Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Overhead view of Rikers Island.

Councilman Robert Holden continued his push to keep Rikers Island open with new legislation introduced this week that gained support from several other Queens Council members.

On May 23, Holden introduced a bill that would create a commission to study the cost of renovating Rikers Island, which he said is a vital piece of information to consider before the city continues moving forward with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to reduce the inmate population, close the prison and open smaller jails in each borough by 2027.

Fellow Queens Councilmen Eric Ulrich and Paul Vallone, as well as Councilman Mark Gjonaj from the Bronx and Councilman Kalman Yeger from Brooklyn, also voiced support of the bill.

“We have the numbers where borough-based jails are concerned, but we should know the cost of rejuvenating Rikers’ facilities to determine if it’s a viable alternative,” Holden said in a press release. “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.”

Last year, the Council commissioned a study led by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman that determined the cost of using borough-based jails to replace Rikers would be approximately $10.6 billion. The Lippman Commission ultimately recommended the closure of Rikers, however, and de Blasio has since announced that the first of the island’s nine jails will close this summer.

Holden has been one of the more outspoken leaders against the mayor’s plan along with Queens County Senior Executive Assistant District Attorney James Quinn. The two represented the borough at a City & State panel discussion in March and later joined forces again at a Juniper Park Civic Association meeting to present their case for why Rikers should remain open.

The primary arguments for closing Rikers Island, according to the Lippman Commission’s findings, are that its buildings are dilapidated, it’s difficult for family members to visit inmates, it takes too much time and resources to ferry inmates back and forth to court and the facility lacks proper space for on-site programming.

Holden, Quinn and other critics argue that closing the prison would release suspected felons back onto the streets, cost far too much of the taxpayers’ dollars and lead to safety issues within the communities that would house the borough jails.

“The infrastructure at Rikers is solid, and before we sink billions into new jails, we should have all the information,” Holden said. “This study will help us gain a clearer picture of what it would look like to keep Rikers Island open.”

According to the bill, the 10-person commission would consist of three members appointed by the mayor, three members appointed by the speaker of the council and four members appointed jointly by the speaker and the mayor. The members — who cannot be city employees — would serve on the commission for one year and meet on at least four occasions. A report on the commission’s findings would be given to the mayor and Council no later than six months after completing the study.

“Any decision of this magnitude needs to be made with thorough and reliable facts and figures,” said Vallone in a press release. “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.”

De Blasio’s plan identifies the Queens borough jail site as the Queens House of Detention in Kew Gardens, which is currently used by the Department of Corrections for occasional training exercises. Manhattan and Brooklyn would also use existing jail facilities, but the Bronx would have to have a brand-new complex built.

“This is a common sense bill,” Ulrich said in a press release. “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 has been assigned to the Committee on Criminal Justice and must be reviewed at public hearings, voted on by the Council and presented to the mayor for the final decision. If the mayor vetoes the bill, the Council can overturn his decision with a two-thirds majority vote.


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