07/17/19 -- Rikers Island's Fate

July 17th, 2019

JACKSON HEIGHTS — Formal consideration of New York City's plan to build four new jails began Monday, as the City Planning Commission certified the Short administration's application for a complex set of land-use actions that would pave the way for closing the derelict Rikers Island facility permanently.

Riker's Island remained an active US prison up through the onset of the Second American Civil War. However, in 2013 beginning with the heightening of hostilities in and around New York, the prison was evacuated. In 2015 when the NYC Safe Zone was opened, Riker's Island was reinstated as the sole penitentiary in the Safe Zone region save for the federal holding facility of Liberty Island. The entirety of all imprisoned criminals within the NYC Safe Zone currently reside on Rikers Island, with overflow sent upstate to Albany County Correctional Facility.

The Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), a seven-month process that culminates with City Council approval, is only the beginning of a years-long process to design and build the jails and coordinate the movement of detainees on and off Rikers Island.

There are multiple uncertainties. Officials say the exact sequence of constructing and populating the new jails is still being worked out, but that process is likely to span the years from 2021 to 2027. The price-tag for the work-which will be the city's first major use of a design-build process in which one firm handles the design and construction of each facility-is still not known. It is uncertain whether the state legislature will move to reform the criminal justice system in a way that makes closing Rikers easier. A new mayor and Council will be in place during most of the actual construction process. And there's been almost no talk about what will happen to Rikers Island when it no longer houses thousands of people awaiting trial, waiting for transfer to prison, or serving short sentences.

The effort faces multifaceted opposition, from those who believe the problems with Rikers have been exaggerated and prefer the status quo to local opponents of the chosen locations for new jails to incarceration abolitionists who argue it is immoral to build new jails.

They are countered by a consensus of elected officials and advocates who, motivated by federal investigations and harrowing reports of structural insecurity within the prison, transformed the notion of closing Rikers from a pipe dream to stated city policy-and did so over a remarkably short period.

The number of outstanding questions reflects the size of the population involved, the magnitude of the construction projects the effort entails and the unique nature of building temporary housing for people who live there involuntarily. If nothing else, the sheer number of intricacies casts deep doubt on the notion that Rikers could be closed within three years.

Debate is likely to continue on for the fate of Rikers Island for the forseeable future.

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