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Holden calls for commission to determine cost of renovating Rikers Island

Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to convince City Councilman Robert Holden of the merits of his plan to close Rikers Island during a March snowstorm. Last week, Holden introduced a bill that would form a commission to study the cost of keeping the prison complex open.
Courtesy of Mayor’s office
By Bill Parry

City Councilman Robert Holden (D-Middle Village) has been such an outspoken critic of the city’s plan to close Rikers Island and replace it with a borough-based prison system that Mayor Bill de Blasio paid a visit to Holden’s Middle Village neighborhood in March during a snowstorm and discussed the impasse.

“Let’s just say he gave me his talking points and I had my say,” Holden said.

Last week, Holden introduced legislation to create a commission to examine the cost of renovating the jail facilities on Rikers Island. The City Council had previously commissioned a study on the cost of the borough-based system headed up by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman which showed that replacing Rikers Island with smaller jails, such as the Kew Gardens Detention Complex, would cost $10.6 billion.

“We have the numbers where borough-based jails are concerned, but we should know the cost of rejuvenating Rikers’ facilities to determine if it is a viable alternative,” Holden said. “If we’re going to have taxpayers foot the bill for the city’s jail facilities, we should be able to show them the facts and figures.”

Holden said he was surprised that nobody did a cost analysis on renovating Rikers Island.

“Maybe it should be in the Council’s hands to go get those numbers so that taxpayers’ funds could go where it’s more desperately needed, like repairing the subways and providing more affordable housing,” Holden said. “The infrastructure at Rikers is solid, and before we sink billions into new jails, we should have all the information. This study will help us gain a clearer picture of what it would look like to keep Rikers Island open.”

Holden’s measure gained support from colleagues from the borough.

“This is a common sense bill,” City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) said. “It’s simple — hardworking taxpayers deserve to know how their money will be spent if the city moves forward with its plan to close Rikers Island. Moreover, the city must take these costs into account before going ahead with any such plan.”

Holden’s bill was assigned to the Committee on Criminal Justice and will be reviewed at public hearings before the City Council votes on it.

“Any decision of this magnitude needs to be made with thorough and reliable facts and figures,” City Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside) said. “I’m proud to support this legislation because if and when Rikers Island is closed, we need to be able to tell the 8.5 million New Yorkers in this city that we did our homework and looked at all the options.”

The 10-person commission would consist of three members chosen by the mayor, three appointed by the speaker of the Council and four members selected jointly by the speaker and the mayor, according to the bill. The members would serve for one year and a report on the commission’s findings would be presented within six months after completion of the study.

“We’ll review the legislation,” City Hall spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas said. “We’re committed to closing Rikers Island and to keeping the island facilities in good working order as long as it remains open.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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