By David Brand and Noah Goldberg
The community boards have voted and the borough presidents have weighed in. The city’s plan to close Rikers Island jails by 2026 — by building four new borough-based facilities via an unprecedented land use measure — has moved out of the advisory stage and into the legally binding phase as it approaches a fall vote by the City Council.
The plan calls for building a new 1,150-bed jail in every borough except Staten Island and likely depends on the support of the four councilmembers who represent the neighborhoods in question: Karen Koslowitz, who represents Kew Gardens in Queens; Stephen Levin, who represents Boerum Hill in Brooklyn; Margaret Chin, who represents Manhattan’s Chinatown; and Diana Ayala, who represents Mott Haven in the Bronx.
Initially, all four councilmembers were in favor of the plan when it was unveiled last year. Since then, two have hedged their support.
A spokesperson for Chin said on Friday that the Manhattan councilmember would not commit to the idea of situating a new jail in her district, despite her original support for the plan, which she called a “roadmap for comprehensive criminal justice reform.”
Brooklyn’s Levin, who has said in the past that the mayor’s proposed facility was too big, told the Eagle that Rikers needs to be closed as soon as possible and that the incarcerated population needs to be “dramatically reduced.” He did not take a firm stance on the ULURP application or say which way he would vote.
Koslowitz and Ayala both told the Eagle they still support the plan.
The four politicians’ stances are particularly important, because the council traditionally votes in lock step with local councilmembers on Uniform Land Use Review Procedure applications.
But this is far from a traditional land use situation. For the first time, the city has packaged four different sites into a single ULURP application, rather than expose each plan to individual review.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. — who are all seeking another office or widely believed to be doing so — have shared their reservations about the plan and said the city should go back to the drawing board. Only Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has thrown her support behind the plan, though she wants modifications to the Manhattan plan.
The four affected community boards have all rejected the ULURP application, with a Brooklyn vote to support the plan failing by a single vote.
An April poll conducted by the independent commission that recommended closing Rikers jails found that roughly 59 percent of New York voters say they support the borough-based jail plan.
In the midst of all this confusion, the Eagle has put together a guide to the attitudes to the new jail plan in each of the four neighborhoods.
Kew Gardens, Queens
Councilmember Karen Koslowitz maintains her support for the plan, even after Queens Community Board 9 voted unanimously to reject it in May.
The Queens jail would house all women detained in New York City, as well as several hundred men in separate units. Koslowitz would like to see the city construct a smaller jail behind the Queens Criminal Courthouse, her spokesperson Michael Cohen told the Eagle.
“In light of everything, she is continuing to negotiate with the administration to bring the number of units down,” Cohen said.
Cohen said Koslowtiz negotiated with the city to eliminate an infirmary from the Queens location, reducing the size by thousands of square feet.
That concession wasn’t enough for Queens CB 9, which voted 28-0 in favor of a land use committee resolution rejecting the ULURP application.
“This resolution is opposing very strongly, for many reasons that are listed over eight pages, this jail to be erected in Kew Gardens,” said CB9 Land Use Committee Co-chair Sylvia Hack before the vote. “To be doing a ULURP on a concept is denying the good that the land use procedure that is in the charter does and can do.”
Hack borrowed from the arguments of the No New Jails coalition in her resolution, explaining that the state’s new criminal justice reform measures could make the new, large-scale jails unnecessary.
“We have followed the state’s legislation on criminal justice reform, bail reform and open file discovery which hopefully will have good effects in the city,” Hack said.
Katz, the borough president and a candidate for Queens DA, followed the board’s lead last month. She formally rejected the ULURP package on June 19.
Katz said she supports closing the Rikers jails but said the new jails would hardly differ from the island facilities.
“Building massive incarceration facilities that will only replicate the horrific conditions on Rikers Island in direct contradiction to the decarceration reforms already being undertaken is deeply unfair and counterproductive,” she said.
“A 1500 person jail anywhere in Queens in unacceptable,” she added.
Mott Haven, The Bronx
Nine days after Queens CB 9 voted unanimously against the plan, Bronx Community Board 1 voted 24-0 to reject the city’s proposal to construct a jail on an NYPD tow lot in Mott Haven, more than a mile from the borough’s courts corridor.
That location was designated for affordable housing and community development, said community board members and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr..
Diaz has been one of the jail plan’s most prominent opponents. But if the plan passes the council, he may be the one who inherits it.
Diaz is preparing to run for mayor and told the Eagle in June that he would “reexamine the process and take a hard look” if elected mayor.
“We can move forward with closing Rikers Island but reevaluate the sites individually,” he said. “I don’t know if that would take starting the process all over again.”
Diaz supports building a new jail, but he wants to locate it next to the Bronx Hall of Justice near Yankee Stadium instead of on the site of an NYPD tow pound in Mott Haven.
The city contends that the courthouse site is too small, but Diaz said they have not performed a land use study.
“It’s fascinating that the city would say such a thing when they cannot prove to neither you nor I that the site [would not work] because there has not been a feasibility study for the site,” he said.
Councilmember Diana Ayala said the opposition from Diaz and CB “is not representative of the wider community, where many directly impacted people in support of the plan live and work.”
“The borough-based jail plan offers a historic opportunity to reimagine our city’s criminal justice system and bring profound community investments to the South Bronx,” Ayala told the Eagle.
Boerum Hill, Brooklyn
After much tumult and several raucous meetings, Brooklyn Community Board 2 voted against the city’s application to build a new jail at 275 Atlantic Ave., where the 11-story Brooklyn Detention Complex currently stands.
CB2, which failed to pass a recommendation in support of the application by just one vote in May, came back in June and voted against the plan, though they set out a list of recommendations the city could implement that would ensure the community board’s support.
The board called for a smaller jail that housed only 875 beds, as opposed to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice’s plan for 1,150. They also demanded expanded alternative sentencing programs, a jail in Staten Island, and that incarcerated people with psychiatric diagnoses be moved out of jails and into therapeutic environments.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams echoed many of the community board’s concerns, supporting the idea of the borough-based jail plan, but calling for a smaller facility of 900 beds. In his recommendation on the city’s ULURP application, Adams said the height of the proposed jail should be no taller than 235 feet, as opposed to the city’s application for a jail of 395 feet.
Adams — who plans to run for mayor in 2021 — also called for yoga, plant-based diets, and nutritional education for people incarcerated in Brooklyn.
Local Councilmember Stephen Levin — like Community Board 2 and Adams — has said in the past the proposed facility is too big and out of scale with neighboring buildings.
“Many of the Borough President’s recommendations reflect my conversations with constituents and highlight the importance of enacting comprehensive criminal justice reforms for this process,” Levin told the Eagle in a statement. “We need to close Rikers as soon as we can and we need community based solutions that dramatically reduce our jail population and enable us to change the culture that has led to far too many New Yorkers being incarcerated.”
He said that criminal justice reforms enacted in Albany in April will further reduce the incarcerated population in the city.
Levin did not take a stance on whether or not he would vote in favor of the application, or whether he firmly supported Borough President Adams’ call for a 900 bed, 235 foot facility.
In Manhattan, the city plans on rebuilding the Manhattan Detention Complex, aka “The Tombs”. Community Board 1 said it supported the borough-based jail plan as set forth by the Lippman Commission, but unanimously recommended that the City Planning Commission disapprove of the application unless certain modifications and conditions were satisfied.
Among those modifications, they — like their Brooklyn counterparts — called for a jail on Staten Island. They demanded the city withdraw its application and make a totally new one based on April’s criminal justice reforms enacted in Albany. They also called for a “robust plan” to protect the residents of a nearby senior housing facility.
In her recommendation, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer was the only BP to recommend the jail, though she too asked for modifications. Like Community Board 1, Brewer called for the seniors living in the Chung Pak Complex to be “fully protected.”
Brewer also called for the new women’s facility, currently planned for Queens, to be relocated in Manhattan in a minimum security prison with views of Central Park that is closing down. Local Councilmember Margaret Chin also supports the idea of the Manhattan women’s facility.
She also wants to make sure that the effects on the seniors at Chung Pak — as well as all residents of Chinatown — are mitigated.
Chin also has concerns about the height of the proposed 125 White St. jail, which is currently planned at 450 feet, a spokesperson told the Eagle.
Despite Chin’s recommendations for the facility, when directly asked if she supports the idea of a jail in her district as part of the borough-based jail plan by the Eagle, a spokesperson for Chin declined to commit to a Chinatown borough-based jail.