Brooklyn Boro

Jail plan gets green light, will head to City Council

September 3, 2019 Noah Goldberg
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The City Planning Commission voted Tuesday to approve the mayor’s plan to build four new borough-based jails as part of the effort to close the violence-plagued jail complex at Rikers Island by 2026.

The vote — which sends the land-use proposal to its final destination with the City Council — came during a heated meeting in Manhattan where protesters with the group No New Jails NYC chanted “shame” and accused the commissioners of having “blood on [their] hands.”

The 9-3 decision to approve the proposal with modifications was the first binding vote in the land-use process known as ULURP. A “no” vote from the commission would have killed the process. The “yes” vote, however, was largely expected, as the commission has voted to approve all 644 city land-use applications in the last 19 years.

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“Today’s vote is so much more than a vote on site selection and special permits,” said commission Chairperson Marisa Lago over shouts from protesters before the vote. “It’s a vote to end a bleak era in New York City’s criminal justice history.”

The city’s plan would bring a new jail to each borough except Staten Island for a total cost of $8.7 billion. The jails would each contain 1,150 beds to accommodate a projected 4,000 residents, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, which is spearheading the plan.

The commission made a few modifications to the plan, such as reducing the square footage of each jail. With their changes, the proposed Brooklyn facility would be 70,000 square feet smaller — down to 1.12 million square feet from 1.19 million. The commission did not change the proposed height of the facility, so the change would likely mean a building slightly narrower than the one originally proposed.

The group also scrapped the idea of a “skybridge” between the proposed Brooklyn jail and Brooklyn Criminal Court. One commissioner told the Eagle the bridge would not be necessary because of the underground tunnel that already exists to transport people in the jail to the courts and back again.

The commission’s modifications also narrowed in on the businesses operating on the ground floor of the proposed Brooklyn facility. The change requires 50 percent of the ground floor’s façade to be covered by windows, up from 30 percent. The goal, according to a Department of City Planning spokesperson, is to “ensure an active and inviting streetscape for pedestrians.”

The plan has received pushback from community boards across the city, as well as from some borough presidents, both of which have advisory roles in the process.

The final say rests with the City Council. All four councilmembers whose districts would house new jails have given tentative support to the mayor’s plan.

Protesters with No New Jails hold up signs at the City Planning Commission vote. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg

Protesters with No New Jails — a group that advocates for the abolition of prisons and jails — argue the city can close the complex at Rikers Island without opening new jails, and that money spent on building the new facilities would be better allocated to funding NYCHA and education. They also argue that the construction of new jails would expand the city’s jail system, because there is nothing legally requiring the city to close Rikers Island.

“Our communities who are directly impacted should not take [the risk of Rikers staying open],” said Brittany Williams, an organizer with No New Jails. “We know what Rikers has done.”

Williams also expressed concern about the city potentially moving incarcerated people from the Brooklyn Detention Complex to Rikers Island by the end of 2019 to make way for the construction process.

Commissioners explained their thinking before casting their votes on Tuesday but were drowned out by boos and chants from protestors. One commissioner, Allen Cappelli, began to speak about his background as a criminal defense attorney. “Nobody cares about your history,” a protester called.

The three votes against the borough-based jail plan came from commissioners appointed by the borough presidents of the Bronx, Staten Island and Queens. Both the Bronx borough president and the Queens borough president oppose the mayor’s jail plan.

Joseph Douek, the commissioner appointed by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, voted to approve the plan, calling it a “viable but not perfect plan,” to the Brooklyn Eagle. “Today’s raucous meeting is proof that everyone has a voice in this process.”

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