City Council votes to close Rikers Island

City Council votes to close Rikers Island
Photo by Kevin Duggan

The House of D expansion is officially a done deal.

City Council voted to approve a $8.7 billion scheme to close the Rikers Island jail complex and construct four smaller borough-based jails in its place on Thursday.

The controversial vote passed by a substantial 36-to-13 margin after months of infighting, controversy, protests, and political back-and-forth, to achieve a historic step in addressing the city’s tainted history of incarceration, according to the Brooklyn legislator, in whose district the larger Kings County jail will be built.

“This is a historic step forward in our city,” said Councilman Stephen Levin (D–Boerum Hill). “Today is a result of years of advocacy of people who have lived first hand the tortures of the jail.”

The plan calls for infamous jail complex on Rikers Island — which houses some 7,000 inmates — to be decommissioned, and paves the way for construction of a 295 foot 886-bed jail facility on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, replacing the current 11-story 170-foot building housing 815 beds.

Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson were ardent supporters of the jail plan, which was harshly criticized for by anti-incarceration activists, pro-law enforcement groups, and residents living nearby the proposed jail sites.

In an effort to close the massive island detention center off the coast of northern Queens, the four new facilities will be erected by 2026 in all boroughs except Staten Island, because there aren’t enough jailed people from The Rock to justify a separate facility there, the city has argued.

In a separate vote, the council banned any future detention facilities from operating on Rikers Island — which has become symbolic of the nation’s comparatively-high incarceration rate.

Brooklyn legislators were relatively split on the issue, with nine voting for and six against the plan.

Among the Kings County yes-voters were Stephen Levin (D–Boerum Hill) — whose district the Brooklyn lockup will be built in — Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo (D—Fort Greene), Brad Lander (D—Park Slope), Antonio Reynoso (D–Bushwick) Robert Cornegy (D–Bedford-Stuyvesant), Mathieu Eugene (D–Prospect Lefferts Gardens), Justin Brannan (D–Bay Ridge), Farah Louis (D–East Flatbush), and Mark Treyger (D–Coney Island).

The vote for building new jails was not easy, but it will be the best way to improve the city’s system of incarceration, according to one lawmaker.

“I don’t like voting to build jails — of course I would rather spend that money on housing, on schools, on community centers,” the pol said. “It is the most likely path to incarcerating the fewest people in the least inhumane way.”

Freshman legislator Farah Louis said while she supported the plan, she remained skeptical and noted that much more needed to be done to address the city’s broken criminal justice system, and that the administration should also work to protect law enforcement officers — such as her brother who she said was stabbed in the jail complex.

“This process — I believe – will not solve or change the problem but it will move the problem,” Louis said. “My hope is… that the administration will earmark funds for communities that by providing for schools, recreation centers, and a substantive restorative justice plan to protect officers like my brother who was over four times at Rikers.”

Bushwick councilman Rafael Espinal went further by voting against the proposal because the city wouldn’t match the massive investment in the lockup with money for the community.

“I cannot approve spending $8.7 billion on new jails, without a plan that would match that investment dollar for dollar in at-risk communities like the one I represent,” Espinal said. “This plan addresses how people are incarcerated, but it doesn’t address why people are incarcerated. We can do better.”

Other Brooklyn lawmakers opposed to the plan included Chaim Deutsch (D—Sheepshead Bay), Inez Barron (D—East New York), Kalman Yeger (D—Borough Park), Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D–Brownsville), and Carlos Menchaca (D–Sunset Park) all voted against the scheme.

The demands for more community investment echoed concerns by members of the detention facility’s local Community Board 2, whose members in June cast a purely advisory vote against the plan as part of the city’s land use review process, demanding more funds go to addressing the causes of incarceration, and toward more affordable housing, education, and alternative sentencing programs.

The following month, Borough President Eric Adams gave a purely advisory vote for the project land use application, but asked for a smaller facility with less beds, while also laying out a slate of his own wellness ideas to help jailed people once they’re released, including a vegan diet, yoga, childcare, and job training programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office announced ahead of the vote that the city would add $265 million of investments to address the root causes of incarceration, in addition to $126 million already earmarked for that.

The total of $391 million — slightly less than 5 percent of the overall budget for the project— will go toward expanding pretrial services and programs to divert people away from incarceration and the criminal justice system, as well as helping people in custody with programming and reentry services.

The funds will also go to housing, mental health services, reducing violence, and better integrate the new jails into their surrounding communities.

The hours-long marathon meeting and was interrupted several times by audience members applauding for the plan and protesters opposing it.

The vote call stalled when protesters from the group opposed to the building of new jails, Now New Jails, threw flyers down from the audience balcony that read “If you cage our future, blood on your hands,” before security staff escorted them out.