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A new proposal would ban jails from Rikers. Is it enough to convince jail plan skeptics?

October 10, 2019 David Brand and Meaghan McGoldrick
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A City Council committee voted on Thursday in favor of a plan that would forever banish jails from Rikers Island — long the stated intent of an unprecedented land use proposal for building four new detention facilities across the city, but a provision that was never actually codified in the text of the plan.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council proposed a map change — a change in the designation or boundaries of a particular zoning district — that would formally ban jails on the isolated island by the end of 2026. The proposal comes amid growing pressure from progressive opponents of the plan, which would create a new 1,150-bed jail in every borough but Staten Island.

Thursday’s vote marked the first time the City Council as a body has put forth a land-use proposal, according to council officials.

As of minutes before the vote on Thursday, however, the proposal had not been made public, city officials said. The text was not included in the City Council calendar or the Land Use Committee agenda; the Eagle obtained a copy as the vote concluded.

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The resolution would amend “the City Map so as to establish a public place, with a use restriction on the entirety of Rikers Island,” according to the text of the proposal. The use restriction would prevent “incarceration of individuals after December 31, 2026,” the document reads.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson said the “land use action shows our commitment to closing all of the jails associated with Rikers.”

“Rikers Island is synonymous with mass incarceration, pain and suffering,” Johnson said. “Advocates raised the need for a guarantee, and we agreed with them completely.”

“This is not an expansion plan, this is a reduction plan,” said Councilmember Stephen Levin, whose district would be home to the planned Brooklyn jail, at the hearing. By setting a date “codified in zoning law,” Levin said, “Rikers is going to close.”

The city’s borough-based jail plan, which heads to a full vote in the council later this month, would construct three new facilities near courthouses in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, and a fourth on the site of an NYPD tow lot in the Bronx. The plan’s supporters, including de Blasio and various councilmembers, say the proposal is designed to close the outdated, dangerous facilities on Rikers Island — but that intent never made it into the language of the proposal.

“Throughout this process, the city’s commitment has always been to permanently shutter the jails on Rikers Island,” said Alacia Lauer, spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

The map change proposal demonstrates “a clear commitment that legally says Rikers Island will no longer be used to incarcerate any individual,” JustLeadershipUSA spokesperson Brandon Holmes told the Eagle.

“It gives us a clear date for when Rikers will be closed and not just a clear plan for how we will close Rikers,” Holmes added. “Linking those two things together is important.”

JustLeadershipUSA has advocated for closing Rikers, reducing the city’s jail population to 3,000 detainees and opening two new detention centers rather than four. The city’s current plan and the Rikers map change are steps toward that goal, Holmes said.

The map change will now enter the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. The monthslong process, known as ULURP, includes public hearings, a non-binding vote by Queens’ Community Board 1, which has jurisdiction over Rikers Island, and both the Bronx and Queens borough presidents — the latter of which is a position that may soon open up if Melinda Katz wins the November general election for Queens district attorney — before the proposal goes back to the City Council for a vote.

Several councilmembers remain on the fence about the plan and have refused to state their position ahead of the full council vote. But at least two uncertain legislators think the map change is a positive development.

“This is an encouraging step in the right direction as these negotiations continue,” said a spokesperson for Councilmember Costa Constantinides, who is a candidate for Queens borough president. Constantinides has proposed turning Rikers Island into a renewable energy center.

Councilmember Donovan Richards, another candidate for borough president, said the map change provides “a real chance right here to send a national message that Rikers Island the most notorious jail in the country, is closing.”

Nevertheless, the jail plan’s opponents say the proposal to ban jails from Rikers does nothing to divert city funding away from detention centers and toward community services, education and housing in the communities most impacted by mass incarceration.

“Basically the city is voting on a jail plan [this month] and not an actual plan to close Rikers, and it’s very confusing and conflicting,” said William Depoo, a spokesperson for Desis Rising Up and Moving, a social justice organization that opposes building new jails. “The map change does not change our position … We should be thinking why are we investing in building jails and not our communities, schools, truly affordable housing.”

A team of organizers with No New Jails, a prison abolition group, said they had not seen the language of the map change proposal. The announcement was “very transparently a PR move” that would not actually address mass incarceration and systemic violence in detention facilities, they added.

“Asking New Yorkers to believe that an 11th-hour zoning amendment to close Rikers or end mass incarceration is like asking Americans to trust that a warning label on guns will stop mass shootings,” the group said.

Correction (9:40 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled William Depoo’s name.

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