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Rikers Island Group Skips Meetings, Jeopardizing ‘Renewable Rikers’ Timetable

The plan to transform Rikers into a green energy hub has missed two key deadlines, leading City Council members to question the mayor’s commitment.

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Like this rooftop in Gowanus, Rikers Island will also become host to a solar panel array — a much larger one — if a ‘renewable Rikers’ plan is realized.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Key elements of the legally mandated transformation of Rikers Island from a jail into a site of green energy and environmental uses appear to be on hold.

The Rikers Island Advisory Committee, a group tasked with advancing recommendations for what Rikers should become after it closes by 2027, has not convened since last summer, three members of the committee told THE CITY.

The city has also missed another benchmark in the Rikers transformation plan: transferring a closed facility to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), as the city Department of Correction is required to do by law.

The unmet deadlines have some City Council members questioning the mayor’s commitment to the Renewable Rikers plan.

“To not feel like we have a true partner with this administration, it does push the conversation about Renewable Rikers further and further down the line. That’s incredibly frustrating,” said Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), chair of the Council Committee on Criminal Justice. “For us not to try to be lockstep in how we adhere to a timeline and the legal mandate, I feel is a disservice to the work that not just the Council did, but the countless advocates who pushed for this plan and every single person who is justice-impacted.”

‘A Lot of Uncertainty’

The Renewable Rikers Act, which former Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law in 2021, sets forth a path for the nine jail facilities on Rikers Island and a barge anchored there to close by August 2027 and become a site for resiliency and sustainability efforts — including, possibly, composting, wastewater treatment and renewable energy generation.

One part of the Act mandates meetings of the advisory committee at least four times a year. But the committee only met once, in June 2022.

The City Council has yet to appoint two members to the 15-member advisory committee, though a Council spokesperson indicated the intent to do so.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and angst surrounding this,” said one member of the committee who requested anonymity to speak freely. “It’s really troubling to us. The entire purpose of the advisory committee was to advise the mayor on the future uses of Rikers.”

A City Hall spokesperson did not respond to a question about the lack of advisory committee meetings, nor did a spokesperson for DCAS, whose commissioner chairs the committee. 

Under the ‘Renewable Rikers’ plan, smokestacks — and incarcerated individuals — will be replaced by green energy facilities.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Another part of the law says the Department of Correction must turn over buildings and parcels of land not in “active use” to DCAS every six months. Though one of the nine jail buildings, the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, shuttered in June, DOC did not meet the July 1, 2022 deadline to transfer the facility, as THE CITY reported at the time. As of Feb. 3, the facility is still under the auspices of the DOC.

“We should be making steady progress wherever we possibly can. The transfer of the jails is one way to ensure that happens,” said Zachary Katznelson, executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which published a key 2017 report advocating for the closure of the jails on Rikers. 

DOC referred questions about the missed transfer deadline to City Hall. A spokesperson there said DOC conducted an evaluation and determined no land could be transferred in December, but that the agency would reevaluate the transfer this June. The Otis Bantum Correctional Center is not being actively used for housing incarcerated people, the spokesperson said. 

The law allows that “active use” may include, for instance, legal services or storage — but advocates involved in the Renewable Rikers Coalition said they wanted more transparency.

“Using a facility as ‘storage’ or another non-use allowable through the mayor’s [discretion] is a gross way to circumvent the city’s obligation under the law,” said Kyra Armstrong, a staff attorney with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a part of the coalition. The lack of transfers, she added, is “delaying the much-needed transformation of the land from a torture chamber to a renewable energy hub that will benefit communities that have historically been burdened by environmental racism.”

What’s Plan B?

The mayor has been giving mixed signals about whether he wants Rikers to close, as THE CITY reported recently. The jail population there is currently over 5,000, but needs to drop to 3,300 according to the closure plan. Still, the development of four borough-based jails being constructed to replace the Riker facilities is moving forward.

Adams in early January said that his chief counsel is “leading a small working group to see what are our steps forward and what are the plans B.”

A City Hall spokesperson declined to provide more details about who is in the working group; multiple members of the Advisory Committee said they are not involved with it.

Late last month, Adams remarked that his “plan is to fulfill the legal responsibilities that’s associated with closing Rikers,” and emphasized the “n​​eed to shift people to the care that they need to make sure that they’re receiving care and not incarceration.”

Any change in the law would require the City Council to take action, but the Council has not been involved in any conversations about a possible “Plan B.”

“The City has a binding legal obligation to close Rikers by 2027 and transition to a borough-based jail system. There is a moral obligation, given the death, violence and humanitarian crisis affecting everyone there,” said Rendy Desamours, a spokesperson for City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams. “The focus needs to be on implementing the plan to close Rikers, which requires active steps to invest in greater evidence-based programming proven to reduce recidivism and clear backlogs in our legal system.” 

Renewables for Acres

Other parts of the Renewable Rikers Act that look to the future do seem to be moving forward.

The Department of Environmental Protection began to study the feasibility of consolidating wastewater recovery facilities on Rikers last April, with the report expected to be complete in October. And the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice is examining how to place renewable energy sources and battery storage on the island as part of the city’s forthcoming long-term energy plan.

In line with the state climate law, NYC’s goal is for only resources that don’t create planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to generate the city’s electricity by 2040. Mostly fossil fuels generate the city’s electricity now, and space for building clean energy projects like solar is scarce. That’s why some see Rikers Island land as valuable.

“Over 400 acres, it presents such a huge opportunity for renewable energy siting. … We need the administration to be thinking about their resiliency goals,” said Shravanthi Kanekal, resiliency planner for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, which is part of the Renewable Rikers Coalition.

But supporters argue that realizing any plans won’t happen without the interim steps.

“While I understand the [inmate] census count is up and there have been challenges due to the pandemic, we need to be making a real tangible effort to move toward closing Rikers. Renewable Rikers cannot happen until we are on a path,” said Councilmember Sandy Nurse (D-Brooklyn), chair of Council’s sanitation committee. “We really do need the energy capacity and the vision that will come — we need that for our city to meet our environmental justice and climate goals.”

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