Controversy surrounds plans for NYC's borough-based jails as Rikers closure deadline looms
The proposed closure of Rikers Island and the introduction of a borough-based jail system have continue to ignite a contentious debate.
Back in 2019, the City Council voted in favor of shutting down Rikers Island, promising a modern and more humane justice system. With the closure deadline set for 2027, the plan faces new challenges as Mayor Eric Adams questions its feasibility.
Under the 2019 law, the borough jails were designed to house no more than 3,300 inmates. Adams, however, has raised concerns about the plan's safety, given that the Rikers population is projected to exceed 6,000. This dilemma arises from the budget constraints set before the pandemic and the subsequent increase in Rikers' population, which has led to rising costs.
During an August news conference Mayor Adams stated, "The most those borough-based jails could take is about 4,200. We're projected to have over 6,000 ... I think the City Council must look at this plan, with 50% of the people having mental health illnesses, and see how do we come up with a plan that gets the reform we're looking for."
The mayor's comments have unsettled advocates and several elected officials who believe they signal a pushback against the Rikers closure. Advocates argue that there are alternative solutions to the population problem at Rikers.
Zachary Katznelson, executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, suggested that consolidating operations in borough jails could make them financially viable.
"It would cost just shy of $700 million a year to build these borough-based jails. We spend $2.7 billion a year every year on the Department of Corrections... Therefore, we're talking about consolidating operations, shrinking operations, making sure we have better lines of sight so you don't need as many correctional officers everywhere," said Katznelson.
One of the proposed borough-based jail sites is located in Chinatown, where demolition work has already begun. Residents, however, express concerns that their voices were not adequately heard during the planning stages.
Jan Lee, a co-founder with Neighbors United Below Canal Street, voiced his concerns about building a new jail in this historic Chinatown neighborhood, citing the community's resilience in the face of past challenges. "This project is a man-made direct result of bad city planning," said Lee.
He also highlighted environmental concerns and potential destabilization of surrounding buildings due to the construction. "The building of this mega-jail, which is the tallest in the world, taller than the Statue of Liberty, completely obliterates this open-air plaza."
While the exact height of the proposed jail remains undetermined until the design-build process is complete, sources close to the city suggest it will likely be approximately as tall as the neighboring courthouse.
Adams has promised the community a seat at the table in jail design discussions. Lee and others hope that this promise will be kept, as they are prepared to protest and react if they feel unheard or excluded.
In addition to the borough jail controversy, a Manhattan prosecutor is seeking federal government intervention to take over Rikers, a matter still under consideration by the courts. The future of both Rikers and the borough jails hangs in the balance, as New York City grapples with its evolving criminal justice landscape.