The city’s goal of making Rikers Island a public space after 2026 took another step forward last Thursday as officials went to Borough Hall as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.
The Borough President’s Office will make its recommendation on the proposal and then it will go to the City Planning Commission.
Last October, the City Council voted to close Rikers Island and remap it to not house incarcerated individuals after its jails are shut down. Proponents have cited recidivism and violence reduction efforts are limited by Rikers’ design and location, whereas four borough-based jails, including one in Kew Gardens, could provide more humane facilities and better access to families and social services.
Community Board 1 voted to approve the city’s ULURP application to make Rikers Island public land by a 36-0-1 margin in January.
What comes next for the island will be part of a separate review process.
“We are committed to having a participatory community engagement process that is part of determining what will be the future uses of Rikers Island,” said Dana Kaplan, deputy director for the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
Acting Borough President Sharon Lee noted that community feedback was an issue when it came to talking about the borough-based jail plan.
“You’ll understand that there is trepidation about what that public participation, public engagement looks like because there were some concerns about how the public participation and engagement was handled over the past year,” she said.
Lee added, “It almost feels like a kind of blank check, right? Once we determine this to be a public place, a public space, it’s hard to just give that faith and say ‘It will be used for public space’ without definitively outlining what that public participation and engagement would look like.”
Kaplan said the Mayor’s Office has been committed to engagement, citing changes in the jail plan after hearing from groups and holding public meetings.
“I think that we took very, very seriously the concerns that we heard around height and density and the smaller size of the facility,” Kaplan said, adding that it was determined all the city’s female prison population would be housed in one location after officials heard feedback.
“We want to make sure that we do as good a job as possible in hearing all voices and that the decisions about what happens on Rikers Island are grounded and informed by that input,” she said.
Asked what the participatory process will look like, Kaplan said details are being refined but it would essentially be an advisory board with public meetings and meetings with stakeholders including CB 1.
Kaplan noted the application’s timing was driven by term limits on Mayor de Blasio and many Council members, who must leave office in 2021.
Irving Poy, director of planning and development for the borough president, asked what the future use of the island will be.
Kaplan said it’s “tough to tell now,” adding that ULURP or state processes may be involved depending on what the uses are.
Lee called Rikers “inhumane” but said there are problems environmentally with the island itself.
“I would hate to see a public park there as it stands now,” she said.
Though the use of Rikers Island was on the agenda, talk switched to the borough-based jails themselves.
The borough-based jail system would consist of housing for 3,300 individuals, requiring 3,545 beds. There are more than 5,500 at Rikers Island, compared to more than 20,000 at Rikers and other city jails in the 1990s. When Mayor de Blasio took office, there were more than 11,000 inmates.
The Queens site will house the city’s female inmates with about 250 beds for women, according to Tim Farrell of the Department of Correction. The male population will predominantly consist of borough residents.
Kaplan said there would be outdoor recreation space within all of the housing units themselves as well as outdoor and indoor recreation space for the facility.
Farrell said the process is in the middle of the design phase and the city is looking at somewhere around 700- to 900-square-feet of outdoor recreation space for every housing unit, with the facilities averaging about 30 housing units each. There would also be a common standard-sized gym, something that would be seen in a high school, Farrell said, with exercise rooms and a track.
The project is “design build,” which allows government agencies to combine design and construction project bids into one contract to save money and time.
Farrell said the city is “looking for creativity” from a design team that is going to be bidding on the project and looking for what other outdoor space can be incorporated into the sites based on infrastructure.
He said requests for proposals and requests for qualifications are being prepared for issuance and though there’s not yet a date for when they’ll be released, they are on schedule for the 2026 deadline.
Lee also asked about what power grid will be used for the jail in Kew Gardens.
“We’re susceptible to blackouts and outages,” she said.
Farrell said the borough-based jails will operate off of the local grid they’re connected to and will have full backup generators with 100 percent emergency power.
He added that ventilation will be “state-of-the-art” with heating, ventilation and air conditioning for climate-controlled facilities. “Very modern, very sufficient and green,” Farrell described it.
Lee added, “Unlike what’s on Rikers. It will be humane.”
The cost of construction of the borough-based jails is projected to be $8.7 billion.
CB 9, whose area encompasses the Kew Gardens jail site, voted against the borough-based jail plan 28-0 with one abstention.
A number of rallies were held throughout the last year by unhappy residents in the area voicing objection to the jail plan. There were also hearings at Borough Hall. Groups split into people who wanted to keep Rikers open, those who wanted the borough-based jails built and a third group who wanted Rikers closed without any new facilities to replace it.
The issue was also a hot topic in the Democratic primary race for district attorney, with candidates constantly asked about their views on the jail system.
Jim Quinn, a retired assistant district attorney who is running for borough president, spoke out against the plan at the hearing last Thursday.
“Why is this even necessary other than part of a political move to make the Rikers Island project move forward? It’s not necessary to ban detention facilities on Rikers Island,” he said.
He said with the inmate population at more than 5,500, there would need to be 2,200 fewer inmates to meet the borough-based jail plan numbers.
“In order to get it down, they either have to reduce crime or release defendants charged with serious crimes and with serious criminal records into the general population,” Quinn said.
He also pointed out that new laws went into effect on Jan. 1 to prevent judges from setting bail on charges of menacing, robbery, stalking and almost 400 other crimes, in most cases.
“After decades of successfully reducing crime, crime in New York City is not going down, it’s on the rise,” Quinn said.
Quinn said NYPD statistics show car thefts have increased 67 percent, shootings are up 21 percent, shooting victims increased 30 percent, burglaries are up 15 percent and transit crime is up 21 percent.
“What if the city ultimately builds 3,600 jail cells and we find that we need to house 5,000 inmates,” the longtime prosecutor said. “What do we do? They either have to expand the jails that they’re currently building, in the four borough-based jails, or they have to find additional sites in New York City to build those jails.”
Quinn called the plan to no longer hold incarcerated people on Rikers regardless of what happens with the borough-based jails plan “irresponsible” and added that it is “political posturing.”
He believes the best way to improve the system is rebuilding the jails on the island, saying that would be faster and cheaper.
“You are leaving future generations of New Yorkers few options if things go wrong,” Quinn said.