Advocates, critics attend hearing on plan to replace Rikers Island with borough-based jails

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- A controversial plan to shut down the Rikers Island jail facility drew angry protesters before a New York City Council subcommittee meeting Thursday.

The proposal, which was approved by the New York City Planning Commission on Tuesday, calls for Rikers to be replaced with four borough-based jails. But for many, that's too close to home.

Mayor Bill de Blasio's 10-year, $8.7 billion plan would replace Rikers with smaller jails in Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, Kew Gardens in Queens, and Mott Haven in the Bronx. But all four community boards in those neighborhoods oppose the proposal.

"It is unfortunate that the city Planning Commission has declined to listen to the serious concerns of the people of my borough, and has instead chosen to move forward with a plan to close Rikers Island that builds a new jail in the wrong place," Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz said after the planning commission's vote. "Throughout this process, I have made it crystal clear that Rikers Island must be closed. But that closure should be handled in the right way. Instead, the administration has weaponized the land use process against The Bronx in order to protect their plans to build a new jail on the wrong site, the Mott Haven tow yard. We have provided the city with a perfectly appropriate site to build a new jail, adjacent to the existing Bronx Hall of Justice. It is now up to the City Council and its members to listen to the people of this borough and adjust this proposal accordingly. Any failure to do otherwise will deleteriously alter the face of this borough for decades to come."

Critics say the proposed site is too far from the courthouse, and the Barge Detention Center is still open 27 years after city officials promised to close it.

"Until the city acts on its long-overdue promise to close the barge, the South Bronx cannot and will not accept a new jail," City Council member Rafael Salamanca said. "It is clear that the proposed location is not the right one for the community. I call on the administration to listen to the community and do its due diligence in exploring all siting options at the location where the Bronx jail belongs -- near the county courthouse."

The city has tried to appease critics by reducing the number of beds at each facility, and the administration hopes to open modern and what it calls more humane jails, citing a declining population at Rikers.

Advocates also turned out, with leaders of the group #CLOSErikers testifying at the day-long hearing.

"Just like lobotomies and blood-letting in the medical profession, Rikers Island is a tool of a bygone era that has proven not effective," former inmate Marvin Mayfield said.

At the hearing there were complaints about future congestion, bad planning and jails that seem to be just too tall.

"Twenty-seven stories is absolutely unacceptable to me," Council member Karen Koslowitz said.

Council member Donovan Richards supports the mayor's plan, but he wants the listen to listen to its communities.

"Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, and we have to address that," he said. "And the city is going to have to fix this to get me to a yes vote."

The City Council votes on the plan next month, and insiders say it will likely pass -- but only if the mayor makes changes and is more upfront about what those jails will actually look like.

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