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Rikers Island: The Evolution of City Hall's Search for a Fix

By  James Fanelli and Jeff Mays | July 14, 2016 7:33am | Updated on July 14, 2016 8:48am

 Mayor Bill de Blasio walks through a facility at Rikers Island. The mayor's office has been looking at a proposal to shut down Rikers Island and move inmates to two new jails and renovated borough detention facilities.
Mayor Bill de Blasio walks through a facility at Rikers Island. The mayor's office has been looking at a proposal to shut down Rikers Island and move inmates to two new jails and renovated borough detention facilities.
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Susan Watts Pool/Getty Images

BRONX — A presentation given to Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris in March shows that City Hall first explored the idea of shutting down Rikers Island in June 2015 — and that its study on how to improve conditions at city jails has changed significantly over the past year.

The March 9 presentation, which is available to view below, shows that the City Hall study was initially examining a few options, including just renovating existing facilities at Rikers or a partial closure of the island's jail coupled with the expansion of borough-based detention centers.

But as City Hall's study evolved, it dropped the idea of rehabbing Rikers. Instead it focused solely on a complete shutdown by building two 2,000-bed jails off the island and either expanding or renovating borough detention centers.

In fact, by the end of the summer of 2015, the City Hall study had started looking for alternative sites for city jails in an effort dubbed "Project Sean Connery," the presentation shows.


Since the study began, the estimated cost of moving all inmates off Rikers has sharply dropped and risen again, according to the presentation.

The study first estimated the cost of building new jails and renovating existing borough detention facilities at $10 billion. By October the estimated cost had gone down to between $3.1 billion and $3.5 billion. But in the March presentation, the cost had jumped again to between $6.2 billion and $7.1 billion.

The March presentation to Shorris, the second-highest-ranking city official, occurred a month after Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters that a Rikers shutdown was a "noble concept," but unworkable because of the costs.

At the time, de Blasio was addressing Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito's announcement that she had tapped Jonathan Lippman, the state's former chief judge, to lead a commission to look at criminal justice reform in the city and examine a Rikers closure.

DNAinfo New York has previously reported on City Hall exploring a Rikers closure.

Asked in April about DNAinfo's coverage, the mayor waved it off saying there was "no concerted effort" to look for sites as alternatives to Rikers Island.

DNAinfo then published an October 2015 presentation on the Rikers study to Shorris, showing the mayor's statements to be inaccurate.

The mayor's office has repeatedly declined to go into details about why the city has produced multiple reports examining alternatives for Rikers. Officials also declined to make Shorris available for an interview.

March Presentation on Rikers Closure

Glenn Martin, a criminal justice reform advocate and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, who is also a member of Lippman’s commission, was imprisoned for six years.

He called on the de Blasio administration to explain why it is doing this ongoing study of alternatives to Rikers Island and to stop “marginalizing” community involvement.

"The community must have a voice in this important process,” Martin said.


The March 9 presentation provides a timeline of the city's efforts in studying a Rikers shutdown and how its analysis has evolved.

The study — the work of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, Department of Correction, the Department of Design and Construction, the Economic Development Corporation and the Office of Management and Budget — began in June 2015 under the assumption that the city will successfully reduce its jail population to 7,500 inmates. The inmate population currently hovers around 10,000.

There were three options in June 2015:

► One was renovating Rikers and building new administrative facilities. This was also the cheapest option, costing between $2.5 billion and $3 billion, depending on whether 400 beds were added to one of the island's existing jails.

► Another option involved a partial closure of Rikers. This plan called for renovations at Rikers and new administrative facilities on the island, but it also included two new off-island jails. This option's estimated cost was $4.6 billion.

► The third option was to leave Rikers altogether by building new off-island jails and renovating borough facilities. The estimated cost was $10 billion.

In August the study focused on a more aggressive analysis of the cost and time frame for moving the city jail system off Rikers, according to the presentation.


That month the agencies involved also began identifying alternative locations to Rikers.

The March presentation shows that from August to September, the EDC began its search for land. The EDC called the endeavor "Project Sean Connery," presumably after the actor who starred in the Alcatraz-based action movie "The Rock."

Ultimately, the EDC identified four city sites — two in Staten Island and two in Brooklyn.

The Staten Island sites are an 18-acre industrial strip known as Teleport B-1 and a tract of land in Rossville along the Arthur Kill. The Brooklyn sites are a barren lot in Greenpoint owned by National Grid and a Sanitation Department garage in East New York.

The DDC also identified and analyzed city land adjacent to the NYPD's police academy in College Point and waterfront property in Hunts Point that is next to where the city's 800-bed jail barge is moored. Under the options being examined by City Hall, the barge would eventually be closed.


The March presentation shows that in October, the study was only looking at two options, both of which involved closing Rikers.

Under both options, the city would build two 2,000-bed neighborhood jails:

► Option 1, as it's called in the presentation, would also add 740 beds to the Brooklyn detention center and 560 beds to the Queens detention center. The Manhattan detention center would be renovated and used for female inmates. Under this option, the city's jail system would have 7,400 beds.

Option 1's estimated cost would be $3.5 billion, and the construction timeline would be seven years, according to the presentation. 

► Option 2, which is slightly cheaper at $3.1 billion, would just renovate the Brooklyn and Queens detention centers, not expand them. Under this plan, the city jail system would have 6,100 beds. The construction would also take seven years.

The March presentation shows that these are still the two options the study is presently examining. However, the study now says the construction time for either option would be about 10 years.

The presentation also shows that Option 1 would now cost $7.1 billion, while Option 2 would cost $6.2 billion.

Option 1 would save the city's Department of Correction about $568 million annually in operating costs, while Option 2 would save the agency $667 million, according to the presentation.

Martin believes the study's construction costs are wrong.


After reviewing a copy of the latest report Martin said the administration is overestimating how many inmates it will have to accommodate if true criminal justice reforms are enacted.

"With an eye toward a significant reduction in the jail population, including increased use of community-based diversion programs, and policing, bail and speedy trial reform, the #CLOSErikers Campaign is advocating for a much smaller, less expensive, fairer and more humane public safety system in NYC,” Martin said.

"Because the de Blasio administration continues to largely marginalize community stakeholders throughout the process of reinventing New York City’s jail system, this proposal assumes a totally different vision of a detention system than the #CLOSErikers Campaign,” he added.

Mayoral spokeswoman Monica Klein said the city has no plans to relocate the jail system off of Rikers.

"As the Mayor has said, there are numerous, significant challenges associated with this otherwise laudable concept. While the City continues to examine ways to reduce the jail population and is working closely with the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform chaired by Judge Lippman, our focus remains on reform of the correctional system that will make our jails safer right now,” Klein said. "Creating a culture of safety in our jails is our top priority.”


But the multiple presentations about a Rikers shutdown to Shorris have elected officials wondering whether City Hall is being fully forthcoming.

After DNAinfo published the October presentation to Shorris, which identified possible sites for neighborhood jails, state Sen. Jeff Klein and Bronx Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr. held an April 15 rally opposing the inclusion of the Hunts Point option.

"The Hunts Point community spoke loud and clear that it doesn't want a 'mini-Rikers' at this site and, based on what the administration said, there was no comprehensive plan to build one,” Klein said. "Yet, once again this documentation illustrates that lies are being told. Hunts Point residents deserve answers, not covert plans to house up to 2,000 inmates in their growing community.”

Ryan Monell, a spokesman for Salamanca, said that since the rally, the councilman has “received reassurance that this proposal isn’t going forward” on “numerous” occasions from the de Blasio administration.

“The councilman is still adamantly opposed to any new jail facility in Hunts Point, “ Monell said. “But obviously, if something else arises to the contrary he would certainly voice additional opposition."

Staten Island Councilman Joe Borelli said he has no faith in the de Blasio administration’s assurances that it is not looking at Rossville as a possible jail site. Borelli, whose district includes Rossville, said that a jail there would not make sense because it is a residential area.

"I find it hard to marry the administration's insistence that they are not looking at the Rossville site with the often emerging evidence that they are, in fact, looking at the Rossville site as a replacement for Rikers Island,” Borelli said.