In October 2019, the City Council voted in favor of a plan to close Rikers Island and build four borough-based jails, including one in Kew Gardens.
There were 318 murders and 777 shooting incidents in the city that year, as Mayor de Blasio bragged of having the “safest big city” in the country.
But in 2020 those numbers jumped— critics say because of state bail reform — to 462 and 1,531, increases of nearly 45 and 97 percent, respectively.
With shootings on the rise in the city, many question the plan that would shrink inmate capacity to 3,300 with 3,544 beds. The city has around 5,550 inmates now.
Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), who represents the neighborhood where the Queens jail will be built, said in 2019 it was “the most difficult proposal” that ever came across her desk.
Koslowitz said the Kew Gardens jail, which will see work begin on a garage in April according to the lawmaker, would have happened regardless of her vote, and her support helped her have a say in the project. The building was changed from 29 floors to 19 and an infirmary for people all over the city was scrapped.
“As an elected official you have to weigh pros and cons,” she told the Chronicle Monday. “I could’ve voted no and everybody would have loved me but the jail would have still happened.”
Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant who teaches at John Jay University, noted problems in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Portland where “massive amounts of inmates” have been released.
“New York City has an opportunity to look at other places that are doing this where it’s not working out so well,” he said. “But meanwhile, the mayoral candidates are leading the charge, the activists are leading the charge and staring us right in the face is evidence that this may not work en masse.”
Former Queens Executive Assistant District Attorney Jim Quinn said he is “absolutely stunned” the city is moving forward with the plan.
“If those extra murders happened on the Upper East Side or Upper West Side, I think the city would have a different reaction to the increase in crime but they’re spread out all over the city,” Quinn said.
Giacalone said violence is spreading, pointing to stories about people in Manhattan being shoved onto subway tracks.
“Once the general public starts to fear that, they will demand that their politicians do something,” Giacalone said. “But why do I have to wait for that? Can’t I just use common sense ahead of time? But apparently that’s not that common.”
The Council passed the plan, slated for 2026 and later pushed back a year, by a 36-13 vote. The project was originally to cost $8.7 billion but more than $470 million was cut in the budget. The price tag is around 7 percent of the city’s 10-year capital budget.
Backers of the plan criticized conditions at Rikers, while noting that borough-based jails would keep inmates closer to their loved ones and courts.
Statistics showed bail reform was not the reason for the increase in shootings. The city saw 528 shootings through June 30, a 46 percent spike from the same point in 2019. A New York Post analysis showed just one person released under the statewide bail reform laws passed at the start of 2020 had been charged with a shooting.
Tyler Nims, executive director for the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, said the rise in shootings amidst Covid is tragic but not because of reforms.
“The way to stop crime and violence is to invest in communities and smart enforcement, not to subject more people to the destabilizing impact of Rikers,” he told the Chronicle in a statement.
Nims said building on two decades of safe reductions in city jails, the path is clear and achievable: “End case delays so people don’t linger in jail for months and years, invest in supervised release to limit cash bail to as few cases as possible, and reform parole so people are no longer locked up for allegations of low-level violations.”
On Feb. 25, de Blasio signed a bill to transfer jurisdiction of Rikers to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services by Aug. 31, 2027 and require a study of renewable energy generation and storage on the island.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) called it “another step forward in the work to transform Rikers Island from a symbol of mass incarceration into a space that benefits all New Yorkers, potentially as a hub for renewable energy.”
Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria), who introduced the bill, said, “For generations, Rikers Island has been a symbol the world over of our country’s failures to truly embody the principles of liberty and justice for all. With the passage of the Renewable Rikers Act into law, however, we will finally close the book on the island’s brutal history.” The Department of Correction will be prohibited from operating jails on the island after August 2027.
Quinn believes the city could have rebuilt Rikers as a world-class jail.
“It’s just so sad what they’re doing to this city,” he said.
Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), a supporter of the borough-based jail plan, noted that crime is down — NYPD statistics show a 23.74 percent drop through March 7 compared to the same period in 2020, with a slight decrease in murders.
“Those violent crime areas are not the people who would be eligible for the new bail reform,” he told the Chronicle. “It’s the new bail reform that we are relying on to lower the population.”
He called Rikers “dilapidated” and said the borough-based jails are needed.
“I’ve seen the terrible, terrible conditions that exist there,” he said. “Literally every 10 feet in some of the buildings when you walk down the hallway, there are leaks that the Department of Corrections has placed big garbage pails under to collect the water.
“We can’t, as a country, as a nation or as a city, place people who we are trying to rehabilitate in conditions like that. Nor should we ask Corrections Officers to work in conditions like that.”
Dromm said one problem is inmates being subjected to conditions at Rikers and one problem is people being placed in the system in the first place.
He would like to see the borough-based jail population to be around 2,000 people “so you’d have some leeway with an extra 1,500 beds,” adding that he hopes it can be done with bail reform.
Dromm also said the system hurts those who don’t have money.
“If you are a rich person and you commit a heinous crime, if you can pay the bail, you get out until you’re convicted,” he said. “That’s what’s not fair.”
Giacalone said the decision makers aren’t the ones who will live with a “prison in their backyard. Rikers Island is the perfect spot for a jail,” he said. “It’s out in the middle of the water. It doesn’t really affect anybody. Having prisons in people’s neighborhoods doesn’t make much sense, in my book.”
The city prisons had more than 20,000 people incarcerated in the early 1990s — the city saw a record-high 2,245 murders in 1990. In 2016, the prison number dropped under 10,000.
When prisoners were released during the coronavirus crisis, the population dropped to 3,809 on April 29, the lowest it had been since the 1940s, according to the Center for Court Innovation.
Though the numbers have increased since, Quinn says the city is boxing itself in with the 3,544 prison bed figure.
“What happens if crime keeps going up? What can they do? There’s nothing they can do,” he said.
Quinn, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for borough president on a platform against the borough-based jails, spoke to civic organizations and other groups about the plan in 2019 and 2020.
“The thing about the Rikers debate that always bothered me was that it was so little based in evidence and it was really based in ideology,” he said.
Supporters of closing Rikers said many people were on misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses but Quinn, speaking in 2019, said as of Aug. 27, 2018, there were 8,258 inmates at Rikers, including 6,447 with open criminal cases. Quinn said 2,975 were there because they could not pay bail. Of those, 438 were Queens defendants and 92 percent were being held on felonies.
“These are not nonviolent defendants being held on Rikers Island,” he said.
Giacalone said the city is attempting to lower the population even in the face of recidivism. “I’m all for second chances. It’s the guy who’s been arrested 30 times where I start shaking my head,” Giacalone said. “A slap on the wrist doesn’t work.”
Quinn compared the movement to close Rikers in favor of the smaller jails to a cult.
“You can just see what’s happening to the city. I just don’t understand it,” he said. “I don’t understand how these guys can live with themselves, what they’re doing to the city. And it was predictable. Everyone knew what was going to happen.”
Quinn added, “They just don’t want to face up to the fact that there are people who belong in jail.”