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Understanding New York City’s proposal to close Rikers and open new jails

Four new jails and lots of confusion.

Image credit: Diana Ofosu
Image credit: Diana Ofosu

In early August, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would be moving forward on a proposal to instate four new jails — including the reopening of an already existing facility in Queens — throughout the boroughs as part of a longterm goal of closing Rikers Island for good.

The four facilities will, in essence, act as replacements for those currently on Rikers Island. Each of the new facilities will have approximately 1,500 beds to house around 5,000 inmates total — the city’s incarcerated population goal. In an email to ThinkProgress, the mayor’s office explained the facilities would be housed in mixed-use buildings featuring retail space, and will have better lighting, designed with both inmates’ and employees’ safety in mind.

AN ARTIST'S DEPICTION OF THE NEWLY PROPOSED FACILITIES. (IMAGE CREDIT: MAYOR DE BLASIO'S OFFICE.)
AN ARTIST'S DEPICTION OF THE NEWLY PROPOSED FACILITIES. (IMAGE CREDIT: MAYOR DE BLASIO'S OFFICE.)

“These new jails will enable this city to close Rikers Island, which I know will help make this city a better place,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a statement last month. “…The next chapter of criminal justice in New York City is beginning, and I couldn’t be prouder.”

De Blasio first floated the idea of “replacement” facilities last year, during a press conference to announce his plan to close the 86-year-old prison complex. The press conference notably took place one year after De Blasio had adamantly denied to reporters that the city was searching for locations to house Rikers alternative facilities.

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“What would it look like if we didn’t have Rikers? […] You’d have to get down to 5,000 inmates. At 5,000 inmates, you would still need additional capacity if you left Rikers entirely,” he said. “We are working under the assumption, we will need at least a few new facilities somewhere in New York City.”

While reducing the incarcerated population to 5,000 was the mayor’s target ideal, reaching 7,000 by the end of the 10-year projected timeline would also be satisfactory, he said.

A year and a half later, De Blasio appears to be getting his wish — though activists argue Rikers’ closure is far from guaranteed. More importantly, they worry the newly proposed facilities may actually do more harm than good.

The four proposed facilities will be located in the Bronx at 320 Concord Avenue, in Brooklyn at 275 Atlantic Avenue, and in Manhattan’s Chinatown at 80 Centre Street. A fourth facility in Queens at 126-02 82nd Avenue will also be re-opened after closing 15 years ago.

Activists note the communities in question are all minority-populated, under-resourced, or actively being gentrified.

“We applaud the city’s plan to close Rikers Island, but the answer is not to expand the criminal justice footprint […],” activists wrote in a petition on Change.org protesting the South Bronx facility. “Our opposition to a new jail is in no way a rejection of the people caught up in the system. […] With more than 2.3 million people imprisoned across the US, mass incarceration is the greatest moral and racial injustice of our time.”

The petition has so far garnered more than 2,300 signatures.

Organizers and community advocates are also frustrated that De Blasio plans to add what would be a third jail facility in a neighborhood historically populated by people of color, rather than somewhere like Staten Island, which still doesn’t have its own correctional facility. Their frustrations stem from fears that this new complex would have adverse effects on the already deteriorating community and gentrify the region further.

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“When I use the term gentrification, I’m really talking about displacement,” Manhattan-based enthographer and scholar Diane Wong explained, in an interview with ThinkProgress last month. “In Manhattan’s Chinatown, the percentage of Asian immigrants in the last decade has dropped nearly 20 percent largely due to real-estate speculation, forced eviction, or landlord harassment.”

Wong, an assistant professor and faculty fellow at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, has spent her career studying the impacts of gentrification on communities across the country is wary of what the proposed Rikers closure plan could do to Manhattan’s Chinatown.

“These neighborhoods have…historically borne the brunt of city disinvestment and destructive urban renewal projects like expressways, arenas, power plants, etc. that have for generations affected the lives and livelihoods of existing residents,” she tweeted earlier in August, in response to De Blasio’s announcement. “Gentrification and development are intimately connected, [and] the expansion of the carceral state leads to increased criminalization and incarceration of poor, queer, and trans communities of color who are the most directly impacted by eviction and displacement.”

Many of those organizing against the plan say they also find the lack of public invitation for comment — at any stage in the process — highly concerning and in many cases discouraging.

Wong drew comparisons between De Blasio’s plan and that of Edward Koch, who attempted something similar with the city’s downtown Manhattan Detention Complex during his tenure as New York City mayor from 1978 to 1989.

“In the ’70s and the ’80s, there was a lot of movement against the construction of the North Tower, or the Tombs. So I think as more residents learn about this development there’s going to be [similar] movement,” Wong said.

The community has plenty of reason to be distrustful: since the plan was announced, misinformation has spread throughout the city, resulting in feelings of ambiguity. The root of those concerns may stem back to how it was proposed to the public.

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The plan is the work of an independent commission known as the Independent Commission of New York, a group of experts, policymakers, and advocates from a variety of backgrounds, including law enforcement, academia, business, and the judiciary. Experts who previously spent time behind bars were also included on the panel.

According to its website, the Independent Commission “was convened at the request of New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and issued its evidence-based blueprint for improving New York City’s criminal justice system, A More Just New York City, in April 2017.” De Blasio’s decision to close Rikers was based on the commission’s final assessment.

The moment the city presented its version of the plan is also when public concerns started rolling in.

Commission members told ThinkProgress the backlash was understandable.

“The protest and the rejections of building the jails is not necessarily about the jails,” said Stanley Richards, “it’s about the community’s experiences of engaging with the city or engaging with developers and how those relationships have soured the community on anything that would be good for the community or good for the community members.”

Richards is the executive vice president of The Fortune Society, an organization that supports reentry from incarceration, and previously served time in Rikers. 

Richards has experience dealing with community resistance. Back in 2011, The Fortune Society developed a new apartment building in West Harlem called Castle Gardens, intended as residences for formerly incarcerated and low income individuals. At the time, the public was worried the development wouldn’t live up to its promise to support reentry and provide affordable housing in a single housing facility — but seven years later, Castle Gardens is still around and appears to be functioning as intended.

Richard credits Castle Garden’s success to The Fortune Society’s decision not to desert their plan and the fact that it listened to the community’s concerns — something he and the rest of the Independent Commission hope to achieve with their current Rikers Island closure blueprint. The way he sees it, the community must be engaged and involved in order for it to work.

A public hearing — the first since the plan was announced in early August — is set for Thursday, September 20 at P.S. 133 William A. Butler School in Brooklyn. The public comment period, during which community members can make themselves heard, will be open through October 15.

Communicating the need for new jail facilities should be of utmost importance at those meetings, advocates say.

There’s been a real failure on [the De Blasio] administration’s part to connect the conversations of decarceration and the…broader goals of closing Rikers [with the community], and not giving credit to advocates and the grassroots leaders who were directly impacted who made this political landscape and this citywide effort possible,” Brandon Holmes, coordinator of Close Rikers Campaign, an advocacy group, told ThinkProgress. “That’s really confused people in the communities.”

Holmes indirectly addressed Wong’s concerns over the burden imposed by the facilities on local communities, noting it was important for the community to consider the overall impact new facilities might have on the broader prison ecosystem. “People who say, ‘we’re going to be burdened by these jails,’ are not recognizing that it’s shrinking the footprint of our entire jail system,” he said.

Right now there are 14 active locations throughout New York City, with capacities ranging from 14 to nearly 900. The Bronx has two facilities, there are three in Queens, four in Brooklyn, and five in Manhattan. More than 8,800 people are currently incarcerated or in the city’s correctional system.

Commission member Richards said that number was far too high.

That is too many people causing too much damage to too many families and to too many communities,” he said. “And we now have empirical evidence that says we could have a safe city, safe community, and small criminal justice system footprint. We don’t have to incarcerate our way into safer communities — which never really happened. It’s a moment now.”

Assuming everything goes according to plan, New York City’s already-shrinking jail population could eventually be less than half its size with the new facilities and Rikers gone for good.

We need to build these borough based facilities to have a smaller criminal justice system,” Richards added. “We are going to build our way into a smaller system.”

For that to take place, Holmes explained, the city would also need to undertake a dramatic overhaul of its criminal justice system, enacting radical changes such as ending bail bonds, cutting back on detention for low level offenses, and reevaluating pretrial detention as a whole.

“Not only do we have to hold this city and this administration accountable to close Rikers, we also need our state elected officials to take action too,” he said. “This administration and De Blasio have failed to fold in a strategy that includes those accountable — the NYPD and the five borough DAs.”

Holmes hopes his campaign can work to bridge the gap between this administration and concerned community members who may still harbor doubts about the new prison facilities.

“Right now our place in all of this is driving home the demands for community engagement — real community engagement, not ‘community engagement required by the landing’s process,'” he said. “[The state] Department of Justice [should speak] directly to the community and ask them what they think about the process, and be open to community-based solutions,” he said. 

He added, “The ‘close Rikers’ effort was launched by people who are most impacted by Rikers Island and people who are your neighbors. We need to make sure we recognize this campaign is going to take a huge community effort in order to radically transform our justice system in ways that this country has actually never seen before.”

This article has been updated to clarify the commission’s relationship with the city of New York.