De Blasio says city will shrink planned jails

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would reduce the size of four proposed jails during a meeting with reporters at City Hall Wednesday.  Eagle  photo by David Brand.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would reduce the size of four proposed jails during a meeting with reporters at City Hall Wednesday. Eagle photo by David Brand.

By David Brand

The city will shrink four proposed jails that would replace the isolated correctional facilities on Rikers Island based on new detained population estimates, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday, but the overall plan to build the “borough-based” facilities will proceed in spite of community board opposition.

De Blasio told reporters that the city would revise the size of the proposed jails, including a 270-foot-tall facility behind the Criminal Courthouse in Kew Gardens, based on a recent estimate that 4,000 people will be detained in city jails by 2026, down from an initial estimate of 5,000. New York City currently detains about 8,400 people on Rikers Island and other city jails.

“We’re trying to make these facilities as small as we can given the changing environment,” de Blasio said. “We’re going to get to that 4,000 level and, therefore, we’re going to make the jails smaller.”

The current plan calls for building a jail in each borough except for Staten Island with a capacity for roughly 5,750 detainees and inmates. The city has not yet adjusted the capacity or physical size of the jails since announcing the lower estimated number of detainees last month.

“Based on the new number we’re looking at what is the right size,” de Blasio said. “We want the jails to be as small as they can be and we have not published the exact size of the new jails because we’re still doing that analysis.”

De Blasio said the city will consider moving different agencies to Rikers Island after closing the jails.

The number of detainees in New York City jails has decreased by roughly 30 percent since 2013, the year de Blasio took office. State and city criminal justice reforms related to bail and prosecution of low-level offenses are expected to further decrease the city’s jail population.

The city has already adjusted some parts of the jails plan to reduce the total size of the facilities. The Kew Gardens jail will no longer include a medical unit, for example, officials from the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice told Queens reporters last month.  

New Yorkers across the political spectrum say they support the plan to reduce the overall number of detained individuals in the city, but they diverge on what to do next.

Several people, including top officials in the Queens District Attorney’s Office, recommend designing new jails at Rikers Island, while others, like the Close Rikers coalition, support the city’s plan. A third movement, known as No New Jails NYC, calls on the city to shutter the jails on Rikers Island and investing in proactive community support programs and alternatives to incarceration.

The city’s plan has encountered intense resistance from community boards representing Kew Gardens, as well as the neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan where the new jails will rise.

Queens Community Board 9 voted unanimously to reject the 270-foot tall jail and 676-space parking lot in Kew Gardens on May 14. The 1,258,000-square-foot jail would house all women detained in New York City as well as hundreds of men. Earlier this month, a community board in Brooklyn also voted to reject the plan. Land Use Committees in the Bronx and Manhattan have each voted in favor of resolutions to oppose the jails in their communities.

De Blasio told reporters that he respects community involvement in the planning process, but said the final decision ultimately falls to the City Council, which has remained supportive of the borough-based jail plan.

“In the end, the land use process revolves around the City Land Use Commission and the City Council, and the city council members involved have been adamant that it’s the right thing to do,” De Blasio said.