Regional Plan Association Testimony to the New York City Council’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses Regarding the Proposed Borough-Based Jails and the Future Status of Rikers Island

Dear City Council Committee Members: thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony. My name is Moses Gates and I am the Vice President for Housing and Neighborhood Planning at Regional Plan Association.

Regional Plan Association is a strong proponent of the need to repurpose Rikers Island from an island of incarceration into a place which benefits all New Yorkers, and specifically address and redress its legacy of mass incarceration and those who have been directly affected by this legacy. 

We commend the administration for taking a step forward by planning for the new borough-based jail system. We also commend surrounding communities for understanding that closing Rikers and reforming our criminal justice system is in the interests of everyone, and that as part of the process new facilities will need to be built. While we do believe there is room for improvement with the borough-based system - specifically with regards to facilities design, potential for flexible use, more treatment facilities in addition to or in place of the new jails, and alternative siting, including on Staten Island and in the Bronx - many of these concerns can be addressed post-application, and it is too important a moment to not move forward. 

However, moving forward is a two-part process. The time is well past due to take not only a concrete step toward opening new jails, but also toward closing the existing ones. The transition of jails away from Rikers and toward a borough-based system must not be one of two separate phases. The next physical step in this process must involve Rikers Island itself. Council is being asked to approve four new jails. To that end we have four suggestions for Rikers Island which we believe should be the immediate next steps in this process after that approval.

Transfer jurisdiction away from the Department of Correction

If Rikers is to be closed as a series of correctional facilities, the first step is to transfer ownership and management of the land away from the Department of Correction. DOC should not be in the land management business, and Council has recognized this by moving forward with the transfer of Hart Island, a Potters Field and open area with no jail facilities, from the jurisdiction of the Department of Correction to the Parks Department.  A transfer of Rikers Island to DCAS or DEP is an overdue step forward. Department of Correction would still have the ability to run the necessary jails on the island as it transitions, but this would facilitate other positive uses as well.

Create public access to Rikers

The history and legacy of Rikers is one of isolation. This isolation needs to end. Controls for Rikers island should be moved from the Queens side of the bridge to the Rikers side of the bridge, and reserved for the jails themselves, not the entire island. Given that several other local and federal detention facilities are housed directly on publicly accessible streets, many in heavily trafficked districts like Downtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, there is no reason to continue to isolate the entire island. This would also have the effect of freeing 40 acres of potential open space on the Queens side of the bridge. 

Demolish unneeded facilities

The process of closing Rikers needs to result in less jails, not more. With this ULURP we are taking a concrete step toward building more jails while taking no action to eliminate existing ones. A good next step would be immediately demolishing the already-closed George Motchan Detention Center, as well as continuing to close additional facilities and demolishing them as the jail population shrinks in the wake of criminal justice reforms due to take place in 2020.  

Take the first step to a new island

The administration’s roadmap on closing Rikers Island focuses mainly on reducing the jail population and building the new borough-based system. However, there is a piece that is missing. We also need a roadmap to a new island, with new uses that benefit New Yorkers, especially those who have been directly impacted by our criminal justice system. Major facilities like recycling centers and wastewater treatment plants are needed, and should start to be planned for, but are also lengthy processes. 

But a first step to a new island, able to be opened in 2020, is also needed and could easily be done. This could be a new publicly accessible memorial, or a new public park. Another possibility is a solar farm, with a training facilities which could provide job opportunities for people who have transitioned out of the criminal justice system.   

Closing Rikers Island is a moral imperative, and is also a major opportunity to better the lives of New Yorkers through needed and beneficial municipal improvements. Taking concrete steps to end jail usage and start the true transformation of the island would be one of the most impactful legacies this council and this administration could leave for New York City. With this step forward in creating a new borough-based jail system, now is the time to take real, concrete and meaningful action on Rikers Island itself.