Brooklyn Boro

Mayor’s plan to close Rikers Island will double the space in Brooklyn’s prison

August 15, 2018 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
In order for Rikers Island to close, the Brooklyn House of Detention, located on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, will have to be expanded to fit nearly twice as many inmates on average. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese
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The de Blasio administration announced plans for building four “modern, community-based” jails throughout the four boroughs, minus Staten Island, on Wednesday that are expected to replace Rikers Island, which currently houses inmates awaiting trial throughout New York City.

The announcement stressed that the planned facilities will be much safer than Rikers Island and will offer health, educational, visitation and recreational services that are aimed at helping people to reintegrate with society once they’ve left jail.

“We’re taking a big step forward in the process of closing Rikers Island and creating a modern community-based jail system that is smaller, safer and fairer,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Now we can move full steam ahead on the engagement and planning for our new facilities so we can close Rikers as fast as possible.”

The mayor announced that New York City planned to close Rikers Island within 10 years in 2017. The biggest hurdle to closing the infamous prison is to shrink the population, just under 10,000 inmates at the time of the announcement, so that they could fit in smaller prisons that would be spread out throughout the city.

On Wednesday, de Blasio reiterated that the goal is to decrease the daily population, which currently sits at around 8,200, to 5,000, and said that prisons in each of the four boroughs will need to house at least 1,500 prisoners.

To do that in Brooklyn, the plan is to renovate and expand the Brooklyn Detention Complex on Atlantic Avenue. The Brooklyn prison currently houses approximately 800 prisoners. Not only would it need to fit 700 more prisoners on average, it also needs to allow space for safety, security, health and mental health requirements.

When asked about the Atlantic Avenue prison earlier this year, Michael Cibella, president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association, was quick to point out that the biggest problem was that it wasn’t set up to support the programs that Rikers Island provides.

“My concern in ultimately closing Rikers is losing services which the current community jails aren’t providing outside of Rikers,” Cibella said.

The plans mentioned parking spaces, which will be necessary as Atlantic Avenue where parking is scarce and lots are expensive, and a community space and ground-floor retail element plus on-site support services.

The proposal will need to go through a public review known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which would involve hearings and recommendations by Community Board 2, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the City Council and the City Planning Commission.

While many in the community have mixed reactions on expanding the prison, local Councilmember Stephen Levin, whose district contains the prison and whose office is a mere two blocks away, has maintained support.

“We have an opportunity to create more just, better integrated, and safer facilities close to courts, community services, and transportation,” Levin said. “I look forward to robust engagement with the administration and the community to reimagine 21st-century facilities in Downtown Brooklyn.”

The mayor announced plans to close Rikers Island after an independent commission, headed up by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, recommended closing it based on, among other reasons, poor conditions for inmates and guards, inaccessibility for families and service providers and costs associated with transporting prisoners in and out of the remote facility.

“Though preliminary, these plans show a real commitment to providing safety and dignity to those who work in city jails, those who are detained and those who are visiting loved ones behind bars,” Judge Lippman said. “These plans also demonstrate a commitment by the city to continue reducing the number of people we incarcerate.”


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