The City Council chamber was fully packed on Thursday morning for a hearing that drew hours of questioning and testimony about the the city’s proposal to close Rikers Island and replace it with four new borough-based jails.
The city's plan, which has been estimated as costing between $9 billion to $11 billion and will take about a decade to build— has drawn heated opposition from both neighborhood residents who criticize the scale and lack of details of the plans as well as from criminal justice activists who have decried any investment in new jails as a move to expand incarceration.
During the first few hours, those critics seemed to be largely absent from the chamber, which holds around 270 people. Thursday's hearing is expected to be the last and most critical public forum before the council takes a vote in the next 50 days.
“It’s so disrespectful” said Sophia Gurule, a member of the group No New Jails NYC, who stood outside the gates of City Hall and said she had been waiting two hours with several other activists. “They say the community is engaged but they’ve done everything to block engagement.”
Prior to the hearing, the activists had criticized the City Council for scheduling the hearing on the first day of public school, when many parents were busy in the morning dropping off their children.
MJ Williams, who was also with No New Jails, said that after waiting for so long, some people had simply given up. “They might have taken time off from work, but it wasn’t to stand on line on Centre Street,” she said.
The four-borough jail plan, which is intended to pave the way for the city to shutter its notoriously troubled Rikers Island system and allow incarcerated individuals to be closer to their families and court houses, has key support from City Council members representing the neighborhoods in which the jails would be located. But not all elected officials have been on board with the projects. The proposed Bronx jail, which would be at an NYPD tow pound in Mott Haven and two miles away from the courthouse, has been strongly opposed by Bronx borough president, Ruben Diaz Jr.
During Thursday’s hearing, Rafael Salamanca Jr., the City Council member who represents the South Bronx and the chair of the council’s land use committee, said, "Despite a pledge to have meaningful community engagement, the details surrounding the Bronx jail has felt more like a one-sided conversation, truly meant to check off a box. It is clear the proposed location is not the right one for the community.”
Noting that the Vernon C. Bain Center, a medium-security barge near Hunts Point, was created to handle overflow from Rikers Island, Salamanca asked why it remained open even though incarceration levels have steadily dropped. City officials have said they project to have no more than 4,000 individuals in custody in 2026. Each new jail is expected to have 1,440 beds.
Salamanco has asked the city to provide a closing date for the barge, but on Thursday, officials could not say when exactly that would be.
While opponents complained about being shut out, the hearing featured a strong showing by individuals who are part of a large campaign called Close Rikers, which backs the city's plan as the best way to tackle what many have said is a corrupt and unjust jail system. Prior to the hearing, the members staged a rally on the steps of City Hall and immediately afterwards lined up to enter the hearing. The group included people who were formerly incarcerated.
"You can never talk about what it means without us. We are the people who have experienced and know what it means to close Rikers," said Vidal Guzman, a 28-year-old community organizer with Just Leadership USA, a criminal justice reform organization.
He said the city's plan, "is a process to improve conditions and to make sure people have the blueprint."
Jose Marte, a social worker at a community organization called Bronx Connect who works with incarcerated individuals, said that although he recognized the concerns of critics, the move to shut down Rikers was long overdue. "It's a start," he said. "It's not going to be a perfect plan. But someone needs to push it."
Long after Marte and other members of the Close Rikers campaign had been let inside the hearing, many activists for No New Jails NYC were still standing outside. Officials handling the hearing said people could be let in as soon as individuals who testified left the hearing. A small overflow room held roughly 50 people who watched the hearing on a large TV screen.
For many, the long wait felt like a tactic to discourage opponents.
“This is how they do it,” said Shawn Hudson, one of the activists. He later added: “Silence is violence.”