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Queens Chronicle

Opponents of new neighborhood jails propose ferry system to save Rikers

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Posted: Friday, October 4, 2019 4:40 pm | Updated: 12:16 pm, Thu Oct 10, 2019.

New York City's waterways are being promoted as the wave of the future for commuters — but activists Friday proposed keeping Rikers Island as the city's main jail by using ferries to transport prisoners to and from court.

The proposal comes as the City Council gets ready to vote later this month on Mayor de Blasio's sweeping new plan to close Rikers and replace it with four borough-based jails, including one in Kew Gardens behind the Queens Criminal Court building. 

"Accessibility is the main driver to the new proposal," said architect Bill Bialosky, spokesman for a volunteer group of designers and engineers who live and work in Downtown Manhattan, where the city is planning to build a controversial 45-story jail.

Shutting down Rikers in favor new jails built next to the county courthouses in Queens, Manhattan and  Brooklyn, city officials say, would end the need to shuttle detainees back and forth from Rikers to court each day.

But the size and locations of the proposed jails have been opposed both by groups worried about the effect on local neighborhoods and criminal-justice reformers who want Rikers closed but no new jails to replace it.

Ferries, said Bialosky, are "the answer to the problem."

At bottom, the 49-page ferry proposal is a way to upend the $11 billion plan — $9 billion for the jails, plus $2 billion to repurpose Rikers as a multiuse city facility — for four expensive neighborhood jails that would take a decade to complete.

It is the first specific, workable alternative put forward by opponents, who on Friday delivered copies to all 51 Council members before the vote.

The re-imagining of Rikers calls for the city to demolish "every building" on the island and replace them with a series of smaller, low-rise jails — each with its own level of security and housing fewer than 1,000 detainees.

Renderings for a reimagined Rikers includes open spaces, sports facilities, a family center and a small farm. 

Connecting a rebuilt island jail system with the boroughs by ferry "liberates Rikers" from the necessity of moving hundreds of prisoners being held on charges on long bus rides to the courts each day, said the architect.

By rebuilding Rikers, he said, "it costs half as much and can be done in half the time."  

A dozen volunteer architects and engineers has been working on the plan for about a month, meeting regularly at the Lin Sing Association, the century-old Chinese-American organization on Mott Street, with community leaders. 

"Everyone lives in the neighborhood of the proposed White Street jail" in Manhattan's Chinatown, said Bialosky. 

But not all of the volunteers appeared at a press conference with Councilman Bob Holden (D-Middle Village), a staunch advocate for keeping Rikers open, at the association's headquarters to unveil the proposal last Thursday.

Several volunteers work on other city projects, either individually or through their firms, and did not want to be identified publicly with a plan that might jeopardize their jobs, Bialosky said.

No date has been set yet for the Council jail vote.

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