Despite Cut in Capital Spending, Mayor Plans to Build a New Jail, Renovate Others

Posted by Nashla Salas, June 15, 2011

Tough fiscal times have led the Mayor to propose a 20 percent reduction in planned city capital spending. That means less money for affordable housing construction, building new schools, or rehabbing city parks. Because of this, some New Yorkers may be surprised to learn that the Bloomberg Administration is still planning to commit more than $620 million in 2011 through 2015 to the construction of a new jail on Rikers Island, the renovation of jails in Brooklyn and Queens, and the closing of other facilities. What may make this even more surprising is that when the changes are complete, the system will have less capacity than it does now.

While the jail proposal has also been cut back—by nearly $115 million or 16 percent in the May 2011 Capital Commitment Plan compared with the September 2010 plan —some may question the need for it at all. Part of what’s driving the initiative is dilapidated conditions. Some of the structures being used on Rikers were only meant to be temporary. Another reason is to reverse a Giuliani Administration initiative that closed the jails near the borough courthouses and placed all inmates on Rikers Island. That proved to be a costly decision, ratcheting up overtime and other expenses in order to transport inmates to court dates.

As a result, the Department of Correction is going ahead with a jail renovation initiative which includes the construction of a new 1,500 bed jail on Rikers Island and reopening detention facilities in Brooklyn and Queens, in conjunction with reductions in the capacity of a number of other facilities. Because the initiative would remove more beds than are being added from the new construction, the city’s overall jail capacity would be reduced by nearly 3,000 beds.

Prior to the implementation of the renovation plan, the city’s jail capacity totaled about 19,400 beds, including 16,400 in Rikers Island-based jails and a total of 3,000 in four facilities in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx. When the renovation plan is finished, capacity will stand at about 16,550.The planned overall reduction would bring capacity more in line with the jail population, which has decreased from a daily average of more than 14,500 in 2003, the peak over the past decade, to 13,362 last year.

The largest project in the plan to renovate Rikers Island is a new 1,500-bed jail at a cost of about $563 million. Also included is a new 800-bed annex to the Rose M. Singer Center ($4.4 million), which is set to open in the next two months. This facility houses detained and sentenced female adults and adolescents. The new beds will partially offset the reduction of thousands of older beds at the 10 current Rikers jails. Many of the older units were meant to be temporary, have been costly to maintain and are overdue for closure. One of the oldest facilities, the 1,194 bed James A. Thomas Center, has already been closed.

While all the capacity changes will occur in the Rikers Island facilities, the plan also calls for reopening jails in Brooklyn and Queens which have not housed inmates since 2003 and 2002, respectively, although their beds were still counted in the system’s capacity. Improvements to the Queens facility total about $550,000 in elevator replacement work. Renovation of the Brooklyn House of Detention will cost $3 million, but a previous proposal to increase its capacity has been dropped. It is expected that the Brooklyn House of Detention will reopen by the fall and the Queens House of Detention will be reopened in the spring of 2012.

While the Rikers Island renovations have drawn little public attention, there have been mixed reactions to the plans to reopen the Brooklyn and Queens facilities. Advocates and families of those arrested have complained of the inaccessibility of Rikers Island and prefer that inmates be housed in borough facilities near their homes. On the other hand, residents near the Brooklyn facility have in the past complained that reopening a jail in their neighborhood will stifle development.