department of correction

Borough Presidents Demand Do-Over on Planned Jails

Criminal justice reform advocates demand the closing of all jails on Rikers Island during a community board meeting in The Bronx, May 23, 2019.
Criminal justice reform advocates demand the closing of all jails on Rikers Island during a community board meeting in The Bronx, May 23, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

When the City Planning Commission on Wednesday formally hears the mayor’s proposal to build a new jail in every borough except Staten Island, it will weigh some pointed pushback from borough presidents.

Of the four, only Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is definitively in favor of her borough’s planned jail tower — and even then, on the condition of changes.

The borough presidents have no direct say over the planned Rikers Island replacement jails. But each is vying to make themselves heard, with agendas ranging from moving the lockup locations to downsizing the planned buildings to pushing for yoga for inmates.

In issuing her approval Friday, Brewer urged limits on the height of the tower and restrictions on what could be done with Rikers Island going forward.

“There is great mistrust in what the future holds for Rikers Island,” she wrote, noting that nothing prevents jails on the island from remaining open.

Wrong Size, Wrong Place

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams declared his opposition Friday to the permit needed to construct a jail rising as high as 395 feet, with room for 1,437 beds, to replace the current downtown detention center on Atlantic Avenue.

He demanded a significantly smaller facility — just 235 feet high, accommodating 900 detainees. That would be only slightly bigger than the existing jail. Adams also said he wants yoga and plant-based food options in the jail, as the Brooklyn Eagle previously reported.

In issuing his “no” recommendation Friday, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz demanded plans to build the jail on an NYPD tow pound in Mott Haven be scrapped.

“The city has proposed a jail that is the wrong size and in the wrong place,” Diaz said.

He suggested that the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice instead consider building a jail near existing courthouses on East 161st Street.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz weighed in against a proposed Kew Gardens jail tower last month, ahead of the June 25 primary in her bid to become Queens district attorney. “A 1,500 person jail anywhere in Queens is unacceptable,” she wrote, instead demanding “smaller facilities closer to the homes and communities of the imprisoned.”

Unusually Unpredictable

The borough presidents’ advisory votes ordinarily would have little bearing on the outcome in a land use process that grants only the commission, mayor and City Council decision-making power. The same would likely hold true for the recommendations against the jails by the four community boards where they would be located.

But the unusual decision by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson to group all four far-flung jail sites together for public review could make the entire process less predictable, suggests Ron Shiffman, a former member of the City Planning Commission.

Shiffman called the combined public review of the four jail sites “a very questionable action” that ought to color how the commission will vote, which it must do within 60 days after the borough presidents weigh in.

“The individual members of the commission should be voting based on the facts before them and their interpretation of those facts as it best meets the needs of the city of New York,” said Shiffman, a professor of planning at Pratt Institute. “Merging them does not give you the ability to assess the individual sites.”

Were he still serving on the commission, he would vote no, he said, because the four jail sites are “inappropriately lumped together.”

The majority of the 13-member City Planning Commission, including its chair, is appointed by the mayor, and the commission generally votes in favor of City Hall proposals. Yet five others are appointed by each of the borough presidents and a sixth by the public advocate.

Sometimes, Shiffman said, the opinion of the officials filter down to the votes of their appointees.

“You do give the courtesy to the person that appointed you in part because they appointed you, or because they may have appointed you because you share their vision,” he said.

Council Holds the Key

What’s more, the planning commission has the power to modify a proposal as long as it does not expand it, Shiffman notes, before sending a plan on to the City Council.

As previously reported by THE CITY, the four City Council members representing the neighborhoods where the new jails will be located have all come out in support of the plan, while expressing some reservations. The full Council traditionally votes in line with whatever the local council member decides.

The final say will come in the fall from de Blasio, who initially resisted calls to close Rikers and replace it with smaller borough jails. He relented in 2017 as a commission convened by then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito prepared to unveil a detailed proposal.

Alacia Lauer, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said in a statement that “New Yorkers across the city have made it clear they support the goal to close the jails on Rikers Island” throughout the public review process.

“As New York City moves forward on transforming our justice system, the City will continue working in partnership with each community and local elected officials to ensure we create the best possible plan,” Lauer said.

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