Last Thursday, acting Queens Borough President Sharon Lee held a land use hearing with the Department of Correction (DOC) and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice regarding a proposed amendment of the City Map.
The purpose of the specific ULURP application in question is to designate Rikers Island as a public space, at the same time ensuring that the island can no longer be used for the incarceration of individuals after December 31, 2026.
Moves to prohibit the use of Rikers Island for detention run concurrently with the city’s plan to replace the existing facility with four smaller ones in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx.
The City Council voted in favor of permanently closing the jails on Rikers Island and advancing the borough-based system on October 17.
The plan that was approved entails housing for a total of 3,300 individuals, and requires 3,545 beds. All of the roughly 250 beds designated for the city’s female detainees would be centralized in the Queens facility, which will take the place of the Queens Detention Center in Kew Gardens.
Nearly 650 beds in this jail would be set aside for the male population, prioritizing those with a Queens borough of residence.
Last year, 11 active jails operated in New York City, the DOC noted in its presentation to Queens Borough Hall. Eight of those facilities were housed on Rikers Island, holding nearly 7,000 inmates at this same time last year. Today, the population of Rikers Island is just over 5,500.
Dana Kaplan from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice says the transition represents a “significant reduction of the footprint of our criminal justice system, which is just part of the city’s overall efforts to reform and improve the delivery of justice.”
The project is still in the design phase, but Tim Farrell of DOC explained the new facilities will include both indoor and outdoor recreational space.
Speculative plans include between 700 and 900 square feet per housing unit, in addition to a “standard size” gymnasium consisting of a full basketball court surrounded by a walking track and exercise rooms.
Farrell also noted that the borough-based jails will operate off of the existing local power grids in each respective neighborhood, but will have backup generators that provide total emergency power.
The specific ULURP discussed at last week’s hearing, however, only covers the designation of Rikers Island as a public space and ensuring that future development on the site will not involve incarceration.
“Any new use would require a separate review process,” said Kaplan. “And we are committed to having a participatory community engagement process that is part of determining what will be the future uses of Rikers Island.”
Lee expressed trepidation concerning public engagement, and asked several times for examples of public spaces in the city where certain uses had been prohibited. There was no definitive answer to that leg of the question.
“There were some concerns about how the public participation and engagement was handled over the last year with regard to the borough-based jails,” began Lee. “And so we’re coming into this with a little less faith, unfortunately, in a process that is forthcoming.
“It almost feels like it’s kind of a blank check once we determine this to be a public place,” she added. “It’s hard to just give that faith and say ‘It will be used for public space’ without definitively outlining what that public participation and engagement would look like.”
Kaplan disagreed with Lee’s assessment of past community engagement, insisting that the city has been “very responsive to public concerns,” citing the neighborhood advisory councils set up to gather local input on borough-based jails.
She also divulged that Mayor Bill de Blasio will sign an executive order in the near future outlining the details of the participatory planning process for redeveloping Rikers.
This most likely includes public meetings and forums with an advisory board made up of entities the city deems key stakeholders in the project.
Any changes to the island’s zoning, as well as plans to make the land more environmentally suitable for public use would be considered in a successive ULURP.
Former assistant district attorney and candidate for Queens borough president Jim Quinn was the only member of the public to testify during the hearing. He expressed opposition to closing the jails Rikers Island, referring to the plan as unnecessary “political posturing.”
Quinn warned of the difficulties that would be imposed with a spike in crime overwhelming the capacity of smaller, borough-based facilities, and recommended rebuilding improved jails on the island as a cheaper and faster alternative.
“They either have to expand the jails that they’re currently building, or they have to find additional sites in New York City to build those jails,” he posed. “You are leaving future generations of New Yorkers few options if things go wrong.”
The borough president’s office is set to vote on the proposal in March, before the plan moves on to the City Planning Commission.