Closing Rikers would provide de Blasio with a victory on a matter of national interest — shuttering a notoriously violent jail. | Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo
By Janaki Chadha and Sally Goldenberg January 22, 2019
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island has been beset by neighborhood opposition to replacement jails, skepticism among criminal justice reform advocates and local political dissonance — all of which overshadowed the city’s public rollout last fall.
Recognizing the threats to a legacy-shaping plan, City Hall found a new site for the proposed Manhattan jail and began closed-door meetings in each neighborhood where a jail is being proposed, while continuing to reduce the inmate population on Rikers Island to its lowest level in decades.
The city is now preparing to begin a public review by March for the four new jails — a process that will invite more scrutiny around one of de Blasio’s largest undertakings. It would also provide him with a victory on a matter of national interest — shuttering a notoriously violent jail — if the City Council approves the new sites, though the initiative would not be complete during his mayoralty. (The term-limited mayor cannot run for re-election in 2021.)
“The bottom line is, mass incarceration doesn't work. You can tinker around the edges, you can make it a little better. You can't fix it,” Jonathan Lippman, the state’s former chief judge and a proponent of shutting down Rikers, said at an event Friday. “Local jails make sense — we know it from around the country. They're smaller, they're more humane, they don't have this brutalizing effect on human beings.”
De Blasio hesitated to embrace closing Rikers when former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito proposed it in a speech in 2016. He called it a “noble idea,” but raised concerns about the multi-billion-dollar cost and instead vowed to reform the existing facility. He did not announce his support until the following year, after he realized Mark-Viverito and Lippman were going to push the proposal without him.
At the time, a leading advocate for closing the jail, Glenn Martin of the organization JustLeadershipUSA, backed the mayor's announcement, calling it "a step in the right direction towards safety and justice for all New Yorkers, especially those who have been harmed by Rikers Island. I am grateful that Mayor de Blasio has joined the progressive majority and is now supportive of the call to close this failed institution.”
But as the mayor’s team has proceeded with the massive and expensive proposition, which de Blasio says would take a decade, cracks have formed in that shield of support.
Term limits forced Mark-Viverito to leave the Council in 2017, taking away a powerful perch from which she could advocate for and help steer the effort. Martin stepped down from his post at around the same time amid reports of sexual harassment.
Their absence has been filled by members of a group called No New Jails, who populated public meetings throughout the city last fall to protest plans for the new sites.
“I got heckled at mine. I was a little bit confused why I was being heckled,” said City Council Member Stephen Levin. “When I said we need more humane jails, I got booed for saying that.”
Under the city’s plan, a 815-bed jail on Atlantic Avenue would be replaced with a 1.4-million-square-foot site, standing at 430 feet and with room for roughly 1,510 beds.
Levin, who represents the area and is in his final Council term, said he supports the change because the current building in downtown Brooklyn is outdated. The cells are too small and the design obstructs a clear view of prisoners, leading to overstaffing, he said.
Since the public hearing in September, when he was jeered during his public remarks, Levin has met with the No New Jails coalition and said he attends monthly Friday discussions with criminal justice reform groups and residents worried about the size of the new jail.
De Blasio needs the support of Levin and three other Council members whose districts would house the replacement jails — Diana Ayala of the Bronx, Margaret Chin of Manhattan and Karen Koslowitz of Queens — in order to go forward with this plan. The Council would vote about seven months after the public land use process begins.
“I think it’s a waste of resources that could be spent on preventing people from going to jail in the first place. I think it’s fiscally irresponsible,” Albert Saint Jean, a No New Jails coalition member, told POLITICO. “They’re building capacity for 6,000 people — it shows they’re not interested in cutting back on the local prison industrial complex.”
In an interview last week, Martin labeled the group “abolitionists” and warned its message — coupled with what he described as a lack of focus from City Hall — could derail the entire project.
“The abolitionists were problematic in the beginning of the campaign. I always knew they’d be back and here they are,” he said. “People don’t understand the complexity of what it take to close Rikers. I’m just a bit more pragmatic than that, even as someone who’s done time, someone who’s been stabbed at Rikers, someone who spent more than a year of his life at Rikers.”
“Saying ‘no new jails’ is the equivalent of saying ‘let’s keep Rikers’ in a sense,” he added.
Martin and Mark-Viverito both accused City Hall of emboldening opposing voices by not presenting a cohesive rationale for closing Rikers at the four public land use hearings, which are typically messy affairs no matter the project.
“This is a citywide plan, and so there has to be some sort of overarching vision and implementation — going out into communities and making the case, reinforcing why it’s important,” Mark-Viverito said in an interview. “I just don’t see that.”
“I worry about the loss of momentum during the current administration, and the window that creates for a subsequent administration to come in and roll back the plan to close Rikers,” Martin said.
One City Hall source, who would speak on background only, said the mayor’s team is committed to closing Rikers but is frustrated by the lack of vocal support from criminal justice reform advocates.
Another source who has been involved in the issue said de Blasio’s staff “went to DEFCON-level freakout” when Mark-Viverito announced support for closing the jail during her 2016 State of the City speech. In attendance was the mother of 16-year-old Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after spending years in solitary confinement at Rikers without being convicted of a crime. His story garnered national attention around conditions at the jail.
“At every single community meeting, press conference and interview, our message is consistent: Closing Rikers Island and moving toward a smaller, safer and fairer borough-based jail system is the right thing to do,” Patrick Gallahue, spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement, said in an email. “It’s better for incarcerated people, it’s better for their families, it’s better for our communities and it’s better for our officers.”
The city’s plan calls for reducing the Rikers population to 5,000 before moving inmates into the new jails, which would each hold about 1,510 beds. As of December, the jail had an average of 7,959 daily inmates, according to a city report.
The proposed sites have each encountered community opposition.
A plan to move prisoners atop a building in Lower Manhattan that houses the city’s marriage bureau and state offices came as a shock to Chinatown community leaders, who had expected the new jail to be located at the existing Manhattan Detention Complex. In an effort to appease concerns, which were aired at a public meeting in September, the city changed course in November, saying it would indeed build the new facility at the existing jail.
“A lot has to happen for this to work. All the detainees will have magically been reduced; four enormous, experimental buildings will be completed on time. Everything has to happen like clockwork,” said Jan Lee, chair of the Chinatown Core Block Association.
The proposed Bronx site, currently an NYPD tow pound, has the support of local Council Member Diana Ayala, who said it "will keep families intact. Kids can visit their mothers and fathers" without traveling to Rikers Island.
But other Bronx politicians, including Borough President Ruben Diaz and Council Member Rafael Salamanca, are opposed.
They said they got little notice from the city before the site was announced last year, and have been pushing for a different location adjacent to the Bronx Hall of Justice courthouse, which they said would reduce travel time for prisoners. But the Council member representing that area, Vanessa Gibson, came out against that idea.
The tow pound was being eyed for affordable housing by the Diego Beekman complex.
Diaz is expected to raise his concerns next month in his State of the Borough speech, which he will deliver several blocks from the proposed site.
“The administration, their communication was a total failure. You cannot pick a site for this jail … and then turn around and say, ‘Okay we want community input.’ That’s working backwards,” Salamanca said.
While the original Lippman report called for one jail in each of the five boroughs, de Blasio decided to spare Staten Island a location after the borough president, Jimmy Oddo, swiftly made his displeasure known.
The Legal Aid Society, which had a seat on Mark-Viverito’s commission to study closing Rikers, was troubled by the mayor’s decision to give Staten Island a pass, a spokesperson said.
Tina Luongo, a Legal Aid attorney who leads the criminal defense practice, also questioned the closure time frame.
“Ten years is far too long for incarcerated people to continue being abused and held in isolation,” Luongo said in a statement Sunday. “Rikers Island must close now, and as the city plans for smaller, borough-based facilities, there must be a firm commitment to not only reduce the population to a goal of 5,000 but to make every effort to truly decarcerate our city.”