Last Thursday, the City Council voted 36 to 13 to approve an $8.7 billion plan to build four new borough-based jails intended to replace the prison on Rikers by 2026.
The new jails will be located in Kew Gardens, Downtown Brooklyn, Chinatown and Mott Haven. Three of the four are sited near their borough’s courthouses, with the exception of the new Bronx jail, which replaces an NYPD tow pound.
“Today we made history, the era of mass incarceration is over,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a news conference after the vote. “This action today means New York City is set on a new path.”
“We cannot undo all the mistakes of the past, but we must do everything we can to move away from the failed policies of mass incarceration,” added Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “We’re on the cusp of a new, more humane era for our city.”
Days prior to the vote, the de Blasio administration agreed to fund $391 million worth of investments tied to the new jails, including $265 million in new programming.
The funding features $71 million in additional investments to diversion programs, including a $54 million expansion to pretrial services and $17 million to continue the city’s Alternatives to Incarceration programs.
Another $25 million will go toward transitional housing services. Nearly $3 million will expand Cure Violence programs to six neighborhood precincts.
Additionally, the city agreed to several neighborhood investments to support the communities where the new jails are sited. Capital upgrades will come to PS 99 in Kew Gardens, PS 139 in Rego Park and Queens Community House.
The streetscape around the new Downtown Brooklyn jail will also be improved.
Councilman Stephen Levin, who represents Downtown Brooklyn, said these investments are essential to the plan.
“We answered the call from advocates across the city to make sure we are not just tearing down old jails to replace them with new jails,” he said in a statement. “We are investing in neighborhoods to transform how we approach community justice for generations to come.”
As part of last-minute negotiations, the average height of the jail sites will also be lowered about nine stories each, according to reports. The City Council also voted for a map change to restrict the use of jails on Rikers Island after 2026, which officials say makes the closure legallybinding.
The city jail population has declined from 11,000 in 2014 to about 7,000 today. City officials project that number to shrink to 3,300 by 2026, aided by cash bail and other criminal justice reforms set to take effect next year.
Last week’s vote was part of a larger legislative package of justice reforms, which includes creating a Bill of Rights for incarcerated people, requiring the city to report on the progress of closing Rikers, and establishing a commission to make recommendations on reinvestment in communities impacted by Rikers.
Among those who voted in favor of the plan was Councilman Daniel Dromm of Queens, who first called for the closure of the jail complex nine years ago.
“Let the closure of Rikers only strengthen our resolve to transform the entire system for the benefit of all involved,” he said in a statement he read on the chamber floor.
Dromm dedicated his vote to victims of Rikers Island, including Kalief Browder, a Bronx teen who was tortured to the point of suicide after his release, and Layleen Polanco Extravaganza, a transgender woman who died in solitary confinement.
Another “yes” vote came from Councilman Barry Grodenchik, who said in a statement that shifting Riker’s population to the borough-based jails will actually benefit Queens neighborhoods.
The current complex requires inmates to be transported in and out, which is both expensive and inconvenient, Grodenchik said, whereas the Kew Gardens facility will be connected to the courthouse.
“Simply put, in addition to being more convenient for attorneys, family members and other visitors, the new facilities will be cleaner, safer, more modern and more cost efficient than Rikers,” he said. “This decision maintains the integrity of our criminal justice system and is right for Queens.”
Brooklyn Councilman Antonio Reynoso called Rikers Island “a torture chamber” where detainees are subject to inhumane and traumatizing treatment.
“Today’s vote is not about buildings, it is about the value we place on human life,” he said in a statement. “I cannot stand by while our brothers and sisters sit rotting away in crumbling facilities with few opportunities available to them when they’re released.”
Reynoso noted that while millions of dollars are being invested in the impacted communities, it’s not enough.
“Our goal must be for not a single person to be in a state-sanctioned cage,” he added. “I will not stop working until this ideal becomes a reality.”
The opposition to the plan came on different fronts. Some residents opposed opening a jail in their neighborhood, while others wanted to leave the jail complex at Rikers Island.
Queens Councilman Robert Holden, who voted against the plan, said in a statement that closing the complex won’t solve problems in the criminal justice system.
“The plan before us today completely lacks common sense,” he said. “Billions of dollars have been invested on Rikers Island throughout the years, and that infrastructure could be totally revamped for much less than the city will spend on this borough-based jail proposal.”
Holden added that the plan doesn’t consider the possibility of future spikes in crime.
“It will be a vote against the best interests of the constituents who elected us,” he said. “I believe this plan is irresponsible, this decision was rushed, and this Council is not doing its due diligence.”
Other council members rejected the proposal because of the new jails. Queens Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer said in a statement that building more jail cells means they will be filled by predominantly black and brown communities.
He said the nearly $9 billion for the plan would be better spent on public education, housing and job training.
“Build new jails or keep Rikers open is a false choice,” he said in a joint statement with State Senator Julia Salazar. “The city should be focused on decarceration, not investing $10 billion back into the failed, racist prison industrial complex.”
Brooklyn Councilman Rafael Espinal said the plan misses the mark because the money spent on the new jails doesn’t match with investments for at-risk communities.
“I am voting no because I was elected to ensure that young people in my district don’t end up in prison,” he said in a statement. “This plan addresses how people are incarcerated, but it doesn’t address why people are incarcerated. We can do better.”
No New Jails, a group of prison abolition activists who opposed the plan, said in a statement that they were “outraged and disgusted’ by the result of the vote.
The group vowed to keep fighting the new jails, and pledged to win because of their “transformative vision and liberation politic.”
“These jails will not be built,” they said. “We are more committed than ever to closing Rikers immediately with no new jails. The fight is just beginning.”
The main coalition of organizations pushing for the proposal as part of the #CloseRikers campaign celebrated the victory, but said the movement must continue.
“Let’s not lose site of tomorrow’s fight,” said campaign organizer Vidal Guzman. “We must continue to push for further investments in our community, explore opportunities to divest from law enforcement agencies, and continue advocating for a complete transformation of justice in New York City.”
Former Chief Judge of New York Jonathan Lippman, who led a commission mapping out the road to closing Rikers, called the vote a “monumental achievement” for New York City.
“It is the start of a new chapter in our criminal justice system,” he said in a statement, “one in which we prioritize rehabilitation over punishment, community investment over mass incarceration.
“With the steady reduction in the number of people in jail, and a commitment to programming and services that are projected to halve the current population, jail will be a place of last resort, not the path of least resistance,” Lippman added.