By Bob Friedrich
Concerned about crime and safety in your community? You need to carefully consider the city’s plans to close Rikers Island and open a system of neighborhood prisons in every borough except Staten Island.
The plan has gained enormous traction since it was announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio last year. With few exceptions, nearly the entire City Council is on board. Transparency about their position on closing Rikers is not a strong suit among most elected officials and that support for shutting Rikers is never reflected in their taxpayer‑funded council newsletters. It’s easier to find out if your council member is having a Rain Barrel giveaway than their position on replacing Rikers with neighborhood prisons.
Last week, the Kew Garden Hills Civic Association held a wide-ranging debate on the Rikers shutdown plan. City Councilman Rory Lancman, a leading voice of shutting down Rikers and a likely future candidate for Queens District Attorney, debated longtime Queens County Assistant District Attorney James Quinn, who vigorously opposes the neighborhood prison plan.
Quinn was prepared with clear statistics and data on the current prison population and the dangers of closing Rikers. After their opening remarks, both men were peppered with questions from the audience. Lancman unfortunately devolved into a racially charged diatribe.
“The issue of closing Rikers, whether it should be closed, is about race — and I know that’s painful, fellow white people, I know that’s painful,” Lancman said.
Judging people by the color of their skin is bigotry and racism on display. In language that clearly suggests those who disagree with him are “racists,” Lancman created a racial divide in the audience and effectively ended any meaningful conversation. The debate can be seen in its entirety on YouTube.
There are obvious reasons to oppose this plan and none of them have to do with race.
The Queens neighborhood prison plan calls for the construction of a 35‑story building to house 1,500 inmates, triple the size of the formerly shuttered Queens House of Detention. When I asked Lancman if any civic groups support his plan or if he sought community input, he acknowledged that he doesn’t “know any civic associations in this part of my council district who support this plan.”
“I don’t represent the civics. Frankly, a lot of the civic associations — I love them — they’re not what they used to be,” Lancman said.
When asked what he meant by “they’re not what they used to be,” he declined to elaborate. I found his “dog-whistle” remark to be deeply offensive to the thousands of volunteers who generously devote time and energy to their neighborhood civic associations.
Sadly, many constituents in Lancman’s mostly diverse middle-class district are in the dark about his extreme position on this issue. His colleague, City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, whose district actually includes the proposed new prison site, shares Lancman’s position, and has hailed the planned neighborhood prison as beneficial to the community and local commerce.
One of the rare voices of reason on the City Council is newly elected City Councilman Robert Holden (D-Middle Village), who suggested putting the brakes on the neighborhood-prison plan until we can study the cost of upgrading Rikers at its current location. The projected Rikers relocation cost, including interest, hovers between $15 billion and $30 billion. This expenditure is another burden being placed on the shoulders of New York’s shrinking middle class.
The neighborhood prisons being proposed can only accommodate 5,500 inmates. This means the Rikers relocation scheme can only work if the current, already historic low Rikers prison population of 8,500 can be further reduced by 3,000 to 5,500 inmates. How can this be done? Where will prisoners be housed if there is a sudden spike in crime?
Lancman proposes to reduce the current prison population by releasing non-violent felons at Rikers back into the community. What he doesn’t tell you is that most of these non‑violent felons in Rikers have significant prior arrest records. According to Quinn, non-violent felons currently at Rikers have an average of six prior felony arrests and eight prior misdemeanor arrests.
Non-violent felonies include attempted assault, burglary, car theft, attempted purse‑snatching, ID theft, stolen credit card possession. These are not the types of individuals that most families would want back in their community. To put it bluntly, the “non-violent felons” that Lancman wants to release back into your community are “career criminals.”
Unless voters wake up soon and become more discerning about those representing them, they risk becoming pawns in these social engineering experiments. Lancman said as much when he reminded the audience that he was elected with 89 percent of the vote in the last election and felt empowered to drive this program forward without conferring with a single Civic Association and acknowledging a lack of support for the program.
Bob Friedrich is President of Glen Oaks Village, a civic leader and former New York City Council Candidate.