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City Council Approves Plan To Shut Down Rikers Island And Build 4 New Jails


The City Council passed a controversial $8.7 billion plan Thursday afternoon to close the jail complex on Rikers Island by 2026 and build four new borough-based jail towers in Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. The plan will ultimately reduce the overall capacity of city jails to 3,300, from the current number of round 7,000, which is in line with recent trends towards a shrinking city jail population and legislation pending at the state level that could further reduce the number of New Yorkers behind bars.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who vowed to close Rikers in 2017 after initially being reluctant to endorse the plan, celebrated Thursday’s vote as a step towards a more humane system of incarceration.

“The era of mass incarceration is over,” de Blasio told reporters at a press conference after the plan passed. “Over!”

De Blasio added, “If, God forbid, somebody makes a mistake and ends up in our justice system, we want it to be a one-time occurrence. We believe in redemption and today’s vote is a vote for redemption.”

But many are skeptical that the new jails will be any more humane. Even though the new jails are being built in part to replace existing borough-based facilities that Council Speaker Corey Johnson has deemed just as reprehensible as Rikers, the plan has divided activists who are fighting against mass incarceration.

Members of groups like the Fortune Society, the Vera Institute and Katal that have driven the #CloseRikers campaign over the past few years faced off with the #NoNewJails contingent at City Hall ahead of Thursday’s vote. Two protestors were arrested, a spokesperson for the NYPD confirmed. Later, during the vote, security cleared the audience out of the balcony section of the council chamber after protesters there dropped leaflets on the City Council members below.

As part of the plan, the City Council is committing to invest $391 million into community-based resources that aim to address the root causes of incarceration, including supportive housing, mental health services and school-based programs.

Council members came out in favor of building new borough based jails in a 36-13 vote, except for the Bronx-based jail, which was 35-14. City Councilmember Rafael Espinal, who voted no on the plan, said if the city really wanted to invest in decarceration, its funding for community-based programming would match funding for new jails.

Other Council members spoke passionately at length both in favor of and against the legislative package that will set the plan to close Rikers in motion. Some who voted in favor of the plan said they had reservations about it but felt there wouldn’t be another opportunity to close Rikers in the near future and wanted to seize the historic opportunity.

“As a city, we must do everything we can to move away from the failed policies of mass incarceration,” said Speaker Johnson. “That is what we are doing today. We are on the cusp of a new, more humane era for New York City.”

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