As the New York City government proceeds with plans to replace the jail complex on Rikers Island with new facilities in four of the city’s boroughs, officials have run into resistance from residents and government leaders from each borough over the proposed jail sites.
In four meetings held in recent weeks in each of the boroughs that would receive a new jail under the plan, officials from City Hall were confronted by residents who oppose construction of new jails, even in locations where jails already exist.
The city is aiming to have the new jails open and Rikers shuttered by 2027. The new jails would contain more than 1,500 beds and could come with amenities to serve surrounding communities, such as retail space or affordable housing.
In the Bronx, officials have proposed to build a new jail on what is now a New York City Police Department tow pound on a residential street in the Mott Haven section of the borough, which is in City Councilwoman Diana Ayala’s district.
Ayala and council members who represent the districts in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens where the new jails would be built each expressed support for the proposals when they were unveiled in August.
The proposed jail for the Bronx would differ from the jails in the other three boroughs in that it would be built from scratch, rather than expanding and renovating existing facilities, and that it would not be in the vicinity of the borough’s courthouses.
The proposal has also drawn criticism from a group of Bronx elected officials that includes Borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., who supports closing Rikers, but says that a new jail in the borough should be built closer to courthouses in the South Bronx.
“Presenting this site as a fait accompli has the potential to undermine necessary reforms to the criminal justice system,” Diaz said in a news release.
Opponents also include residents with not-in-my-backyard sentiments, those who don’t think Rikers should be closed at all and activist groups like No New Jails NYC, which agrees that Rikers should close, but is against building new jails in the city, advocating for reducing the ranks of the incarcerated through reforms to the criminal justice system and divesting from mass incarceration.
“There is no such thing as a humane cage and new coats of paint can’t make jails safe,” the group writes in an outline of its positions.
City leaders say that the total population of the incarcerated would need to be reduced to 5,000 for Rikers to close; thanks to various criminal justice system reforms, over the last two years, the population at Rikers has fallen from more than 9,700 to about 8,300, said Tyler Nims, executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which issued the report recommending gradually closing down the scandal-plagued jail facility on Rikers over a 10-year period.
Nims said that it came as no surprise that the sites for the borough-based jails would get some pushback from residents, but said he doesn’t think the jails as proposed would negatively affect the character of their respective neighborhoods.
Nims said the city plans to get the Uniform Land Use Review Process, which includes review by elected officials and the City Planning Commission, rolling by the end of the year and there may not be enough time to look for new sites.
Additionally, he said, for proponents of closing Rikers, it is important to keep up the momentum of the process to ensure that it can be completed within the next nine years.
“We are in the midst I think of changing the way that justice is done in this city,” Nims said.