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Smaller, Safer, Fairer: Historic Plan to Close Rikers Island Jails Moves to City Council

September 3, 2019

New York City is closer than ever to shuttering the Rikers Island jail complex as plan receives penultimate approval

NEW YORK—The de Blasio administration announced today that the plan to close Rikers Island by 2026 and replace it with a smaller network of modern and humane borough-based facilities passed the City Planning Commission by a vote of 9-3. It now heads to the New York City Council for final approval.

“With today’s vote, we are one step closer to closing Rikers Island and creating a smaller, safer, fairer jail system,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “That’s one step closer to bringing people back to their communities and families, one step closer to ending the cycle of recidivism and one step closer to ending mass incarceration once and for all.”

“New York City is undergoing a fundamental shift in how we understand and create safety,” said Elizabeth Glazer, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “Crime continues to drop, while enforcement is lightened and judges take advantage of alternatives to incarceration. It is because of these shifts that the jail population has steadily declined, bringing us ever-closer to the closure of the jails on Rikers Island, and the construction of new borough-based facilities focused on modern and humane facilities for those who are incarcerated and those who work there. Thank you to the Commission for its thoughtful efforts throughout this process, and the steadfast activists that have been driving this initiative from the start.”

“New Yorkers deserve safe, modern jail facilities that represent the very best in correctional practice, and today’s vote brings us one step closer to realizing that goal,” said New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann.

If the City’s land use application is approved by the City Council, it will:

  • Allow the City to close the jails on Rikers Island and replace existing borough facilities in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens by 2026;
  • Reduce the City’s current operating jail system capacity by nearly 60 percent and reduce the current total jail system capacity (including non-operating facilities) by more than two-thirds by 2026;
  • The City’s jail system would be reduced from 11 to four active facilities citywide;

The City’s plan requires safely reducing the number of people in jail to no more than 4,000 people—1,000 fewer people than originally projected, as a result of state bail reform legislation passed earlier this year. Since the mayor took office, the number of people in jail has dropped by more than 35 percent, as crime continues to fall, demonstrating the city can use jail more sparingly. The City is well ahead of schedule and MOCJ will continue to lead the efforts to accelerate safe reductions in the size of the jail population.

The Department of Correction’s (DOC) existing facilities on Rikers Island, and those in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, were built more than 40 years ago and have serious operational challenges. Facility layouts are outdated and do not contain the space, daylight, or social infrastructure to provide the support services necessary for modern detention facilities and practices.

A key goal of the borough-based jail system is to provide a safer and more humane environment for people in custody and those who work in the proposed jails. The borough-based facilities would be designed to reduce violence with improved lines of sight due to modern layouts, smaller and more manageable housing units, and better monitoring practices. The facilities would also have direct light into the cells, inside and outside visitation spaces with ample programming spaces, both on the housing unit level and facility-wide (indoor gym, auditorium, classrooms, chapel and mosque for example).

The new rehabilitative facilities would be designed to improve health, educational, and social outcomes of those incarcerated, and promote the dignity of all who are incarcerated, work in or enter the buildings. The proposed program provides support space for quality educational programming, recreation, therapeutic services, and publicly accessible community space. The support space would include a public-service-oriented lobby, visiting space, space for robust medical screening for new admissions, medical and behavior health exams, health and mental health care services, medical clinics, and therapeutic units. In addition to increasing access for those incarcerated to their families and community support networks, a borough-based jail system would facilitate better connections to the rest of the justice system by improving access to courts, attorneys and service providers and thus reduce associated transportation costs and unnecessary delays.

Community engagement throughout the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP)
To ensure the best possible plan, the City has engaged numerous community-based and advocacy organizations, such as youth groups, criminal justice advocacy organizations, architecture organizations, tenant associations, and business improvement districts for feedback and ideas on the plan to close the jails on Rikers Island. The proposed facilities would be integrated into neighborhoods and serve as new models for justice centers in the country. Each facility would be designed to integrate with the surrounding neighborhood and provide community space that could be used for community determined programming, which could include street-level retail space.

The City is committed to continuing to meet with community-based organizations on their priority issues, and has been conducting ongoing meetings and focus groups with advocacy organizations, service providers, formerly incarcerated individuals and their families.

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