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USA: New York City’s plan to build new jails draws backlash

Despite corrections staff shuttling through the massive complex that houses roughly 7,800 inmates, from the outside, the jails on Rikers Island look abandoned. An eerie serenity is marred by the sounds of jet planes from neighboring LaGuardia Airport. The roars rattle around the rundown jails, themselves imprisoned by overgrown grass and barbed wire.

The ride on city bus Q100 from Queens over the bridge to Rikers is long and tense – a two-hour journey followed by three more hours of waiting to visit inmates. Visitors recall searches in which they unhook their bras and undiaper their children. Though no one on the city bus is a prisoner, some say they feel punished.

This fall, the New York City Council will decide on a contentious plan to build four jails, one in each of the city’s boroughs except for Staten Island. Officials say the new facilities would replace Rikers, a troubled jail system long known for poor conditions and violence. Community members have pushed back against the proposal, indicating divergent opinions about what should happen after the complex shutters.

Rikers, now home to eight of the city’s 11 jails, seemed built to close from the beginning. Just two years after the jail opened, a 1934 report indicated shoddy construction. Conditions deteriorated, the population ballooned and buildings were added. By the mid-1970s, class action lawsuits and riots broke out among squalid living conditions and delayed court dates. Mayor Edward Koch tried to close Rikers but his deal with the state fell through. The Bloomberg administration also failed.

In 2017, after reviewing the results of an independent commission investigating the issue, Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed a 10-year, approximately $11 billion plan to close the facilities on Rikers Island and build new, smaller facilities near courthouses. City officials pushing the plan, which involves replacing jails with new ones in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens and building a new facility in the Bronx, say that shuttering Rikers and building new jails will help cut costs in the long run.

Rikers is a massive facility with a power plant and a fleet of buses that navigate the island. Closing just one building – the George Motchan Detention Center – is expected to save the city $55.2 million in 2019. Transportation alone costs about $30 million a year. Almost 80% of the inmates are just awaiting trial, according to a report prepared for the City Council. If an inmate can’t post bail, the city has to transport him to the appropriate courts for trials.

Proponents of the plan believe that locating jails closer to communities improves the mental and emotional health of the inmates and maintains a support network for both the inmates and their families.

The new buildings would incorporate changes that advocates argue are essential to creating humane detention facilities, including more access to sunlight and space for services that could benefit inmates. They would also be easier for families to navigate. There are few city renderings available, but one features a lobby with stations made to help visitors, a dream for the people on the Q100 bus who struggle to entertain children as they wait for hours, sometimes outdoors, without chairs or food.

The current plan would decrease the number of jail facilities in the city from 11 to four. Officials argue that fewer detention facilities make sense in light of falling crime and incarceration rates. Local policing and bail alternatives – complemented by the state’s reforms to bail and the trial process – are expected to decrease the number of inmates to 4,000, about half what it is now.

We aren’t just talking about closing one set of detention facilities and opening another one,” says Dana Kaplan, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, of how this attempt varies from previous efforts. “(This) is a transformation of the criminal justice system across the board.”

But not everyone is enthusiastic about the mayor’s vision.

Since November, the City Council has been gathering feedback through invitation-only meetings and hearings held in the neighborhood of each proposed jail. So far, boards of all four affected communities have rejected the plan – though their votes are merely advisory to the Council.

At an April public hearing in Queens, police estimated a few hundred attendees heard the city’s presentation.

This is a fiscally insane proposal,” community board member Sylvia Hack said to a cheering crowd. That evening, speakers were drowned out by chants to “Close Rikers now!” and counter cries to “Keep Rikers open!

Aside from the cost of the plan, residents have voiced concern over the size of the projects. In Manhattan and Brooklyn, for example, plans for future jails include buildings much taller than those on the current sites. The tallest of the two facilities planned for demolition in Manhattan is 14 floors; the jail being proposed is 45.

Kaplan, citing lower inmate projections, says the city is now planning to downsize the facilities. But critics of the plan say its shifting nature is indicative of a hasty and politically motivated agenda. They argue the city created a self-imposed deadline to get the plan in place before de Blasio, now a presidential candidate, finishes his term.

They are proposing a 1.2 million-square-foot vertical jail,” said Justin Pollack, who lives next door to the Brooklyn site, where officials have proposed a 1 million-square-foot structure. “That is not making a bold decision (about criminal justice). That’s being politically expedient.”

Samantha Johnson is a member of the Brooklyn Community Board that rejected the city’s proposal. It’s encouraging the city to build a smaller facility, but is advising more funding for community courts, affordable housing, public health and education.

Once the numbers started hitting me – $11 billion isn’t going to be used for any other institution,” she said. “If we are not building schools and homes and food banks to prevent food deserts with the same amount of gusto, then we have a real systematic problem.”

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