On Valentine's Day this year, Mayor De Blasio, with support of the Governor, State Legislature, and City Council, approved a plan in secret to build a costly and unsubstantiated Borough-Based Jail system right in the middle of four of our New York City neighborhoods. Without warning, de Blasio sprung this on residents and has since proceeded to hurriedly barrel ahead without any checks or balances, community engagement or thorough analysis.
The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Kew Gardens are each slated to receive new high-rise mega-structures to be filled to the brim with 1,510 inmates and additional staff from Rikers Island, which in turn would then be closed. The proposed jail in Kew Gardens, pictured in the accompanying rendering, is additionally proposed to have a Trauma Unit built into it to serve the other City jails and will undoubtedly bring ambulances 24/7.
Mayor de Blasio has not spoken directly to City residents about his plan. This autumn, a whole seven months after his announcement and only after an uproar from the affected communities and pressure from local elected officials, did he send some junior staff members into the trenches to present the jail proposal overviews. When questioned about important details and actual workings of the Borough-Based Jail proposal, his staff couldn't answer fundamental questions, which comes as no surprise. Constant questioning from constituents revealed that no studies have been done by the City to substantiate any of the justifications the Mayor's Office is currently making for the Borough Based Jails proposal.
The City has only issued generalized, glowing platitudes and abstract press releases about the beauty of the planned jails and the general services they would introduce for inmates and their families to reduce violence in the jails and recidivism. However, no facts have been presented to substantiate any of these claims or explain why these programs haven't been put in place at Rikers Island already. No one has shown why new Borough-Based Jails in residential neighborhoods would be necessary in order to implement such programs.
The proposed jails and their hundreds of staff members and visitors will strain community and neighborhood infrastructure, including traffic, streets, parking, subways, bus routes and schools ‒ of all four communities that have been slated for the project, but it will put the biggest burden on mostly-residential Kew Gardens and surrounding communities.
City and State officials have written letters to the Mayor asking that he halt and reset the jails approval process to allow for community involvement as required by the City's own Environmental Quality Review Process (CEQR). City Council Members have sponsored a very reasonable bill introduced by Council Member Robert Holden that calls for study of the costs of renovating Rikers as an alternative. If we're going to have taxpayers foot the bill for the city's jail facilities, we should be able to show them the facts and figures, Holden has rightly said.
However, other council members appear too intimidated by the Mayor's office to publicly support it. In fact, City Council Member Karen Koslowitz, who represents Kew Gardens, Forest Hills, Rego Park and a section of Middle Village, actually struck a deal with the de Blasio administration to bring the monstrous jail slated for Queens to her district! The new facility in Kew Gardens will bring significant economic development and provide hundreds of new parking spaces in the community, Koslowitz stated in an August release. We'd like to see her analysis.
De Blasio and Koslowitz have not considered and are unsympathetic to what taxpayers would have to pay to construct these new jails; even the lowest abstract estimated budget of $10B would inflate to $30B in just five years (or more once an actual budget is devised). Meanwhile, our public transportation, schools, healthcare and other fundamental social services are seeing both budget and service cuts, as they struggle to provide New Yorkers with the basics necessary for their survival.
City officials rightly state that the 8,000+ prisoners currently on Rikers will need to be whittled down to 5,000 in order to be accommodated by the four new jails and for Rikers to be shuttered. Neither City officials nor Department of Corrections staff have provided evidence ‒ beyond their abstract need to have the numbers add up to match the proposed number of new jail beds ‒ whether these 3,000+ actual inmates can in fact be safely released into the community or not.
Additionally, solutions to the City's critical criminal justice problems are not addressed by building new jails:
Reforming jail culture is the only possible way to end the culture of violence in jails.
Building new courthouses on Rikers Island and hiring to fill the shortage of judges would shorten inmate wait times for adjudication of their cases.
Eliminating cash bail for non-dangerous first-time misdemeanors would help some unreasonably jailed inmates.
Dedicating ferry and shuttle services from transportation hubs around the city for family members and lawyers wishing to visit Rikers would make it immediately more accessible.
Building modern, thoughtfully designed jail facilities to replace the decrepit facilities on Rikers would eliminate the need to build jails in neighborhoods.
Some of the taxpayer funds that are so readily being funneled by the City to the new jails should instead be used towards providing a foundation for better opportunity for all New Yorkers to help keep people out of jail in the first place. Not to mention that some inmates at Rikers are held there for as much as a year without seeing a trial date – a clear violation of their 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial. The City should be directing funds at building courthouses and hiring more judges and attorneys instead.
The Mayor wants to build neighborhood jails at great expense while the City can't even replace boilers in NYCHA crumbling public housing, or care for the homeless, to name a just a couple of critical issues in our City. DeBlasio also has never explained why Rikers jails have been allowed to deteriorate to the point that they need to be replaced. (A look at the renderings published by noted architects may give a clue as to why.)
We urge all NYC residents to strongly encourage their elected representatives to not only oppose these huge new jails, but also call on the Mayor to halt the rushed certification and approval processes, which are currently moving forward without community input. Let's not have this opportunity for criminal justice reform turned into a private sector boondoggle of hefty borough jail construction projects, taglines for selfish career building, and a redevelopment land grab of real estate known as Rikers Island.