The City Council passed a controversial $8.7 billion plan Thursday afternoon to close the jail complex on Rikers Island by 2026 and build four new borough-based jail towers in Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. The plan will ultimately reduce the overall capacity of city jails to 3,300, from the current number of around 7,000, which is in line with recent trends towards a shrinking city jail population and legislation pending at the state level that could further reduce the number of New Yorkers behind bars.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who vowed to close Rikers in 2017 after initially being reluctant to endorse the plan, celebrated Thursday’s vote as a step towards a more humane system of incarceration.
“The era of mass incarceration is over,” de Blasio told reporters at a press conference after the plan passed. “Over!”
De Blasio added, “If, God forbid, somebody makes a mistake and ends up in our justice system, we want it to be a one-time occurrence. We believe in redemption and today’s vote is a vote for redemption.”
But many are skeptical that the new jails will be any more humane. Even though the new jails are being built in part to replace existing borough-based facilities that Council Speaker Corey Johnson has deemed just as reprehensible as Rikers, the plan has divided activists who are fighting against mass incarceration.
Members of groups like the Fortune Society, the Vera Institute and Katal that have driven the #CloseRikers campaign over the past few years faced off with the #NoNewJails contingent at City Hall ahead of Thursday’s vote. Two protestors were arrested, a spokesperson for the NYPD confirmed. Later, during the vote, security cleared the audience out of the balcony section of the council chamber after protesters there dropped leaflets on the City Council members below.
As part of the plan, the City Council is committing to invest $391 million into community-based resources that aim to address the root causes of incarceration, including supportive housing, mental health services and school-based programs.
Listen to Beth Fertig discuss the vote on WNYC:
Council members came out in favor of building new borough based jails in a 36-13 vote, except for the Bronx-based jail, which was 35-14. City Councilmember Rafael Espinal, who voted no on the plan, said if the city really wanted to invest in decarceration, its funding for community-based programming would match funding for new jails.
Other Council members spoke passionately at length both in favor of and against the legislative package that will set the plan to close Rikers in motion. Some who voted in favor of the plan said they had reservations about it but felt there wouldn’t be another opportunity to close Rikers in the near future and wanted to seize the historic opportunity.
“As a city, we must do everything we can to move away from the failed policies of mass incarceration,” said Speaker Johnson. “That is what we are doing today. We are on the cusp of a new, more humane era for New York City.”
"I know we are not breaking every yoke," said Councilmember Brad Lander, adding that he wished the Council was also voting Thursday to ban solitary confinement and investing more in community programs. But, he added, while it's possible that there could one day be a plan to close Rikers without opening new jails, waiting on such a plan would make it "far more likely that Rikers and the Barge and the Tombs and the Brooklyn House of Detention will remain open indefinitely."
Supporters of the plan have said that part of its appeal comes from the fact that borough-based jails will be closer to courthouses and easier for family members of people who are locked up to visit. Councilmember Diana Ayala, who will have the new Bronx jail in her district, said she supported the plan because her younger brother was held on Rikers when she was younger and it was difficult for her family to visit him on the island. "We abandoned him as a community, we abandoned him as a city and we abandoned him as a family," Ayala said.
"I support closing Rikers and I separate that from the new jails," said Councilmember Inez Barron, who voted no on the plan to build new facilities. She said there were too many issues that went unaddressed under the plan, including inappropriate detention due to over-policing, an unfair bail system that gives judges too much discretion and the toxic culture at Rikers. Her colleagues' acknowledgement that it's important to invest in housing and services that can help people avoid the criminal justice system is important, she said, but she questioned their sincerity when endorsing those things in conjunction with a plan to build new jails. "Where did this great epiphany come from?" she asked.
Among other measures, lawmakers voted Thursday on a resolution authorizing the City Council to file an application with the Department of City Planning to change the zoning of Rikers Island so that it is designated as a "public place" and can't be used to incarcerate people after December 31, 2026. Some of those who opposed the plan argued that the resolution wasn't legally binding and didn't go far enough to ensure from the outset that the jails on Rikers would be shut down after neighborhood-based jails were approved for construction. This is one of the concerns state Assemblymembers Yuh-Line Niou and Ron Kim raised in a letter calling on City Council members to reject the plan.
While the zoning change the resolution seeks will still have to go through the process of getting approved, Speaker Johnson said it would be difficult to reverse course once the plan is in motion. "We're doing this map change on Rikers Island and the only way to undo that is if a future City Council and a future mayor decided to undo that," Johnson said in a press conference ahead of Thursday's vote. "That is a tough thing to do when the plan will already start. Is everything always foolproof? No, but we are trying to make this as tight as possible."
This story has been updated with more details and reporting from Thursday's vote.