Oct. 17, 2019. By Shane O’Brien and Christian Murray
The New York City Council voted in favor of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island Thursday overcoming fierce opposition from community boards and neighborhood groups.
The plan, which will see the infamous prison facility close by 2026 and be replaced by four new borough-based jails, was approved by the council by a vote of 35 to 14 despite all four community boards where the jails will be sited rejecting it.
Queens Community Board 9 unanimously voted against an earlier version of the plan, noting that large jails shouldn’t go up in residential areas. Meanwhile, local groups such as Queens Residents United and the Community Preservation Coalition held rallies at Queens Borough Hall to condemn it.
Other groups such as “No New Jails” also emerged, which wanted Rikers shut down and no borough-based jails.
But the Mayor and Speaker Corey Johnson had no intention of backing down and held firm.
“Rikers Island is a symbol of brutality and inhumanity and it is time for us to once and for all close Rikers Island,” Johnson told the council before Thursday’s vote. He argued that the way to shut it down was by building jails in the boroughs.
The mayor was able to generate the support of Council Member Karen Koslowitz, whose district includes Kew Gardens where the Queens jail is slated to go, to vote in favor of the plan. He struck a deal with her before the historic vote that included reducing the size of the facility and providing additional police offices in the district.
“The last several months I have been adamant that the proposed size of the borough based jail in Kew Gardens needed to be significantly reduced,” Koslowitz said earlier this week ahead of the vote.
The City announced Tuesday that the proposed Kew Gardens jail, which will replace the decommissioned Queens Detention facilty at 182-02 82nd Ave., will be 19 stories and cater to 886 inmates. The original plan called for a 27 story building with 1,437 inmates.
All four borough-based jails were reduced in size.
Koslowitz, who had been subject to much criticism for not condemning the mayor’s plan when it was announced midway through last year, maintained that by being open to it she would be in a better position to have a say in its outcome.
“I would not have supported this proposal if I believed that it would have a negative impact on the community that I love,” Koslowitz said after the vote. “I’ve represented this community for over two decades, and have lived in it for over half a century, and I could never in conscious harm my neighbors.”
She noted that she was proud of her “yes” vote. “I passionately believe that we took a historic step today to create a more just and humane criminal justice system in New York City.”
Koslowitz only agreed to support the plan after the de Blasio pledged to reduce the height; guaranteed eight additional police officers to the 102nd Police Precinct; agreed to renovate the gym, school yard and auditorium at PS 99; and install security cameras at PS 99 and PS 139 to gain.
In addition, the mayor promised a 25,000 square foot community facility at the Kew Gardens site.
Koslowitz was joined by other Queens councilmembers in voting in favor of the plan, including Costa Constantinides, Daniel Dromm, Peter Koo, Francisco Moya and Donovan Richards.
“I’m voting to close the jails on Rikers Island once and for all and to end this stain on New York City’s history,” Constantinides said prior to the vote. “This was a difficult decision. But after speaking with people previously incarcerated on Rikers Island who now fight for a better system, I share their vision that this is our best option to close those houses of horrors.”
But not every Queens council member supported the plan, with Robert Holden being a fierce critic.
Holden called for the renovation of Rikers Island instead of building new jails. He said that the mayor’s plan, which is estimated to cost $8.7 billion, made no sense and that Rikers could be revamped at a fraction of the cost.
Holden also said that the plan fails to take into consideration a crime spike.
“I believe this plan is irresponsible, this decision was rushed, and this Council is not doing its due diligence,” Holden said.
The plan’s success is heavily dependent on the decline of the prison population.
The city’s current jail population is about 7,000 and the number of cells under the borough-based prison plan would be 3,444 once Rikers is closed.
Rikers, in comparison, can hold 15,000 inmates.
The mayor’s office announced Monday that it expects the jail population to drop to 3,300 by 2026. Prior to the announcement, it estimated that there would 4,000 inmates at the time of completion.
But one Queens councilmember who voted no said that Rikers should close and no new jails built.
Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer contends that the mayor’s plan is a waste of money and that the money should be spent on rehabilitation and crime prevention.
“The City should be focused on decarceration, not investing $10 billion back into the failed, racist prison industrial complex,” Van Bramer said in a joint statement with State Sen. Julia Salazar prior to the vote.
The city, however, only has room for 2,100 prisoners in its current jails outside Rikers Island, which are in substandard condition.
“These facilities aren’t as famous as Rikers Island but they are equally horrific and inhumane,” Johnson said. These jails–currently located in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx– will close as part of the mayor’s plan.