jails

Local Boards Reject Rikers Replacement Jails, But Council Reps Hold the Key

Advocates for and against opening a new jail complex in Mott Haven as part of closing Rikers Island clashed during a public meeting at Lincoln Hospital, May 23, 2019.
Advocates for and against opening a new jail complex in Mott Haven as part of closing Rikers Island clashed during a public meeting on May 23, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The de Blasio administration is wrapping up its first official feedback round on plans to close Rikers Island and open four borough-based jails — and the response hasn’t been positive.

Three community boards in neighborhoods where the new jails would be housed — Boerum Hill, Kew Gardens and Mott Haven — have voted thumbs down. The board that includes Manhattan’s Chinatown is expected to follow suit Tuesday night.

“The people have spoken! This is the Bronx!” Arline Parks, chair of Community Board 1’s land use committee, declared after a unanimous no vote on Thursday night.

But the local board votes are merely advisory. Ditto for the sentiments of the borough presidents. And it appears unlikely what the people have to say will sway the primary holders of the project’s fate: The council members who represent the neighborhoods slated to get lockups.

All four local council members were on board with the jail plan when it was announced. Three of the four told THE CITY last week they hadn’t made a final decision on whether to support the borough-based jails plan as is.

But “as is” may be the key words: Sources involved with the approval process said that while lawmakers are poised to negotiate for smaller jails, there are no signs of defection from the larger Rikers replacement proposal.

That’s crucial because Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Mayor Bill de Blasio made a unique deal in which there would be one single public review process for all four sites. This means if one doesn’t make the cut, they are all doomed.

‘It’s Going to Be Built’

Only Queens Councilmember Karen Koslowitz, a Democrat who represents Kew Gardens, told THE CITY she’s planning to vote yes, noting, “It’s going to be built.” She said she feels a responsibility to see the jail through to make sure it doesn’t harm the area down the road.

Bronx Councilmember Diana Ayala said she was “disappointed by Community Board 1’s vote and their decision to end the public comment session prematurely.”

Still, Ayala, who told the Bronx Times in September that the decision to bring a jail to Mott Haven wasn’t hard, added, “I am looking forward to hearing from other stakeholders throughout this process, which will inform my final decision.”

Brooklyn's Community Board 2 voted down the city's jails plan.
Brooklyn’s Community Board 2 voted down the city’s jails plan. Photo: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

Brooklyn Councilmember Stephen Levin said it’s too early to weigh in. However, he said he’s not happy with the height and density of the jail building slated for his district.

“The scale doesn’t make sense. The facility that’s been proposed is too big,” he told THE CITY, echoing the local community board’s complaints.

Lower Manhattan Councilmember Margaret Chin has expressed concerns about the planned Chinatown jail’s impact on local residents and small businesses. Through a spokesperson, Chin said she “is not going to commit to a yes or no” at this point.

Meanwhile, the upcoming first official vote — from the City Planning Commission — is widely considered a done deal. The commision, dominated by City Hall appointees, generally rubber stamps the mayor’s land use proposals.

After commission approval, the jails plan will go in the late summer or early fall to the City Council, where the local council member’s choice traditionally dictates how the rest of the body votes.

Rikers Troubles Spurred Plan

For years, Rikers Island has been the target of criminal justice reform advocates who’ve said that the culture at the jail complex and its structure create fertile ground for civil rights violations — from neglect to violence.

The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice, convened at the request of then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, released a report in 2017 that stated “we must close the jail complex on Rikers Island. Period.” The report also provided a blueprint for creating the smaller, borough-based jail system.

Rikers Island Jail.
Rikers Island Jail. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In August 2018, the de Blasio administration unveiled its plan to close Rikers and build four “community-based” jails around the city. That fall, City Hall established so-called Neighborhood Advisory Committee meetings, which were supposed to engage communities earmarked for jails “in a robust and transparent way.”

But locals balked at the NAC meetings being invite-only, with the attendees list kept private. The minutes were written by the city-hired firm that designed the jail plan. Reporters, including some from THE CITY, were repeatedly blocked from sessions.

Some residents of the affected neighborhoods say the planned jails are too large and that the facilities will disrupt their communities. In early May, City Hall told THE CITY the new lockups would be smaller than originally planned because of an expected decline in the inmate population amid recent bail and parole reform measures.

That didn’t assuage community board members: Brooklyn’s CB2 voted against the proposal on May 9. Community Board 9 in Queens unanimously rejected the proposal five days later, calling the public review process “a travesty.”

After Thursday’s Bronx vote, Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said, “Community Board 1 has reiterated the message that so many of us have made from the day the administration announced its plan: Mott Haven is the wrong site for a new jail.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. speaks at the state of the borough address, Feb. 21, 2019.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. speaks at the state of the borough address, Feb. 21, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The final community board vote on the jail plan is expected Tuesday at Manhattan’s CB1, where the land use committee unanimously voted no two weeks ago.

Despite the rejection from community boards, city officials asserted that most New Yorkers are behind the boroughs-based jails.

“A majority of New Yorkers support the city’s plan to close Rikers and build community facilities that will support the remaking of our justice system,” said Dana Kaplan, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, in an emailed statement to THE CITY.

The agency is “grateful for everyone participating in the land use review process” and “will continue to take all input seriously” as the process moves forward, Kaplan added.

Polls on the subject appear to be indicative of the organization asking the questions.

A recent survey done by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which spurred the Rikers shutdown, found that 59% of registered voters surveyed last month supported the city plan.

Another poll, by the union that represents corrections officers, found last summer that “68% of voters believe the city’s inmate population should be located in one facility.”

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