City Jails Won’t Turn Over Shuttered Rikers Building on Path to Green Island
New York’s plan to shut down Rikers includes a mandate to flip all unused jail buildings back to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. But the Department of Correction isn’t giving up a facility it just closed, despite a looming deadline.
A deadline is quickly approaching for the Department of Corrections to turn over unused buildings on Rikers Island to city administrators as part of the plan to close the notorious jail complex and transform it into a green energy hub.
But while the DOC on Friday indicated it would “immediately” close a housing unit on Rikers, THE CITY has learned it does not plan to give the Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC) over to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services by July 1, as required under the Renewable Rikers Act of 2021.
A representative from the Adams administration revealed the impasse during a Tuesday meeting of the Rikers Island Advisory Committee (RIAC) — a 15-member body tasked with advancing recommendations for what Rikers should become when it’s no longer a jail — four people on the committee told THE CITY.
“The fact that they’re closing a facility and refusing to transfer it is really concerning,” said Melissa Iachan, a member of the committee and an environmental justice lawyer. “Delays are inexcusable. The intention behind Renewable Rikers is to ensure Rikers does close. It is uninhabitable. It is a human rights violation in its very existence. We know the conditions of the facilities are abhorrent.”
The RIAC was originally supposed to convene in August 2021 but only met for the first time on Tuesday.
The news of DOC keeping the housing facility in its custody came as the seventh and eighth detainees at or transferred from Rikers to die this year — spurring ever louder calls for it to be shut down. Advocates for the Renewable Rikers Act say it’s even more important now to stick to the plan to address the crisis at Rikers and the wider climate crisis.
Last week, a U.S. District Court judge gave the city five months to improve conditions at Rikers — including addressing mass staff absenteeism and violent attacks on detainees and officers — or face a federal takeover, known as “receivership.”
“You’re almost on a probationary period now with the feds around the receivership being installed — that coupled with another death on Rikers Island, it’s clear some new thinking has to happen, some things have to change, and it has to move far quicker than it’s being proposed,” said advisory committee member Andre Ward, an associate vice president of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that supports formerly incarcerated people.
Asked at a press conference Wednesday why the DOC would not be transferring the housing facility, Commissioner Louis Molina cited the fluctuating jail population.
“We are not in a position to transfer OBCC to DCAS. Population estimates that were made under the prior administration, that we would only have only 4,000 or less people in custody, have not not borne out,” Molina said. “We have had an average daily population of approximately 5,500 people. Today our census is a little over 5,600 so it would not be logical for us to have a facility and transfer it over to DCAS when there is a possibility that in the future, we may need that capacity.”
‘The Next Six Months Will Reveal A Lot’
The Renewable Rikers Act, which former Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law early last year, envisions Rikers Island as a hub for renewable energy infrastructure — such as from solar and wind power — once the jail complex closes in 2027.
The closure rests on the construction of four jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, and Queens — a now-five-year plan that the current administration recently said is on schedule.
The Act consists of three pieces of legislation: one that mandated transfers of Rikers buildings and land from DOC to DCAS by 2027; one to study the creation of a wastewater treatment facility on the island; and one to assess what types of electricity generation could be constructed there.
Under the first bill, any parts of the island not being used by incarcerated people must go from DOC custody to DCAS, occurring every six months between July 2021 and the end of August 2027 — by which time DCAS should control all parts of the island, none of which would be used for detention.
Under the de Blasio administration, DOC transferred the James A. Thomas Center, a 1,200-bed jail, to DCAS in July 2021, as well as 43 acres of unused land in December.
But the next transfer deadline is July 1, and although the DOC is shutting down the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, there are no plans to transfer it to administrative services.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Eric Adams’ representative said that DOC has not identified any further land or buildings not “in active use” and indicated that DOC anticipated the jail population might actually rise this summer, four members of the Rikers Island Advisory Committee who were present told THE CITY.
With a larger population and the possibility of COVID variants requiring people to distance, DOC might need OBCC to house incarcerated people in the future, officials argued.
But Ward countered a possible future uptick in the jail population shouldn’t justify a delay in transferring the property, an action that’s supposed to prevent any reopenings.
“It’s really concerning because then what happens in a case when we’re on track to close Rikers by 2027, but there’s an increase in the population? It’s very problematic since the sole criteria for transfer is inactive use for persons in the custody of DOC,” he said. “We can’t sustain the trauma, the brutality, the inhumanity that a place like Rikers Island is. Rikers is really a stain on New York City and it has to close because it’s unhealthy for the city.”
Sarita Daftary, co-director of Freedom Agenda, an organization that’s part of the coalition that pushed Renewable Rikers, agreed.
“OBCC should be transferred,” she said. “It makes sense to consolidate operations.”
The Adams administration expressed support for closing Rikers by 2027, committee members said the representative indicated during the meeting Tuesday.
“While we’re concerned about the delay on land transfers, we’re encouraged by the administration’s commitment to meet the 2027 closure deadline and the continuing progress on advancing the borough-based jails,” said Eric Goldstein, New York City environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of the committee.
“The next six months will reveal a lot, and we’ll be watching carefully,” he added.
The initial bill making up the Renewable Rikers Act not only mandated transfers, but also created the Rikers Island Advisory Committee — including six agency commissioners, two mayoral appointees and seven City Council speaker appointees — to make recommendations about possible future uses for the island.
All but two members have been appointed to the committee. Mayor Adams’ only pick, Rev. Sharon Petgrave-Cundy of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church of Vanderveer Park in Brooklyn said she is going through the approval process.
The final member would be appointed by Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, who has yet to name the person. A Council spokesperson said the body is reviewing candidates and hopes “to make an appointment in the near future.”
Petgrave-Cundy, who formerly ministered to teens and women on Rikers, declined to elaborate on what she hoped to bring to the committee until “I really get a better understanding of all of this,” but emphasized the need to offer support to people before they get to jail.
The legislation also requires New York City to conduct two studies. One is to assess the possibility of building a wastewater treatment plant on Rikers and the island’s capacity for organics processing. That effort is just getting underway: the Department of Environmental Conservation in March awarded a $2.9 million contract to Jacobs Civil Consultants to do the work, which is in part to determine whether DEP can consolidate some of its 14 wastewater resource recovery facilities and replace them with one on Rikers.
The second study requires the city to examine how to place renewable energy sources and battery storage on the island. The results are due June 30, per the law, but instead they will be rolled into the city’s long-term energy plan overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice (MOCEJ).
The office will release proposed recommendations in late 2022, with the final report expected to be complete in spring 2023, according to MOCEJ.
But any green visions for Rikers will remain a mirage on the horizon unless DOC cedes control and shuts it down, advocates warn.
“In order for Renewable Rikers to happen and to go forward with the plans of solar arrays, battery storage and wastewater treatment, you have to actually close the facilities on the island,” said Lonnie Portis, environmental policy and advocacy coordinator at the Upper Manhattan-based nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice.
“If we can go through with the plans of Renewable Rikers the way it should be, there’s a huge opportunity for us to have cleaner, greener energy production for New York City, from New York City.”