On Monday, New York City’s jail chief, Joseph Ponte, surprised the City Council by announcing that the plan to build a new 1,500-bed jail on Rikers Island, first reported by the Voice in October, had been placed on hold.
The acknowledgment came during a hearing held by the City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services, chaired by Queens Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley. In response to a question from Crowley, Commissioner Ponte said that construction on the new jail has been stopped.
“As we look at construction and now with the…kind of the movement to close Rikers all those things politically have to be taken into consideration,” Ponte testified, according to a transcript of the proceedings. “So the 1,500 bed facility on Rikers is still at…at a kind of a pause right now.”
Ponte added, “We’ve done a lot of work on the 1,500 bed facility. There’s been some renovations on the ground. Some structures have been torn down. So we have a good footprint. We’ve looked at the plan. So it’s…well, it is at this point on pause.”
Ponte’s acknowledgement that construction on the site — originally begun during the Bloomberg administration and continued under the current administration — had been halted significantly differed from what Mayor Bill de Blasio told the Voice at a press conference held over a month ago.
In response to a direct question about whether a new jail was under construction on Rikers, de Blasio said. “I don’t know of any new facility being constructed on Rikers Island. I know there’s working being done on existing facilities. But let’s have folks who are more expert than me speak to that.”
Commissioner Ponte’s announcement came as a shock to another member of the committee, Councilman Paul Vallone, of Queens. Vallone responded by saying that he “had some questions, but you just threw them out the window when you said the facility is on pause.”
Vallone continued: “Wait. That. To me … The plan, each year, each budget, was to help you fight for that budget,” referring to the money needed to build a new jail, which could cost as much as $1 billion. “Who decided to put it on pause?”
That question was never answered.
Regardless of who made the decision to halt construction of the new jail, it was enough to trigger a round of celebration among members of the coalition to close Rikers.
“We receive, with reserved jubilance, the news from DOC Commissioner Ponte that the City has ceased all new construction on Rikers Island,” said Wendy Calderón-Payne, executive director of BronxConnect. “We hold this Administration responsible for its treatment of our most vulnerable.”
Glenn Martin, founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, a group dedicated to cutting the national prison population in half by 2030, said, “It’s encouraging to hear that Mayor de Blasio is finally responding to the voices of the communities that have suffered most from the violence and abuse at Rikers, as place that has been mired in depravity for decades.”
JustLeadershipUSA organized a well-attended march to close Rikers in September, and Martin sits on the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, a group created by the City Council that is charged with exploring ways to reduce the number of people imprisoned on Rikers. The commission is considering moving jail facilities off of Rikers Island itself, and is looking at alternate uses of the island, should that happen. Its website welcomes New Yorkers to submit their views on the matter.
Councilman Vallone dumped cold water on the idea of closing down Rikers.
“We need a complete infrastructural overhaul of the island without a dream of thinking its going someplace else,” Vallone said. “Because there’s not a councilmember in the city that’s going to say, ‘put that facility in our district cause we really want it there.’ It’s never going to happen. Never.”
Martin, of JustLeadershipUSA, vowed that the close Rikers campaign will be “relentless.”
“Now, more than ever, is the time to double down and put our resources and energy behind movements led by directly impacted communities.”