Officials, Protestors Scrutinize Plans for Jail Reform in NY

By Miguel Moreno

NEW YORK—The City Council reviewed and scrutinized a proposal endorsed by the mayor to shut down one of the largest jail complexes in the United States.

The complex is estimated to hold thousands of inmates and has gained notoriety for being a place of rampant violence and corruption. If the proposal is passed—besides shutting down Rikers—four modern and supposedly safer jails would be erected in four boroughs, excluding Long Island.

Mayor Bill de Blasio first endorsed the plan to end mass incarceration over two years ago. Support for the initiative varied in today’s hearing.

People walk by a sign at the entrance to Rikers Island
People walk by a sign at the entrance to Rikers Island in New York, New York, on March 31, 2017. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“To me, this plan is very outdated, it’s archaic, it’s dangerous,” Nancy Kong—President of the Co-op Board of Catham Tower—said in an interview with NTD News. “A vertical jail will put more people in danger than the city claims it will save.”

Kong said constituents of Rep. Margaret Chin sent health impact reports related to the demolition site where the new jail would be built. She said the reports explained that the airborne toxins would hurt seniors and children near the site.

Rather than the creation of more jails, Kong believes the city should invest in community programs.

Rep. Donovan Richards showed support for the proposal. He said he hopes that there is “real commitment to the programming” such as rehabilitation that could lower recidivism rates.

“Let me also add that I hope we are not going to just be rearranging the chairs on a sinking ship, because that’s what Rikers has represented for decades,” he said. “So I’m hoping that we’re gonna do something different and this isn’t the same old song and dance.”

Questioning Intentions

We interviewed the chair of Tribeca Trust: an organization with a mission to “mobilize residents and civic resources so as to preserve our neighborhood’s historic scale. Lynn Ellsworth called the plan to shut down Rikers a real estate scheme.

Rikers Island is in the center of the four boroughs. Because of this, Ellsworth said the land is prime real estate property in New York City. She added that Forest City Ratner—what used to be one of the city’s largest real-estate companies—was part of the commission doing the deliberation on the borough-based jail system.

“Fort City Ratner knows nothing about mass incarceration, nothing about criminal justice,” she said. “Why were they even there?”

NYC Prison
An NYPD vehicles sits outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on Feb. 4, 2019. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

According a document given at the hearing, “[t]he City will organize a robust community engagement process to determine the future use of Rikers Island.”

Council Member Inez Barron also questioned why the committee proposed “expanding the system that will keep people retained” when the incarceration rate has been declining. Since Mayor de Blasio took office, the incarceration rate went down 35 percent, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

The committee said it was reducing the number of beds by shutting down eight facilities on Rikers Island. A decision to accept or deny the proposal will be made in mid-October.