The New York City Council voted overwhelmingly to close Rikers Island jail Thursday and open four new borough-based facilities instead.
“Today is a day that the history books will look back on as a good day for New York City,” Council Speaker Corey Johnson said. “This is a step forward, this is progress, this is the right thing to do.”
The jail, which is on an island in the East River, has become a symbol of the ills of pretrial detention, most famously in the case of Kalief Browder. Browder took his own life after spending three years incarcerated at Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime.
The jail is also notorious for its violence and poor conditions. The US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York reached a settlement with the city in 2015 after a multi-year investigation found adolescent inmates were not protected from “the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by New York City Department of Correction staff and violence inflicted by other inmates.”
Councilmember Robert Holden, a Democrat from Queens, was among the few to voice opposition to the plan.
“The closing of Rikers has become a religious movement, a symbol of criminal justice reform that will not actually solve the criminal justice system’s problems,” he said.
Calling the four planned replacement facilities “skyscraper jails,” he expressed concern that they would be too congested in the event of a future crime spike.
“If the council votes in favor of this plan today, it will be a vote against the best interests of the constituents who elected us,” Holden said. “It will also be against the best interests of detainees and corrections officers who will continue to endure the same situations in even more confined vertical spaces.”
Others argued that the plan didn’t do enough to make up for the failings of Rikers Island.
“I come from a world of trips to Rikers, of going up north to visit family members,” said Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel, a Democrat representing Brooklyn. “We as a body, for a plan of this magnitude, addressing a system of racism and mass-incarceration – this process has been inappropriately rushed,” she said.
Ampry-Samuel said that her district contains so-called million-dollar blocks, where the annual cost of incarcerating a city block’s residents is a seven-figure sum.
“That means we spend a million dollars a year on average in New York City and in the state incarcerating my constituents on just one block,” she said. “Their circumstances are my concerns, and this process did not address the circumstances that lead them to Rikers Island.”
Ampry-Samuel’s was one of many statements met with applause from the public section of the chamber’s balcony.
The balcony was cleared prior to the vote, after protesters erupted in chants of, “No new jails.”
City Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo claimed that something had been thrown from the balcony, noting “throwing things from the balcony compromises the safety of every member of this body.”
A protestor responded “your safety is not in jeopardy, the safety of young black and brown people is in jeopardy.”
“The era of mass incarceration is over. It’s over,” de Blasio said in a press conference after the vote.
“This is about valuing our people, no longer condemning people and sending them on a pathway that only made their lives worse and worse.”
According to de Blasio, New York’s jail population has declined by nearly half in the last six years. The jail population has declined from 11,000 in 2014 to about 7,000 today, and is projected to be approximately 3,300 by 2026, de Blasio added in a press release.