It’s time to finally scrap NYC’s Rikers closure plan

For years, many of us across New York City have been calling for the city to rethink its plans to close the Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with new facilities in four boroughs. Now, it seems city leaders finally may be ready to recognize that, at the very least, the current plan is unrealistic.

The Rikers population stands at about 5,700 detainees, and numbers have been rising lately. The borough-based jails program is designed to handle only about 3,500. In late August, city Comptroller Brad Lander acknowledged that the city is not on the timeline to close Rikers in 2027.

Mayor Adams responded that the law, which he intends to follow nevertheless calls for this closure. Still, he added, “We have to have a plan B, because those who have created plan A, that I inherited, obviously didn’t think about a plan B.”

It’s time for a plan B. With crime rates up 31% from a year ago, the idea of dramatically reducing the incarcerated population seems foolhardy.

A protester holds a sign during a rally on the steps of City Hall in opposition of a new jail in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, on March 24, 2019.

A protester holds a sign during a rally on the steps of City Hall in opposition of a new jail in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, on March 24, 2019. (Luiz C. Ribeiro/for New York Daily News)

Meanwhile, conditions at Rikers are nightmarish. Reports abound of deaths, an alleged fight club, lack of supervision amid personnel shortages and more. An accused killer who insisted he was innocent recently reportedly killed himself before trial rather than being sent back to Rikers.

It’s clear that current leadership is failing, and a new solution is needed. Rather than pushing ahead with four borough-jails costing more than $10 billion, city leaders need to go back to the proverbial drawing boards.

When they do, here’s a reality that they need to accept: Even under the initial estimates of 3,500 inmates total, these new correctional facilities would still wreak unnecessary havoc on communities.

A reality of New York City life these days is that our infrastructure is all too often maxed out. Last year, Hurricane Ida resulted in 13 deaths in New York City — 11 of them in Queens, where we live. Trapped residents could not escape from their flooded basement apartments. President Biden visited and surveyed the damage, highlighting the need for new infrastructure. “They’ve been warning us the extreme weather would get more extreme over the decade, and we’re living it in real time now,” he said.

But you don’t have to wait for extreme weather to see how overburdened our infrastructure gets. The sewer system routinely backs up water and sewage into buildings along Queens Blvd. during rain storms.

Meanwhile, the Borough-Based Jails Program includes a massive complex here in Queens as well. Many of us have no faith that the city’s plans will ensure the new projects don’t exacerbate this.

Residents here also already deal with bottlenecked roads on a daily basis. The city’s own documents show that the new jail facility will introduce hundreds more cars traveling into and out of the area every day. And even more traffic, of course, also means even more carbon emissions.

While there is a push to turn Rikers into a hub for green infrastructure, there’s no reason to believe it will make up for the environmental damage caused by the project. The Queens facility design plans call for builders to use sustainable practices, including solar panels, a partially-planted roof and on-site stormwater retention. But the idea that all this will happen as imagined, and that the city will benefit overall environmentally, could be just as pie-in-the-sky as the idea that the Rikers population will suddenly plummet in the next few years.

There’s no doubt that the program includes many positive elements and important ideas, with better sight lines, family spaces and technology. But the solution is not to introduce new structures that can be just as overcrowded and poorly run as Rikers. It is to pour all that effort, time and money into fixing the existing facilities, hiring workers and keeping incarcerated people — along with the rest of us — safe.

We also understand that part of the goal is to help incarcerated people be closer to families and attorneys. But given that the facilities are not even designed to hold the number of people currently incarcerated, many clearly would not be able to benefit from this anyway. And it’s unclear how many who would be at the facility in Queens even have family in Queens. We support making facilities more accessible without building them in places that already lack adequate infrastructure for residents.

Ultimately, criminal justice reform isn’t driven by changing locations. It’s driven by changing the culture. We all deserve livable conditions, and leadership that’s willing to be realistic.

Faraldo and Picot are residents of Queens and founding members of the groupQueens Residents United.

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