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Land Use Processes Will Not Close Rikers Island
We have always known that Mayor de Blasio’s massive jail expansion plan had no legal guarantee to close Rikers Island. Days away from their vote, Council members scrambled to respond to community pressure to shut down the notorious jail complex with an inadequate and non-binding land use committee resolution. The legitimate path to closing Rikers Island is emptying city jails, not a land use maneuver.
On October 10th, the City Council’s Land Use Committee voted on a resolution to eventually submit a land use application for a city map change, claiming that this would be enough to guarantee that the Rikers jails complex closes. But this decision — hailed by establishment media and major nonprofits as an “ironclad” guarantee to close Rikers Island — is a misleading and shoddy maneuver to whip up community support and City Council votes for the catastrophic jail expansion plan. New Yorkers’ demands remain the same: Rikers must close immediately, and the $11,000,000,000 that would be wasted on the new jails must be given back to our communities instead.
The city’s jail expansion plan was never about closing Rikers Island or decarcerating our city. On Oct 17th, the only thing that the City Council will be voting on is building four new jails.
What did the City Council Resolve to Do?
The Council Land Use Committee authorized itself to file a land use application with Mayor De Blasio’s Department of City Planning. This application would go through the nearly year-long land-use approval process (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP), to amend the city map “to establish a public place, with a use restriction, on the entirety of Rikers Island.” This use restriction would bar “incarceration of individuals after December 31, 2026.”
City Council will not amend the city map on or before the October 17 vote on new jails. They do not have unilateral authority to do so, as the land use change must first be certified by the Department of City Planning, then reviewed by the Community Board and Borough President, and approved by the City Planning Commission. No decision point along this long process can be guaranteed. This ULURP application has not been certified; City Council merely resolved to submit one at some point. This resolution can be rescinded on October 18, next month, or next year, as could the application itself at any time after it is submitted.
City Council Does Not Typically Initiate Land Use Changes. City Council has never before initiated a land use application. This, compounded by Council Land Use Committee’s decision to join the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice and Department of Corrections (DOC) as co-applicants for the proposed map change, undermines Council’s role and responsibility to represent the public by reviewing city discretionary actions. Further, the resolution cites the Mayor’s proposed jails development plan as part of the justification for a land use restriction banning jail use on Rikers Island, effectively making this stated effort to close Rikers contingent on support for building more jails.
A panicked decision. The October 10th committee decision was not historic; it was panicked, ill-considered, provisional on a resolution committee members received 30 minutes into their scheduled meeting, and excluded from the agenda published online prior to the meeting. 17 days earlier the Council’s same Land Use Committee passed a motion directing itself to pursue a completely different land use strategy. This strategy included decommissioning the Boat, which was part of the motion the Committee passed on September 23, only to be abandoned in the October 10th committee resolution. That rushed decision betrays the Council’s frenzy to whip votes for the jail construction plan.
The language of the ULURP application is not yet public, so no one can evaluate whether it will functionally do what is intended. A “public place” designation does not appear in the zoning resolution, and it is unclear what types of land uses would be allowable (or not) under this designation. The resolution does not specify what use restriction will be in place to prohibit incarceration on Rikers Island, so the public (and, presumably, Council members) cannot yet assess how broad or enforceable this may be.
Could a land use change even lead to the closure of Rikers?
The State has jurisdiction over NYC jails. New York State has ultimate authority over local jails and their use. No city map or zoning rule can change that. City Council has not publicly addressed how city land use law can supercede the state’s authority to commission and decommission city jails. The effort to close ‘The Tombs’ alone went through a litigation process involving city, state, and federal actors and took four years (1970–1974). On its website promoting the jail expansion plan, the Mayor’s Office admitted the limits of its authority to close Rikers Island, recognizing that it “[r]equires action from parties other than the City.” (The Mayor’s Office recently deleted that statement from its website, which is captured in the screenshot below.)
How will this land use change be enforced?
Incarcerated people’s standing to sue. The to-be-proposed city map amendment would not change use on Rikers Island until 2027, but it does allow City Council or the Mayor to change their mind at any point leading up to 2027. If the amendment passes and remains in place through 2027, it is entirely predictable that DOC will violate the city map and use restriction by continuing to incarcerate people on Rikers Island, whether because de Blasio’s jail construction falls behind schedule or because DOC routinely violates city, state, and federal rules and laws. What monitoring and enforcement mechanisms will be in place for this, and future council members, to ensure that Rikers is closed as soon as possible? The only remedy contemplated by City Council is that incarcerated people (or nearby homeowners) could sue to enforce the land-use change.
City Council has actually proposed placing the burden to enforce closing an entire jail complex on incarcerated people. Lawsuits haven’t kept incarcerated people from continuing to be brutalized and killed, let alone close an entire jail complex. Moreover, incarcerated people’s standing to sue has not been established; and prior case law suggests that they may lack standing if they are unlikely to be harmed by incarceration on Rikers in the future.
Close Rikers NOW, No New Jails
We knew when we began this fight that we were not contending with a democratic process. We knew that our demands to close Rikers Island without building more jails would only be met through people power and mass mobilization.
This last-minute resolution is a sloppy, inadequate response to community pressure and final evidence that there is nothing in this jail plan that is for New Yorkers. City Council thinks they can fool us with a tweak to a jail expansion plan. Oct 17th they will only be voting about more jails. Pro-jail politicians, nonprofits, foundations, and media that praised this vote as “ironclad” have played their last card and have no other legal maneuvers to make this jail expansion look like reform.
Cages do not make us safe. When seven out of 10 people in NYC jails are awaiting trial we can break cycles of violence by using public funds to address our needs and and supporting pretrial release through bail vouchers and remand fights. The jail building era must end because instead of using $11,000,000,000 to cage human beings we should use it to end homelessness, keeping NYCHA public, and our many other needs.
We must shut down Rikers Island and use $11,000,000,000 for our needs not more jails.