The City Council voted to move forward with an ambitious $8.7 billion plan to build four borough-based jails and replace the Rikers Island complex, which is set to be closed by 2026 – a feat many wrote off as unrealistic just a few years ago.
Of the 49 council members who cast a ballot last week, 36 voted in favor of the land use plan, which has received criticism and skepticism from people across the political spectrum. Mayor Bill de Blasio, though, framed the bill’s passage as a major step forward for criminal justice reform in New York.
“The era of mass incarceration is over,” de Blasio said during a press conference after the vote. “I want everyone to understand what this is about, it’s about valuing our people, no longer condemning people and sending them on a pathway that only made their lives worse and worse, but believing that our people do not ever need to end up behind bars to begin with – never.”
Supporters of this plan have led with the argument that it is the best path forward to close Rikers – an institution with a long record of abuse – and begin to breakdown the systemic racism upon which the prison-industrial complex was built.
Fewer Beds, Reduced Height
The new plan aims to tackle that in part by cutting down the inmate population by limiting the jails’ capacity. Currently, New York City’s inmate population sits at 7,400. Officials have said that the new jails would house 3,300 detainees collectively, which is a number that has decreased from an original goal set at 4,000 total beds for inmates as the de Blasio administration negotiated with council members who were concerned about the height of the projects.
The design for each of the four new jails has decreased in height, with 155 feet lopped off from the Manhattan jail that’s planned to be constructed at 125 White Street. The original height of 45 stories had been a major sticking point for Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents the district in which the jail is being built. Chin voted in favor of the plan after the height reduction.
When asked during the press conference what the administration conceded in the project in order to decrease the height of the buildings, de Blasio did not directly answer. Instead, he pointed to there being 150,000 fewer arrests in 2018 than 2013 and expected that trend to continue in the future, meaning there would be even fewer incarcerated people in the city by 2026.
As part of the plan, the council has earmarked $391 million to fund restorative justice programs, school-based programs, mental health services and housing initiatives. Much of the money is expected to b implemented over the next three years.
Additionally, the new facilities, according to administration officials, would also be safer for detainees and provide a better quality of life by offering direct outdoor access from housing units, among other design elements aimed to improve the system. By operating facilities in each borough (except for Staten Island whose prison population is too small to warrant its own facility) the city hopes to cut down on expensive transportation of inmates to court.
While many found the bill’s passage as cause for celebration, the group No New Jails, which has been the most vocal opponent of the plan, said they were disgusted by the council’s vote.
“With an opportunity to take a stand against the centuries-old and universally-failed strategy of fixing jails by building jails, the council fell miserably short of the mark,” said a statement the group posted to Twitter Thursday.
In response to those dubious that Rikers will be closed in 2026, and that the culture of the system will change, de Blasio told reporters he appreciated the group’s position and hoped this step would be a move toward that end.
“We should strive for a day where we don't need any jails,” he said. “We've never known that day in human history. That doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for it. But based on everything we've all known and lived, this is an extraordinary step in the right direction”