Without much fanfare, on Wednesday the de Blasio administration released its draft plan to build four borough-based jails as part of its initiative to close the violence-plagued facilities on Rikers Island over the next decade.
Each of the facilities in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan would be built to hold around 1,500 detainees, which reflects the need, first outlined in the Lippmann Commission report from last year, for the City to reduce its total jails population to around 5,000 people for the plan to succeed. The site in the Bronx may contain 234 housing units, some of them affordable.
Today NYC released its draft plan to build 4 jails to #CloseRikers but there is no big press conference or event. @NYCMayor is talking about ferries. Later there is a private briefing for reporters pic.twitter.com/sTR5IAdzZe
— Christopher Robbins (@ChristRobbins) August 15, 2018
When Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, the jails population was at 11,000; last year it dipped to 9,400, and this past May it stood at 8,485. The goal is to have that number down to 7,000 by 2022, and 5,000 by 2027.
Brandon Holmes, the campaign coordinator for the #CloseRikers campaign at JustLeadershipUSA, an advocacy group dedicated to halving the country's prison population by 2030, said that while the plans for the individual jails were a step in the right direction, "it's kind of like putting the cart before the horse."
"We need to be focused on decarceration, and how we reach that 5,000, before we address these other issues," Holmes told Gothamist. "The Mayor's Office has failed to bring all the stakeholders and agencies it oversees together to make this happen."
Holmes pointed to the NYPD's insistence on continuing the policies of Broken Windows policing—cracking down on low-level offenses like turnstile jumping, public urination, and marijuana possession, and the reluctance of the district attorneys in Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island to move towards policies of not prosecuting those low-level offenses, as major obstacles to reducing the population of people who are awaiting trial, and haven't been convicted of a crime.
"If the communities don't understand that we are decarcerating, everyone is just going to say, 'Oh, there's a jail coming to my community, I don't like that.'"
Juan Cartagena, the president and general counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a national civil rights public interest law office, agreed.
"I don't think the City or the mayor is doing enough to [close Rikers Island], but nor is the governor. They are not in sync," Cartagena, who was a member of the Lippmann Commission, told Gothamist.
"The one that we don't talk about enough is Albany. They definitely have to reduce some of the engines of minor infractions—marijuana legalization. They have to increase case processing times, they have to provide clear avenues for better discovery so criminal defense attorneys can actually have all the knowledge to best represent their clients. Plus the elimination of cash bail," Cartagena said.
Stanley Richards, the executive vice president of the Fortune Society, who helped lay out the administration's plan to reporters at a briefing on Wednesday, said he understood those concerns, "but we can't let perfect be the enemy of good."
"We have enough momentum right now that we need to be moving, that 5,000 figure is non-negotiable. And at some point it will require the state to come to the table, it will require the mayor to continue to move, and he's doing it," Richards said.
In 2016, Mayor de Blasio called closing Rikers a "noble concept" but said it was ultimately unfeasible. It took the Lippman report and lobbying from former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to get him to agree that Rikers could be shut down.
"Whatever it took him to get to the table, he's at the table," Richards said. "The mayor is really taking this on."
In a statement, Tyrone Stevens, a spokesperson for Governor Cuomo, said, "Because the City repeatedly violated the civil rights of inmates, they are operating under a Department of Justice consent decree, which requires they be monitored for basic compliance with the law."
Stevens added, "If the City is serious about closing the atrocity that is Rikers, they’ll stop the deflecting and excuse-making, and just get it done.”
A vague sketch of the Manhattan jail site (New York City)
Three of the four jail sites, in Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, are on lots where jails currently exist. In Manhattan, at 80 Centre Street, the City envisions a 40-story building may include offices for the Manhattan DA's office, as well as "programming and recreational space." Brooklyn's site would also be close to 40 stories, on the site of the Brooklyn House of Detention.
In the Bronx, the City wants to build a 26-story jail on top of an NYPD tow lot in Mott Haven. From the City's plan:
The program for this development has not yet been identified, but for the purposes of analysis and based on a conceptual design, the proposed building is assumed to contain approximately 209,000 gsf of floor area, with approximately 31,000 gsf of ground floor retail and approximately 234 dwelling units, which would include affordable units.
"I would say to the communities, this isn't just about supplanting what we currently have on Rikers," Richards said, noting that the new facilities will have smaller, well-lit housing areas with access to services and recreation. "We are fundamentally changing the way detention happens...Those principles require space."
Richards added that the idea is to have pre-trial detention be seen as "a movement in time that they can begin to build a new life so they don't come back."
Councilmember Karen Koslowitz, who represents the Kew Gardens neighborhood where the 29-story Queens facility would be located on the site of the old Queens House of Detention, said she liked what she saw in the planning documents.
"While nobody likes or wants jails in their community, I think this jail, economically, it will be good for the community, people coming into the community to visit, your Correction Officers and Court Officers coming in, everybody looking to go to someplace to eat or hang out," Koslowitz said.
"In the long run, it's not going to be harmful to the community, otherwise I would never think of supporting it."
In a little over a month, the City will begin holding public meetings (dates and locations below) to receive input on the plans, with the hope that they will be certified by the end of 2018, so that the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure can begin in mid-2019.
The city's summary of the plans can be seen here. You can read the full planning document below.
Community input sessions:
Borough of Brooklyn, September 20, 2018, 6:00 PM
P.S. 133 William A. Butler School
610 Baltic Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217
Borough of Queens, September 26, 2018, 6:00 PM
Queens Borough Hall
120-55 Queens Boulevard, Kew Gardens, NY 11424
Borough of Manhattan, September 27, 2018, 6:00 PM
Manhattan Municipal Building
1 Centre Street, New York, NY 10007
Borough of Bronx, October 3, 2018, 6:00 PM
Bronx County Courthouse
851 Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY 10451