BOERUM HILL—As the process for the city’s plan to build borough-based jails to replace Rikers Island moves forward, Brooklynites weighed in this week on the proposed Brooklyn jail and the initiative as a whole.
Ahead of Wednesday’s City Planning Commission hearing on the four jails, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who broadly supports the city’s framework to close Rikers, issued his recommendation for the Boerum Hill detention center at 275 Atlantic Avenue.
In it, he asked the city to reduce the number of beds and the size of the proposed Atlantic Avenue complex. Specifically, he says the jail should have 900 beds and stand no more than 235 feet tall. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan proposes to demolish the existing facility and construct a new 395-foot building with capacity for 1,437 people.
Adams’ input, first reported by Brooklyn Daily Eagle, also called for providing more physical and mental health services at the facility, such as nutrition education, yoga, and vegetarian food options. (Adams, a vegan, has been a proponent of “Meatless Mondays“ and offering healthier food options in the city’s public schools.)
“We have listened closely to all stakeholders throughout this process, and have put forward a recommendation that balances the needs of the community with the imperative of making our criminal justice system more humane for all, something all sides have agreed is critical,” Adams said Tuesday in a statement. “What we are proposing advances the City’s goal of closing Rikers while providing real benefits to the surrounding community.”
Adam’s feedback is part of a public review process to close Rikers Island by 2026 and replace it with jails in each of the city’s boroughs—with the exception of Staten Island—while reducing the city’s inmate population. With the community boards and borough presidents—all issuing non-binding opinions—having weighed in, it’s the City Planning Commission’s turn to either green light or block the plan ahead of a City Council vote.
“We’re looking very closely at each aspect of the recommendations,” Dana Kaplan, deputy director of Close Rikers at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said at the City Planning hearing, referencing the Brooklyn borough president’s recommendation that was issued a day prior. “We know they spent a great deal of time [on them].”
At Wednesday’s hours-long hearing, which was repeatedly interrupted by No New Jails NYC protesters, those testifying mostly rehashed arguments that have been put forward in recent months.
Opponents of the plan said that building new jails won’t guarantee Rikers will be closed; by building capacity for incarceration, the criminal justice system is bound to meet it by locking people up (“If you build it, they will fill it,” at least two opponents said Wednesday); money spent on the new jails would be better spent invested in other areas, like education; and the locations for the facilities and their proposed heights are not appropriate.
Supporters of the city’s plan argued that stopping it would only delay the closing of Rikers Island, and that new borough-based facilities would be better for incarcerated people as they would be closer to their homes and families. Supporters also say while building new jails is not a desirable course of action, it is necessary in the meantime to house inmates pre-trial somewhere other than Rikers as the criminal justice system is reformed and the number of incarcerated people is reduced.
“We have to start somewhere,” said Brooklyn resident Victor Herrera, who supports the city’s plan to replace Rikers Island, adding he thinks the city should move away from “banishing people to an isolated island.” He said he hopes that closing Rikers will be part of a “healing” process.
No New Jails Member and attorney M.J. Williams said the city’s attempt to close Rikers is “designed to fail,” and labeled it a “mess.”
“Changes are being made on the fly, they’re being promised and not being made at all,” she said. “This plan is being handled [with] as much neglect, deception, racism and commitment to cruelty as caging people at the US’s southern border.”
Judge Matthew D’Emic, a justice in Brooklyn Supreme Court and a member of the Lippman Commission, said he supports the city’s application and urged the City Planning Commission to approve it.
“I am now firmly convinced that we as a community have no other choice” than to close Rikers Island, he said. D’Emic, also Brooklyn Mental Health Court judge, said the smaller jails would be better for people living with mental illness.
“Smaller, local facilities will certainly be a better option for them,” he said, “in fact, for all incarcerated defendants, jails that are close to the courts, their families and the attorneys as opposed to the isolated outpost that is Rikers.”
As part of the public review process for the mayor’s jail plan, the City Planning Commission has 60 days to host the public hearing and follow-up reviews before it votes. The City Council will then have 50 days to review and vote on the plan.