As the City Council Speaker and Governor Andrew Cuomo have joined advocates in calling for the the closure of Rikers Island, Mayor Bill de Blasio is quietly resuming a Bloomberg-era plan to build a new 1,489-bed jail on the island.
Planning for the new Rikers facility began under the Bloomberg Administration, which budgeted $529 million for it in 2014, 2015 and 2016, according to a June 2, 2014 City Council report reviewed by the Voice. According to the report, the prison was supposed to open in 2018, and “serve as a central admissions center for all male inmates on Rikers Island and certain borough facilities as well.”
Ground for the new prison was broken in the last days of the Bloomberg administration, on December 18, 2013, accompanied by an official Department of Corrections press release and a photograph of seven city officials with seven silver shovels. “This is considered among the largest city projects in our century,” Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs was quoted saying at the time.
But when Bill de Blasio assumed control of City Hall two weeks later, on January 1, 2014, his Executive Budget for the coming fiscal year “rolled” the money allocated for the new jail forward, from Fiscal Year 2014 to 2015.
The move, according to the City Council’s report, was intended to allow de Blasio’s new Corrections Commissioner, Joseph Ponte, “to reassess the purpose and usefulness of the facility. Approximately $2 million remains in Fiscal 2014 for the design of the facility but may be adjusted upon completion of the Commissioners evaluation.”
As recently as March of this year, 2016, the new jail was still “on hold … to evaluate new strategies for housing inmates,” according to another City Council financial report reviewed by the Voice.
That has changed. Aerial photographs of Rikers Island taken in late June confirm that a site on the island’s northeast side, where the new prison is supposed to be built, has been cleared, graded and prepared for construction. The “Sprungs,” giant, white tent-like temporary housing structures that had once been at the location, are gone, and freshly-excavated, leveled dirt can be seen in their place.
According to the City Comptroller’s Office, the new jail will be finished in 2021, as that is when the current construction contracts expire.
The facility is actually projected to cost $596.4 million, according to Doug Turetsky, of the city’s Independent Budget Office.
Turetsky says that of the $529 million budgeted for the new jail, $95.4 million has been committed by contract, and $23.7 million has actually been spent.
But the true cost of the new jail may be closer to $1 billion, according to a former high-ranking New York City official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of being held responsible for a “dust up.” This official has experience with both the City budgeting process and the City jail system.
The de Blasio administration has not made a public announcement on the facility’s construction progress, or how they plan to use it.
A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, Freddi Goldstein, confirmed that construction on the project had resumed, and that the work “is progressing while the Administration continues to refine its plan for the site to reflect the latest in correctional design and programmatic use.”
Goldstein added, “It is crucial that we consider the design of this facility within the context of raising standards in all of our facilities.”
The revelation that the de Blasio administration is building a new Rikers Island jail comes at a pivotal moment in the grassroots movement to close Rikers Island and reshape New York City’s criminal justice system.
Last February, during her State of the City address, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito said, “Rikers Island has come to represent our worst tendencies, and our biggest failures,” before announcing a plan to “explore how we can get the population of Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.”
A week after her announcement, Governor Cuomo endorsed closing Rikers. In an interview with NY1, Cuomo said “we should close Rikers down.” When pressed, the governor said that New Yorkers should “admit that Rikers, as it is, doesn’t work and admit that it should be closed down, that’s step one.”
Other political leaders, including City Comptroller Scott Stringer, have since added their voices to a growing chorus that is calling for closing the jail. Supporters of closing Rikers include celebrities like Russell Simmons, Nas, John Legend, Olivia Wilde, Piper Kerman and fellow Orange is the New Black alumnus Emily Althaus.
“For marginalized New Yorkers who were promised a more fair and humane criminal justice system, spending $1 billion to build a new jail on Rikers is another example of de Blasio’s bait-and-switch,” says Glenn E. Martin, founder of JustLeadershipUSA, a group advocating the reduction of the American prison population by half, by 2030. “Any further investment in New York’s Abu Ghraib would be tantamount to putting lipstick on a pig.”
During her State of the City address, Speaker Viverito also announced the creation of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. The Commission is tasked with exploring ways to reduce the number of people imprisoned on Rikers, to move jail facilities off Rikers Island, and alternate uses of the island itself – that is, if the jails are closed, how Rikers Island should be repurposed.
The Commission is chaired by New York’s former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, who vowed his Commission would “pull no punches” in its final recommendations.
According to a statement attributed to Judge Lippman on the commission’s website, their task is to re-imagine “a state-of-the-art criminal justice system in New York City that does not rely on a de facto penal colony on the outskirts of town.”
A spokesperson for the Commission, Anna Durrett, said the commission is about halfway through its work, and anticipates releasing a preliminary report in the spring of 2017.
“Any credible path forward,” Durrett added, “must help right the wrongs of mass incarceration.”
In late September, several hundred protesters marched through Queens to the foot of the bridge that leads to Rikers Island and demanded that the long-troubled jail be closed. Among those that joined the protest was Akeem Browder, brother of Kalief Browder, who killed himself after spending three years on Rikers, including two in solitary confinement, for a charge that was ultimately dismissed.
Rikers, Akeem said, is a “constant reminder of what they did to my brother. We need to stop buying a dream that things will change on its own, or that Rikers can be reformed. It is time to close Rikers Island.”
Correction: This report initially stated that the photograph of the construction on Rikers Island was taken in July of 2016. It was in fact taken on June 25, 2016.