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Rikers Island closing plan could spur communities’ resistance

In a June 20, 2014, file photo, the

In a June 20, 2014, file photo, the Rikers Island jail complex stands in New York with the Manhattan skyline in the background. Photo Credit: AP

Many New York City Council members and community leaders favor moving detainees off Rikers Island, but won’t necessarily want them shifted to borough jail facilities, say players on all sides of the debate about the future of the violence-plagued complex.

Already, representatives from areas with existing city detention centers voiced apprehension or predicted there will be pushback on the idea of absorbing Rikers’ inmates.

“While I support the goal of eventually closing down Rikers, any proposal that involves diverting inmates to this already crowded complex is not a feasible solution,” Council Member Margaret Chin, from Chinatown, said of the lower Manhattan jail known as the Tombs

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito last month called for reducing Rikers’ population through summons, bail and other reforms with an eye toward shutting the 10-jail, 415-acre complex. She said she wants to explore the use of “more community courts and borough-based jail facilities.”

Mark-Viverito convened a commission led by retired Chief Judge of the State Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman to explore a path toward that goal.

Inmate numbers at Rikers have been falling, and the Department of Correction said about 7,600 people are held there daily, down from about 11,800 in fiscal year 2006

Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that closing Rikers would cost “billions and billions” of dollars, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo embraced the idea even as he foresaw resistance.

“You will have communities who don’t want to be next to a jail, which we understand on a very human level,” Cuomo said last month on WCBS radio. “But if you needed a solution that made every New Yorkers happy — trust me — you would have no solution.”

Advocates say smaller facilities that are not on a relatively remote island would be easier to manage and more accountable.

Correction officer union president Norman Seabrook argued the burden would fall on poor neighborhoods, not affluent ones.

“Where do you put that jail at?” he asked at a recent town hall hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton. “You’re not putting that jail at 65th Street and Park Avenue.”

Former city Correction Commissioner Martin Horn has, like Mark-Viverito, championed proposals to drive down Rikers’ population by diverting the mentally ill and expediting court cases to speed pretrial detainees through the criminal justice process.

Horn said the 6,000 or so inmates left in the system after those reforms could be held in state-of-the-art jails constructed on the footprints of existing corrections facilities in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. He conceded Manhattan’s detention center has little room to grow.

Residents in downtown Brooklyn a decade ago defeated Horn’s plan to expand the Brooklyn Detention Complex on Atlantic Avenue, which was built in 1957 and renovated in 2012.

Robert Perris, district manager of Community Board 2, said the jail as it is now has been a good neighbor but he expects opposition if the city tries again to increase capacity.

“I won’t handicap how difficult it would be to get it through the land use process,” Perris said.

Council Member Stephen Levin, who represents downtown Brooklyn, said, “If it goes to capacity, I’m OK with that, and if they were to propose to make it bigger, I would have to see the details of that.”

Council Member Karen Koslowitz, whose district includes Kew Gardens where the Queens Detention Complex — used now only for officer training — is located, said in a statement: “I need to be reassured that we are not just moving Rikers’ problems to smaller facilities.”

Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, which will provide research support to Lippman’s commission, said it will take “a lot of political work and a lot of education” to make communities receptive to housing inmates.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” Berman said. “The spirit of NIMBY [Not in My Back Yard] is as alive and well in New York City as it is anywhere.”

Asked by The New York Times last week if she would welcome a jail in her East Harlem district, Mark-Viverito said it was too early to decide but other communities may need to do their fair share because hers is saturated with social services facilities.

Lippman told reporters, “There are pluses and minuses to whatever you do. If you put the population in the community, there’s also going to be pushback. So what makes sense?”

Glenn Martin, an activist who did time in Rikers and upstate, said formerly incarcerated members of the community like him must be included in discussions to “humanize” the issue.

Martin, Berman and Horn all said they are more hopeful now at the prospect of closing Rikers and transitioning to a fairer, safer criminal justice system than they have ever been.

— With Matthew Chayes

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