City Council Approves Borough Based Jails

Speaker Corey Johnson Image Credit: CityLand

After modifications and a lengthy Stated Meeting, Borough Based Jails passed despite significant opposition. On October 17, 2019, the City Council voted to approve the City’s Borough Based Jails System application with modifications. The approved plan includes four jail facilities located at 124-125 White Street in Manhattan, 745 East 141st Street in the Bronx, 126-02 82nd Avenue in Queens and at 275 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and closure of the Rikers Island detention facility.

Throughout the public review process, the City received copious amounts of feedback from the public, City Planning, the borough president’s offices and local community boards. The public has consistently voiced that the jails were simply too tall. On October 16, 2019, the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Sitings and Dispositions and the Committee on Land Use used this feedback to modify and approve the application with reductions in height and density. The modifications are responsive to the projected decrease in jail population and continued community engagement. The hope is that the reduced heights will help integrate the jails into each of their respective communities. According to an October 15, 2019, City Council press release, the city will also relocate at least 250 beds from borough-based jail facilities into NYC Health & Hospitals facilities for individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness or have serious health issues.

The height reductions are as follows:

  1. Bronx: 245 feet to 195 feet (24 floors to 19 floors)
  2. Brooklyn: 395 feet to 295 feet (39 floors to 29 floors)
  3. Manhattan: 450 feet to 295 feet (45 Floors to 29 floors)
  4. Queens: 270 feet to 195 feet (27 floors to 19 floors)


These measures are consistent with the application’s overall goal of creating a “smaller, safer, fairer” jail system in New York City. The four sites were selected based on their proximity to the court house, transit accessibility, sufficient site area to construct a facility and that they were formerly city-owned properties. To read in further detail about the application and the public hearings, read CityLand’s prior coverage here.

During the full council vote on October 17th, which resulted in an approval of 36 to 13, many members explained their vote. For a full tally of the council member’s votes and explanations click here. Cityland will continue to update this chart as we receive official statements from Council Members.

Borough Based Jail Vote Tracker Credit: May Vutrapongvatana

Spotlight Yes Votes

Council Member Diana Ayala, who represents District 8 where the Bronx facility will be built, spoke about how this vote goes beyond the brick and mortar decision for borough based jails. That it is an opportunity to close Rikers Island, an antiquated and inhumane facility. She admitted that no plan is perfect, but that this is a move in the right direction. A move towards a smaller, fairer system with reduced heights and capacities. She was also proud of the investment packages that will accompany the application. Council Member Ayala voted in the affirmative.

Council Member Margaret Chin of District 1 in Manhattan, which will house the lower Manhattan facility, stated this the city needs a more human criminal justice system that invests in lives. She stated this application provides a road map to achieve that goal. To her constituents, she admitted that this was not a perfect process. Although she pointed that she was not creating a new jail, but rather transforming the current jail into a new, humane and safe facility. She stated “this is the right thing to do, we cannot let this opportunity slip by. I’m proud to close Rikers now.” Council Member Chin voted in the affirmative.

Council Member Stephen T. Levin of District 33 where the Brooklyn facility will be built, stated this the council had a moral obligation to “our brothers and sisters” to end the scourge that is Rikers Island. He called for a necessary shift to a criminal justice system that emphasizes resources over jail time. He stated “restorative justice offers the ability to achieve real healing and accountability as we shift away from a culture of incarceration.” Council Member Levin voted in the affirmative.

Council Member Karen Koslowitz of District 29 where the Queens facility will be built, stated that this “was the most difficult proposal that has ever come across her desk.” She spoke to the nuance, passion and emotion that came with the application. She stated that the Rikers Island and the Queens Detention Center are absolutely inhumane, requiring yes votes.  She further stated that “a no vote would mean Rikers Island would stay open for years to come.” She also spoke to the concessions that will help the facility blend into the community, which include reduced a size and height of the building. Council Member Koslowitz voted in the affirmative.

Spotlight No Votes

Council Member Carlos Menchaca of District 38 in Brooklyn, stated that he believes “that there is nothing in the plan that guarantees investments in our communities to address poverty and insecurity.” Rather this vote is “not a vote to further the cause of ending mass incarceration by attacking its root causes. Instead, I believe this vote enriches developers in the short-term while leaving the fate of Rikers in the hands of a future Mayor and future Council.” Council Member Carlos Menchaca voted in the negative.

Council Member Inez Barron, of District 41 in Brooklyn, spoke to the systematic racism that the criminal justice system is built on. She stated that the proposal does not do enough because it provides “insufficient and inadequate services to the community.” She spoke about addressing the culture at Rikers Island to make sure we do not disburse the culture to four new facilities. Council Member Barron voted in the negative.

Council Member Rafael L. Espinal Jr. of District 37 in Brooklyn, stated “I firmly believe that we need to close Rikers, but this plan misses the mark. I cannot approve spending $8.7 billion on new jails, without a plan that would match that investment dollar for dollar in at-risk communities like the one I represent.” He concluded saying this pan does not address why people are incarcerated. That “we can do better” Council Member Espinal voted in the negative.

Additional Measures

Prior to the council, committee and subcommittee votes, City Council and the Mayor took several additional measures independent of the zoning application, to address critics concerns and to ensure a successful and safe transition to a borough based jail system.

Additional Programming Investment

On October 17, 2019, hours before the vote, the Mayor’s Press Office announced that Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Johnson and Council leadership agreed to an addition $265 million in new programming investments. According to the press release, the addition investments are intended to address “the root causes of incarceration and help fundamentally reshape New York City’s criminal justice system going forward.” The additional investments will bring the total investment tied to the closure of Rikers Island to $391 million.

To see the breakdown of the additional investment, read the Mayor’s press release here.

Jail Population

On October 14, 2019, the Mayor’s Office announced a revision to the estimated jail population. By 2026, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Johnson project 3,300 individual incarcerated. Earlier estimates projected 4,000 incarcerated. The Mayor’s Office stated in a press release that the “revised population estimate will mark the lowest jail population in New York City in a century and is estimated to be the lowest jail population rate among the nation’s largest cities.”

The press release further stated that the updated jail population estimate will allow the City to build the new facilities in Manhattan, Brooklyn Queens in the Bronx. Each facility is projected to hold fewer than one thousand people. These estimates are reflective of the Supervised Release Diversion program, which will reduce the population of pretrial detainees and the institution of the state bail reform.

Jails to Jobs Initiative

On October 15, 2019 the Mayor’s Office announced an expansion of its Jails to Jobs initiative. The announcement comes with a $19 million annual pledge to support re-entry services for formerly incarcerated individuals. The initial program was offered to approximately 5,200 individuals per year, but the expansion will extend the same programming and services to approximately 9,000 people. The programming and services include job readiness workshops, therapeutic and other social services as well as the ability to offer transitional employment to individuals regardless of sentencing.

Elizabeth Glazer, the Director of the Mayor’s office of Criminal Justice, stated “As the City jail population shrinks and our justice system looks to achieve safety through better means, it remains essential that we provide effective, empowering programming for people while in custody and as they return to their home and neighborhood. By improving programs and services, this Administration is continuing to demonstrate its commitment to creating the smallest, safest, fairest justice system possible.”

Resolution to Close Rikers Island

On October 10, 2019, the City Council Land Use Committee passed a resolution authorizing the Council to file an application with City Planning to remap Rikers Island. The application will prohibit the incarceration of individuals on the island after 2026.

The map change will be completed through the Uniform Land Use Procedure. In the application, the city will also request that the island be designated as a “public place” to ensure future development for public benefit.

Council Member Keith Powers stated “with this measure, closing Rikers Island becomes even more of a reality. Not only does it confirm the complex will be shut down, it provides reassurance that this island will never serve as a jail complex ever again.”

There is hope this measure will appease borough based jail opponents who feared the city was simply adding four new jails to the system, without actually committing to close Rikers Island.

By: Jason Rogovich (Jason Rogovich is the CityLaw Fellow and New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2019)



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.