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Inside the Battle to Close Rikers

Can New York City build its way out of mass incarceration?

Feature | Filed 10:00 a.m. 03.22.2019

One evening last fall, Dana Kaplan, a deputy director at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, in New York City, stood in a cavernous foyer in a Bronx courthouse to tell residents about a new jail that would be built in the borough. It was part of a 10-year plan, announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017, to close the complex of eight jails on Rikers Island and build four smaller facilities in locations around the city. There are currently about 8,000 people held in the city’s jails, down from more than 20,000 in the early 1990s, and de Blasio’s plan aims to reduce that number to 5,000. Kaplan’s job includes shepherding the initiative at the community level—partly by highlighting that the new sites would allow the incarcerated to remain closer to both local courts and their families. Standing before images of spacious visiting rooms with high-windowed views of verdant trees, Kaplan explained to the crowd that the goal is to construct “safe and efficient facilities that complement the neighborhood.”

This story was produced in partnership with The New Yorker.

At top, the proposed Brooklyn jail at 275 Atlantic Ave. is planned to be 395 feet tall.

Her voice barely penetrated the chants, boos and jeers. Later in the evening, residents took turns at a microphone, berating Kaplan and the other city officials. They had to shout to be heard, with only occasional phrases—“no new jails,” “a form of genocide”—emerging from the clamor. After the event, Kaplan, who spent many years as an advocate fighting to end mass incarceration, told me that she used to be “in that crowd.” A few years ago, inspired by de Blasio’s rhetoric on race and criminal justice (while running for office, for instance, he promised to curtail stop-and-frisk policing), she decided to work on the issue from the inside, helping to implement, among other reforms, new state laws that moved 16- and 17-year-olds off of Rikers. When the mayor committed to closing the island entirely, Kaplan saw an opportunity for a bigger transformation. “Efforts in the past to build new jails have never been about a shrinking of the system,” she explained. “This is a decarceration plan.”

Dana Kaplan, a deputy director at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice in New York City, is shepherding a plan to close Rikers Island and create four smaller borough-based jails.

For the past several months, Kaplan has been working on a study, released on Friday, that outlines a basic proposal for the new jails, which includes the construction of four facilities close to borough courthouses in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Each would hold more than 1,400 people and have areas for visitation and educational programs. Parts of the buildings would also be available for community uses, such as retail stores or meeting spaces. Public hearings on the proposal will likely begin next month, and a City Council vote is scheduled for the fall. De Blasio will leave office in 2021. The further along that the construction is by then, the more difficult it will be for a future mayor to reverse course. Any stumbles now will make it harder, ultimately, to close Rikers at all.

Rikers Island used to serve as a landfill site for the city and was home to vegetable and pig farms. The jail was opened in 1935 and has been notorious for its violence and dysfunction for decades. But the mayor’s decision to shutter its facilities largely grew out of a series of recent scandals, most notably, the case of Kalief Browder. Browder was arrested at the age of 16, for allegedly stealing a backpack, and spent three years at Rikers without a trial, during which time he was subjected to long stretches of solitary confinement and beatings by both other inmates and correctional staff. He was released in 2013, after Bronx prosecutors dropped the charges, but struggled with severe mental-health problems. Two years after his release, Browder took his own life. His family joined with a growing campaign of activists demanding that the city shut down the island. The following year, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was then the speaker of the New York City Council, formed an independent commission to research possible reforms at Rikers. The commission, which was led by Jonathan Lippman, a former chief judge on the New York Court of Appeals, issued its final report, “A More Just New York City,” in April 2017. It recommended, among other things, releasing more defendants before trial, rather than holding them on bail, and, in some misdemeanor cases, not requiring court appearances at all. The commission’s most radical recommendation, however, was that Rikers, which it called “a powerful symbol of a discredited approach to criminal justice,” should be shut down entirely.

De Blasio announced his intention to close the jails on the island two days before the commission released its report, and has since been carrying out many of its recommendations. A new “supervised release” program, which allows certain offenders to remain out of jail—provided that they meet regularly with case managers—has been credited with 38 percent of the decline in the population on Rikers. “We’ve seen a fundamental change in behavior: in New Yorkers, who are just committing fewer crimes; in police, who are arresting fewer people; and in judges, who are diverting more folks,” Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, told me.

The commission enlisted the Van Alen Institute, an architecture think tank, to develop innovative approaches to jail design, partly by soliciting input from people who have been incarcerated. Even before conceiving of actual structures, the commission noted, the most important step would be finding the right locations. About 10 percent of the inmates at Rikers are transported off of the island to court appearances each day. The trips take hours to complete and cost $31 million a year. The remote location also makes it difficult for families, lawyers, teachers and other service providers to visit and help those inside.

Proposed jail site: 126-02 82nd Ave., Queens
Proposed height: 270 ft.

Kaplan was tasked with finding potential sites near city courthouses. Given the density of development in New York and the high cost of real estate, one major restriction narrowed the search: To start building the new jails quickly, sites would have to be on land owned by the city. Manhattan and Brooklyn already had operating jails, which could be torn down to make way for new construction, and there is a dormant facility in Queens that could similarly be demolished. (Most recently, it was used to film the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.”) Kaplan said that the mayor decided not to try to build a jail in Staten Island because the facility would be too small to justify the cost; some critics of the de Blasio plan have suspected that the decision was made because the borough, which is generally more politically conservative than the rest of the city, would be the most vehemently opposed to housing a jail.

In the Bronx, however, the only city-run jail is an aging 800-bed barge anchored in the East River. Kaplan considered a parking lot behind the Bronx criminal courts as a potential site, but Vanessa Gibson, the local City Council member, opposed the idea, saying that the jail would be too close to several schools and would burden the area with traffic. The mayor’s office ultimately chose to take over a nearby Police Department tow pound. The area’s City Council member, Diana Ayala, agreed to the location, but, when the site was announced, many residents were outraged. “The Bronx generally has been stigmatized by its criminal past, and at the gateway to the Bronx you’re going to have this big tower that presides supreme over this whole neighborhood,” Arline Parks, the chief executive of the Diego Beekman apartment complex, which sits a few blocks from the tow pound, told me. (She had been working on a plan to bring light manufacturing and mixed-income housing to the tow-pound site.) “It’s like the Amazon deal. This is part of a pattern under the de Blasio administration—of making deals that affect these neighborhoods.”

In Manhattan and Brooklyn, the proposed height of the jails—which, according to the plan, would be roughly 40 stories—has also been controversial. “The idea of [people] going up and down elevators all the time, it’s going to fail, chronically,” Robert Cohen, a former health director at Rikers, said. Even Lippman, who headed the commission, has been critical, telling an audience at New York Law School, “The jails are out of scale.” Nancy Kong, the president of a residential co-op building near a jail site in Manhattan’s Chinatown, frequently shows up at Kaplan’s public appearances. Kong supports closing Rikers, but she believes that Chinatown has been unfairly saddled with courts and jails. “No other neighborhood bears this burden,” she told me. “They are proposing a 50-story building next to tenements and commercial buildings that are five to 15 stories.” When I asked Kaplan about building more jails with smaller capacities, she noted that such a plan would be more expensive, less efficient, and politically problematic. Protesters are already objecting to the current plan. “Right now, we hear, ‘You guys are building four jails,’” she said. Imagine the blowback, she added, in a scenario where “New York City is building eight jails!”

Proposed jail site: 745 East 141st St., The Bronx
Proposed height: 245 ft.

The proposed buildings are so tall, in part, because they have become a repository for every good idea about how jails can address the underlying causes of incarceration, including space for everything from job training and classrooms to counseling and substance-abuse treatment. During the past two years, Kaplan and other city officials have been convening expert panels and focus groups of incarcerated people and their families. They visited Sing Sing and Bedford Hills, two New York state prisons that are known for having large and comfortable visiting spaces, where kids can play games and do arts and crafts with an incarcerated parent. “I could see these buildings we’re doing for New York City someday becoming community colleges with dormitories inside them,” Frank Greene, one of the architects working on the plan, said. He is a proponent of “direct supervision,” an approach to jail design that encourages corrections officers to walk around among those they oversee. “What came before were glass bubbles, so inmates created their own hierarchies.”

In November, Greene and Kaplan were part of a group of city officials who flew to Denver to tour the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, a jail that Greene’s firm helped design, a decade ago, with the aim of housing inmates in a more humane and safe environment. From her hotel, Kaplan could see the jail, which stands about 95 feet tall, with a handsome limestone façade, and was surrounded by planters full of flowers. The jail, which houses 1,500 inmates, has often been held up as a model in planning conversations in New York, but after visiting, Kaplan felt that the facility also provided a lesson in what not to do. The classrooms were small, and there was little outdoor space. The architects were constrained, in part, by zoning laws, which prohibit structures from blocking the view of the Rocky Mountains from the Colorado state capitol.

Four New Yorkers have emerged as leaders among residents who oppose aspects of the mayor's plan. From left, Justin Pollock, board president of a condominium in Brooklyn; Nancy Kong, president of a residential co-op building in Manhattan’s Chinatown; Dominick Pistone, a civic association president in Queens; Arline Parks, chief executive of the Diego Beekman Apartments in the Bronx.

On a recent morning, I watched Kaplan address a room of 30 criminal-justice experts and advocates, laying out the policy puzzle facing the city. Each proposal to reduce the height of the jails entailed changes—such as moving certain cells away from direct sunlight, or housing more inmates in each area—that seemed likely to cut against the goal of making the facilities more humane and rehabilitative. One leading idea was to house all of the city’s female inmates at a single site, as opposed to building separate sections in each new facility, which would reduce the number of beds needed in three of the four jails. This would also allow the city to provide more specialized services for the women, but there are trade-offs; for instance, their lawyers and families might have to travel farther to see them. Another suggestion concerned the number of extra beds in each facility. The city was expecting to build enough space for a population of 6,000, leaving a thousand extra beds to give corrections officers flexibility in determining housing assignments. Carmen Pineiro, a community organizer with the Bronx Defenders, suggested slashing that number. “I think that sounds awesome,” she said. Except, Vincent Schiraldi, the city’s former head of probation, said, “when a whole bunch of these guys are trying to get at a whole bunch of those guys and everybody is on lockdown.” Dan Gallagher, an architect, summed up the problem. “What happens on the inside is what makes it bigger on the outside,” he said.

On Friday, the mayor’s office announced that it plans to centralize the women at the jail in Queens, and to build for a citywide jail population of 5,750, rather than 6,000. Both decisions allow for a slight reduction in the height of the proposed facilities. De Blasio’s office also plans to look for ways to house some people with mental illnesses outside of jails entirely, though it has not offered additional details. The next step is a land-use review, a process that includes public hearings with community boards, borough presidents, the City Planning Commission and City Council. Opponents to the new jails, from all four boroughs, have been organizing their responses. “We all e-mail each other and talk so the mayor’s people can’t divide and conquer,” Dominick Pistone, a civic-association president in Queens, told me. Their demands largely boil down to wanting the mayor to slow the process and give greater consideration to residents’ concerns. Justin Pollock, the president of a condo association near the Brooklyn site, said, at one public hearing, “The cake is in the oven, and the city is here to only ask you what color you would like the frosting.”

But even if the plan moves beyond a City Council vote this fall, other questions loom. What if the jail population cannot be reduced to 5,000? What if the next mayor has no interest in closing Rikers? What if crime, which began to decline in the 1990s, for reasons that remain unclear, begins to climb? And what should be done with the island itself? Some critics say that the mayor will hand the property over to real-estate developers. The First Deputy Mayor, Dean Fuleihan, told me that the administration would consider using the land for affordable housing. And then there is the cost of the proposal as a whole, which has not been tallied; the Lippman Commission estimated that it would cost $11 billion to build a five-borough-based jail system, although it also estimated that its recommended reforms could ultimately lead to an annual savings of $1.3 billion.

Proposed jail site: 124 and 125 White St., Manhattan
Proposed height: 450 ft.

And while the mayor’s office has an initiative dedicated to “culture change” in the jails, and the city’s Department of Correction is retraining officers, reducing the use of solitary confinement and adding cameras inside jails, recent reports from a team hired to monitor conditions in the city’s correctional facilities, as part of a federal lawsuit, have shown that the use of force remains common because of an “intractable culture” among officers. In other words, buildings can encourage behavior but they can’t transform it. At the Denver jail Kaplan visited, a mentally ill man died while being restrained by deputies, in 2015. “It’s glib to say that if you don’t [change the culture] you’ll create little Rikers around the city,” Michael Jacobson, the former commissioner of the city’s corrections department, said. “But, in the end, it’s true.”

Many of these questions will surface during the terms of future mayors, and Kaplan may not be the one confronting them. She told me that she wrestles with this but also reminds herself that, if the jails are small, then the city simply won’t be able to put as many people in them. “We have a moment in this administration to try to . . . reform our justice system in a historic way,” she told me. “It’s not easy, but it’s an urgent thing with real, devastating consequences in people’s lives.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the results of a "supervised release" program in reducing the jailed population on Rikers.

The Marshall Project created animations of the four proposed jails based on preliminary architectural drawings, exterior renderings and site maps provided by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. The animations show the maximum allowable heights of the buildings as of March 2019.