Don’t Close Rikers—Fix It

By: 
Nicole Gelinas

More than a year ago, New York City embarked on one of its most ambitious infrastructure projects in memory: spending $8.7 billion to build four high-rise jails across four boroughs, so that it could close its eight-decade-old jail complex on Rikers Island—a “penal colony,” in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s phrase—by 2026. Much has changed since this heady 2019 announcement. Covid-19 has decimated the city’s budget. One of three community lawsuits against the four jails has met with initial success. A rise in crime is a reminder that it will be difficult to keep inmate numbers below the four neighborhood jails’ far lower capacity. Even before the city breaks ground, the jails projects are already two years late, with the completion date pushed to 2028, well into the next mayor’s potential second term.

Even under the best circumstances, closing Rikers would be an immensely complex undertaking, designed to improve conditions for New York’s thousands of inmates. The project, though, is neither necessary nor sufficient to accomplish that aim. Just as important, four new jails will have a big adverse impact on the areas affected—Kew Gardens in Queens, Mott Haven in the Bronx, lower Manhattan’s Chinatown, and central Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue—at a time when the city cannot risk any more neighborhood destabilization. All four communities, despite vastly different demographics, voted against the new jails, but city leaders ignored them. Now, neighborhood activists are trying to show that disregarding the people’s wishes will have real consequences.

Mayor de Blasio announced the plan to replace Rikers in October 2019, saying: “Today, we made history.” The island, a mostly man-made, 400-acre expanse near LaGuardia Airport in Queens, has been the center of Gotham’s jail system since the 1930s. An inmate who can’t make bail, or whom a judge remands without bail, will be detained there, along with convicted New Yorkers sentenced to jail terms of a year or less.

For more than a half-decade, closing Rikers has been the marquee cause of progressive criminal-justice reform advocates in the city, part of a broader aim of radically reducing incarceration. “Rikers Island has come to represent our worst tendencies and our biggest failures,” then–city council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in her State of the City speech in early 2016. “For too long, Rikers has stood not for more justice, but for revenge. We must explore how we can get the population of Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.” Like other “Close Rikers” advocates, Mark-Viverito often brought up the story of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old from the Bronx who spent three years at Rikers awaiting trial for an alleged violent robbery. Browder was ineligible for bail, as the new allegations violated his probation on an earlier conviction. Prosecutors ultimately dropped the robbery charge, but Browder took his own life in 2015, two years after his release.

To achieve her goals, Mark-Viverito appointed a blue-ribbon commission to create “A More Just NYC.” In 2017, the commission, chaired by Jonathan Lippman, former chief judge for New York State’s court system, released its report, which wasn’t lacking in dramatic stories. One mother told the commission, for example, that, while visiting her children’s father in jail, her daughter “had to watch a dog walk by and smell her even though she is scared. Every time the dog came by, she would grab the stroller where her brother was, to try to protect him. She knows to take her hat, coat, and shoes to put it in a bin to push through scanning. She knows to walk through a metal detector.” Yet bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs, metal-detection scans, and searched belongings are part of the airport experience, too—and will be necessary at any new jails.

Beyond the commission’s sometimes-strained vignettes, many of its facts are correct. The nine Rikers Island buildings are old and suffer from poor construction and maintenance. The island is also home to an assortment of dilapidated trailers and heavy-duty tents, never meant to serve as permanent infrastructure. Cells are noisy and smelly and lack basic provisions for personal hygiene and climate control. In 2014, 57-year-old Jerome Murdough, a mentally ill veteran in on a trespassing charge, died of heat exhaustion in a cell. Even before Covid restricted visits, it was hard for families of inmates to visit Rikers; only one city bus stops near the island, and from there, visitors must wait for a Department of Correction bus and then go through multiple searches. A trip can easily take all day, for a one-hour visit.

The commission’s conclusion: conditions at Rikers Island are “so inhumane” that closing the jails is a “moral imperative.” Because Rikers is both “physically remote” and “psychologically isolated,” the city must build new “community jails.” Only “brand-new facilities” could accomplish the goals of designing “town-center”-inspired jails, with dorm-like cells; “normal furnishings”; central spaces for food, education, and health care; natural light; and outdoor space for recreation. In a later report, the city itself said that centrally located jails would “foster community connections,” keeping inmates near their loved ones and serving as neighborhood anchors for community services. The final plan, after revisions by the mayor and city council over three years: two 20-story jails in Mott Haven in the Bronx and in Kew Gardens in Queens, and two 30-story jails in central Brooklyn and in lower Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Conditions at Rikers are unquestionably abysmal. But to acknowledge that Rikers has problems isn’t to say that improvements there are impossible—or that high-rise jails in dense neighborhoods would be any improvement.

Because New York plans to insert each new jail into a densely populated neighborhood, the jails will have less cell space than Rikers, limiting the overall inmate population to 3,544—roughly half the current Rikers total. Yet even after a months-long push to release suspects at risk of Covid, the jail’s population stood at 4,749 in November 2020—a full third over future maximum capacity. The city is therefore making an optimistic bet that crime will fall significantly from 2019’s near-record-low levels—yet by November 2020, the city’s homicide rate was up 38.2 percent over the previous year. If these figures persist, future officials will face unpalatable options: asking neighborhoods to accept higher crime, forcing inmates to remain locked up in overcrowded jails, or reopening Rikers.

The city has never answered basic questions about how high-rise jails would work. How will guards evacuate inmates to busy city streets during an emergency? How will jails in 20- or 30-story buildings provide enough outdoor recreation space and natural light? Several of New York City’s top criminal-justice officials toured two Norway prisons two years ago to learn about a more humane model, but neither is a high-rise; both take a campus approach. Similarly, one of three bidders to design and build the lower-Manhattan jail, Gilbane Building Company, has experience building a New Jersey correctional facility over 28 acres, not in a dense urban environment. (Another bidder, Plaza Construction, is part-owned by the Chinese government, which certainly has experience in jail-building.)

New borough-based jails—again, with a nearly $9 billion price tag—hardly seem necessary to reducing prisoner isolation, one of the Lippman commission’s goals. As the commission’s report notes, many of the isolation issues at Rikers stem from poor public transportation and long security lines after visitors reach the island. The city could address that by improving public transportation to Rikers, including adding a ferry service; it could speed security lines by hiring more guards at peak times, as well as more airport-style body scanners.

Further, the new jails wouldn’t guarantee that detainees would be nearer family members and their home neighborhood—another major Lippman aim. The new jails will divide population equally, with 886 beds each. But population, crime, and detention rates aren’t spread equally across boroughs. A Bronx resident alleged to have committed a crime in that borough, where the crime rate is the highest in the city, could find himself detained in, say, Brooklyn, when the Bronx jail fills up, making it no easier for his family to visit than it is now.

Given that Rikers is only 60 percent occupied, New York should abandon its borough-based replacement scheme and instead rebuild the island complex, transforming it into a modern jail, with hospital beds to treat the acutely mentally ill and ample space for indoor and outdoor recreation. A modernized jail campus could include space for a law school or school of social work. Family members visiting inmates could mingle on grassy paths with students and teachers, once everyone had passed a secure checkpoint, even stopping at shops to purchase goods made and sold by inmates. Inmates nearing release might even be allowed to have casual contact with the public.

Bill Bialosky, a Manhattan-based architect who has helped design several corporate headquarters, says that this Norwegian-style campus model makes more sense than the high-rise alternative. Rikers is the only expanse of New York City land close enough to the rest of the city not to be truly remote, but undeveloped enough to allow for a rehabilitative low-rise campus. “You start at one end and go zone by zone,” he explains, upgrading for modern environmental regulations and energy requirements, as well as for flood protection. He suggests that the city launch a “charrette,” inviting designers, architects, and planners to spend a weekend creating imaginative renderings of a new Rikers.

New York has already shown that it can address some of the legitimate complaints about Rikers, at least incrementally. The city no longer holds juvenile arrestees there, for example, instead placing them in separate facilities for younger inmates off the island. So there can’t be a repeat of the Browder tragedy, at least at Rikers.

Though there’s no assurance that New York can achieve “A More Just NYC” through new high-rise jails, de Blasio’s city hall and Speaker Corey Johnson’s city council have achieved quite a political feat already, dubious though it is: they managed to pass an unpopular plan, ignoring what the people who live and work in the four proposed jail communities want. New Yorkers from all walks of life have reached the same conclusion: the new jails will create unwanted new problems.

Some apply to all four neighborhoods, such as parking. New Yorkers grumbling about parking is, of course, nothing new. In this case, though, it’s justified. The Department of Correction has nearly 9,000 uniformed officers and 2,000 civilian officers; much of Rikers Island is a parking lot. Each new borough jail will have between 125 and 605 legal parking spots, presumably in a basement or low-floor garage. But as Jan Lee, a third-generation Chinatown resident, notes, lower Manhattan is already overrun with government employees’ parking, both legally and illegally. What was meant to be a plaza at an existing, smaller jail in Chinatown “has sunk, due to . . . the fact that it was never intended to have cars on it,” he points out. Traffic is another shared concern. In Kew Gardens, Queens, Sylvia Hack—like Lee, a longtime resident of her neighborhood—says that congestion on Queens Boulevard, where the new jail will go, is “already horrific.” Corrections officers coming to work in shifts will worsen existing jams.

Other worries are unique to each neighborhood. Kew Gardens is located in a district of single- to three-family homes and modest walk-up apartment buildings. The neighborhood is middle class, with a population largely made up of Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and whites. The crime rate is low, with 900 felonies annually for its 150,000 residents. The neighborhood’s vocal citizens opposed the jail because they want to preserve the middle-class character of Kew Gardens. As Hack underscores, one of the city’s stated goals is for the new jails positively to “change the culture and context of the neighborhood” by providing, within the jail complexes themselves, community centers, library-type areas, and other spaces open to the public, thus helping area residents avoid the criminal-justice system altogether—or so the reasoning goes.

But Kew Gardens doesn’t need such opportunities. Few of its residents go to jail; the three surrounding zip codes detained just 25 people as of 2018. “They said this jail will be integrated into the community,” says Hack, a community board member since 1974. “How will this mega-jail be integrated into the community?” What Kew Gardens could really use, Hack believes, is new middle-class housing. “It’s a great place because there [are] good schools; it is a very diverse neighborhood.” Another resident, a small-business owner, says derisively that the city can “build a library” if it wants to give the neighborhood additional community facilities.

Now consider Mott Haven, in the southeast Bronx. The new jail would be built on what is now a police parking lot for impounded cars. Mostly Hispanic and black, with few white or Asian-American residents, Mott Haven has a high poverty rate—50 percent above that of Kew Gardens. Mott Haven also suffers high crime, with more than 2,300 felonies annually for its 90,000 residents, four times the level of Kew Gardens, when adjusted for population.

Mott Haven residents oppose a jail for the opposite reason that Kew Gardens residents do: because their neighborhood is poor. Arline Parks, like Hack, has been an active resident of her neighborhood for decades. Hailing from a storied civil rights family, Parks watched what was, during her 1960s childhood, a stable middle-class area fall prey to violent drug wars and suburban flight. Staying in Mott Haven became “nobody’s joke,” she says. A former banker, she remained partly because “people said, don’t be like everybody else. Don’t leave.” Nowadays, she manages the Diego Beekman mutual-housing complex, offering nonprofit, working-class rental housing across 38 mid-rise buildings in Mott Haven for 1,200 families. In early 2020, before the pandemic began, a vagrant, angry that one of her building managers had told him that he couldn’t sleep in the vestibule, tossed a garbage can through a plate-glass window, costing Diego Beekman $2,000.

Despite the efforts of committed residents, Mott Haven is barely “stable,” says Parks. “We’re still having narcotics raids.” When police and prosecutors get drug dealers, robbers, and other violent actors off the streets, she says, Mott Haven residents aren’t worried that these alleged criminals will be isolated; instead, “everybody is relieved and glad that they’re gone.” With a new jail in place, though, “they’ll be right back out on the street corner” when released, Parks predicts. Moreover, because the proposed jail is more than two miles from the nearest courthouse, the city will ask Mott Haven to put up with Department of Correction buses transporting inmates, adding to the heavy traffic that clogs the southeast Bronx.

Again like Hack, Parks doesn’t believe that her neighborhood will benefit from new “community services” that the new jails might bring—though, in this case, it’s because Mott Haven already has enough, with several homeless shelters and addiction-treatment clinics, for instance. She, too, thinks that the city should help create new working-class and middle-class housing in the neighborhood instead of a jail. In fact, before the city chose the high-rise jail site, Parks and her colleagues had come up with a plan that garnered informal city support. “What is the future of this neighborhood right now?” she wonders. In building a Mott Haven jail, she warns, the city is sending a message to local children that incarceration is something that they might expect in their lives.

Chinatown has its own reasons for opposing a jail. Unlike Kew Gardens and Mott Haven, Chinatown has experience with operating a jail, on the proposed high-rise site (Rikers is the largest city jail, but not the only one). Lee notes that the Manhattan Detention Center has hardly been a good neighbor. “They offload their detainees while they are still in handcuffs through the streets of Chinatown and past Columbus Park, where generations of kids have had to witness this,” he says. “This would not be done in wealthy neighborhoods, period.” Nearby residents of century-old buildings are also concerned about the health and quality-of-life impacts of potentially round-the-clock demolition and construction near heavily populated tenement buildings. Lower Manhattan has endured far more than its fair share of large-scale construction over 20 years, with the reconstruction of the World Trade Center still not completed.

Residents of central Brooklyn, too, have spoken out against the jail plan, many because they agree with the mayor’s goal of more humane detention centers. As in Chinatown, central Brooklyn residents are neighbors of an existing jail that the city will shutter and demolish, so they see through the idea that new buildings in new locations will solve the system’s problems.

So far, New Yorkers in these neighborhoods have made clear their wishes about the jails plan, through the most direct form of democracy Gotham has devised: community boards. New York’s 59 community boards originated out of 1960s-era good-government reforms. In 1963, residents were furious over the lack of political accountability in city planning, after Robert Moses had bulldozed through neighborhoods to build highways and public-housing towers. Partly in response, New York amended its charter to establish its first community boards. Each board represents a neighborhood of roughly 100,000 people, with 50 volunteers appointed by the borough president. Community boards cannot make law and their decisions aren’t binding, but they offer advice to the city council and the mayor about their neighborhoods.

In 2018, every community board in a targeted neighborhood voted the new-jail proposal down. In recent history, the only issue that has come close to garnering such disapproval was the city’s siting of new neighborhood waste-transfer stations, in 2005. But even in that case, three of four boards voted to welcome the sites. Community boards even regularly advise in favor of homeless shelters.

Why, if four separate community boards have made it clear—in three cases, unanimously—that they don’t want jails, has the city persisted? Part of the answer is the unintended consequence of term limits. It’s no coincidence that Mayor de Blasio signed the law to build new jails in his second term; he will not face voter blowback in a future mayoral election. In three of the four neighborhoods targeted for jails, the current city council member is term-limited by law after 2021, so he or she won’t need to face district voters again, either. In the fourth neighborhood, as Parks points out, the area councilwoman benefits from the grim reality of low-income neighborhoods: low community awareness, engagement, and voter participation. The only current—and aspiring—politician who directly risked future voter rejection over the jails vote was Johnson, the city council speaker, who, in 2019, was contemplating a 2021 mayoral run (he later decided against running). But he didn’t propose to put a jail in his own Manhattan district.

What options do neighborhood residents have, then? The immediate one is legal. Community groups in three neighborhoods—the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens—have sued the city, alleging that it failed to honor another protection put in place after the top-down neighborhood planning of the postwar era: the state and local legal requirement to analyze, in depth, potential environmental impacts.

Though three judges will ultimately decide the merits of each case, each suit makes basically the same argument. The city “acted arbitrarily, capriciously, abused [its] discretion, and acted inconsistently with precedent,” Parks, one of the plaintiffs in the Bronx suit, alleges. First, it addressed all four jail projects through just one environmental-review process. On other citywide projects that require multiple sites, such as waste-transfer locations, the suit notes, the city has voted on a separate land-use change for each site. Out of hundreds of such applications since 1977, “it does not appear that the city . . . has ever before acted . . . to certify and conduct a single, citywide review for a . . . land action,” Parks’s suit charges.

In Queens, two coalitions, Queens Residents United and the Community Preservation Coalition, argue in their suit that there is “a lack of rigor in . . . projections regarding the detainee population.” In her 2016 speech, Mark-Viverito said that the goal was to reduce the jail population sufficiently so as not to need Rikers. The city is going about this two-step process backward, closing Rikers before it has credibly demonstrated that it will no longer need the space for today’s level of prisoners—let alone for the more than 20,000 people on the island at any given time during the high-crime early 1990s.

In Chinatown, Lee and several other plaintiffs, through a new group called Neighbors United Below Canal, charge significant deficiencies, including the city’s abruptly changing the location of the Manhattan jail after its environmental process was well under way, from a site surrounded by government buildings to one in a residential neighborhood, including a senior center. Lee and others charge, too, that the “neighborhood advisory councils”—created by the city to fulfill its obligation to listen to the community, after it didn’t like the advice that the community boards were giving—consist of people handpicked by the city itself and offer no opportunity for the public to speak or the press to attend. In the fall of 2020, the Chinatown suit met with an early success, with a judge determining that the city had committed an “error” of law in purporting to finish its environmental review before the project was even designed and failing to consider alternatives; the city is appealing.

Far superior to a happy legal outcome would be a happy political outcome. Lee points out that Chinatown will vote in a new councilperson next fall and that the incumbent, Margaret Chin, won her election by 260 votes. “These things can be razor-thin,” he says. In the Bronx, Councilwoman Diana Ayala, the incumbent, is up for reelection, and she, too, won by a thin margin last time. Parks thinks that now is the time for the “silent majority” of New Yorkers to make their views clear about the jails projects.

Opponents to the jails must stay organized enough, and focused enough, to demonstrate that they’ll reliably vote as a bloc, affecting not only neighborhood races for the council but close citywide races, too—including for the mayoralty. Ironically, they, too, must turn themselves into single-issue advocates. “We are seeing unity in the community not seen on this scale in more than a generation,” says Eric Dillenberger, founder of Chinatown’s Walker Street Block Association, a group opposed to the jails plan; he observes that more than 1,000 people showed up to a protest march in the fall of 2019. Lee concurs: “I think this is it,” he predicts.

Of course, the pandemic means that the citizenry, from Kew Gardens to Mott Haven, has much on its collective mind besides new jails. Yet Covid-19, despite the tragedy it has wrought across New York City, has already forced a delay in the jails projects. In his first post-pandemic budget revision, in the spring of 2020, de Blasio delayed the jails from 2026 to 2027. Again, in the fall of 2020, he delayed them to 2028. Before condemning thousands more Rikers inmates to await trial at the island’s obsolete facilities, why don’t the 2021 mayoral candidates propose to pause the project and do what de Blasio and Johnson should have done in the first place: rebuild gradually in place at Rikers, on a faster schedule?