Over a chorus of loud objections from criminal justice activists, the city’s Planning Commission on Tuesday voted to approve the de Blasio administration’s plan to shut down Rikers Island and replace the facility with four borough-based jails.
The 9-3 vote brings the controversial $11 billion plan one step closer to final approval by the City Council, which has scheduled a public hearing on Thursday.
The decision to move forward with the plan came despite a targeted and well-organized protest campaign by the activist organization No New Jails NYC. Arguing that all jails are inhumane, the group has objected to any plan to expand the city’s jail system. The members have also demanded that the city immediately close down Rikers, the city’s main jail complex which has been subject to decades of violence and corruption. In June, the death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman arrested on misdemeanor assault charges and put in solitary confinement, drew national attention. A medical examiner later ruled that the 27-year-old died of a complication resulting from an epileptic seizure.
On Tuesday, members of No New Jails NYC, many of them wearing black t-shirts, packed the hearing and shouted at commissioners during the meeting. At times, their chants drowned out the proceedings.
Supporters of the mayor's plan have said that it would put an end to a troubled facility while creating a cost-effective way of enabling families and lawyers to more easily visit those who are incarcerated. Three of the four proposed replacement jails would be built at existing detention centers and near court houses.
The exception would be in the Bronx, where an NYPD tow yard in Mott Haven was selected as a new jail site to the vehement objection of residents.
Following the vote, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who has proposed an alternative site, immediately criticized the decision in a statement.
”It is unfortunate that the City Planning Commission has declined to listen to the serious concerns of the people of my borough, and has instead chosen to move forward with a plan to close Rikers Island that builds a new jail in the wrong place,” he said. ”Throughout this process, I have made it crystal clear that Rikers Island must be closed. But that closure should be handled in the right way. Instead, the administration has weaponized the land use process against The Bronx in order to protect their plans to build a new jail on the wrong site—the Mott Haven tow yard."
The new jails plan is expected to be completed by 2026, long after Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves office in 2021, which has heightened concerns that Rikers may not ultimately be closed. Administration officials have said that the city is committed to reducing the jail population, which in January fell below 8,000 for the first time in 40 years. Each of the new jails would hold fewer than 1,440 inmates, according to City Hall.
But scant details on what the jails would look like have spurred criticism from neighborhood residents. The administration has said that is because of its decision to adopt a design-build approach, in which a single team would contracted to both design and construct the projects. As a result, city officials have only been able to provide the public with rough sketches of the proposed jails, which could rise as high as 40 stories.
“It would be a lot more satisfying if we were looking at an actual design than having to guess what’s going to be there going forward,” said Allen Cappelli, a Planning Commissioner, voicing a concern of many other members on the panel.
But ultimately, he said he was voting for the plan because the city needed to shutter Rikers.
“Rikers island is an abomination,” he said. “It is a stain on the city."
Anna Levin, another commissioner who had reservations about the scale of the jails, voiced a similar sentiment.
"This is just a beginning, but I admit it’s time to begin," she said.
Following its public hearing on Thursday, the City Council will have 50 days to vote on the plan as part of the city's uniform land use review process. In the event the Council elects to modify the proposal, the application will go back to the Planning Commission.
UPDATE: A previous version of this story misstated the number of days that the City Council has to vote on the plan following the public hearing. The Council will have 50 days.