Plans unveiled for replacing Rikers with smaller jails

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New York City officials released plans to close the Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with smaller neighborhood jails. (Courtesy of NYC Mayor's Office)

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City unveiled an ambitious plan on Wednesday to replace the notorious Rikers Island jail complex with four smaller lockups located in densely populated neighborhoods, including turning an Art Deco government building that went up in lower Manhattan in 1930 into a tower for up to 1,500 inmates.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city officials said they envision more humane settings that would feature community space, ground-floor retail outlets and offices for inmate support services. A proposal for a Bronx facility even calls for rezoning a portion of the site to allow for development of affordable housing.

"We're taking a big step forward in the process of closing Rikers Island and creating a modern community-based jail system that is smaller, safer and fairer," De Blasio said in a statement announcing details of the plan.

The remake of the city jail system still faces an extensive public review process and uncertainty about its ultimate cost. Some estimates have reached well into the billions.

The announcement comes six months after officials decided to shut down Rikers by 2027 after years of complaints about violence by guards and gang members, mistreatment of the mentally ill and juveniles and unjustly long detention for minor offenders. Advocates for the closure also have argued that the island facility near La Guardia Airport — accessible only by a narrow bridge — is too isolated, cutting off inmates from the outside world in a way that hinders oversight and rehabilitation.

Daily populations at Rikers have fallen to about 8,200 a day and could reach as low as 5,000 thanks to reduced sentences for low-level offenders and other criminal justice reforms, officials said. They said the lower inmate populations have made dismantling the complex and replacing it with the smaller facilities, each with 1,500 beds, more viable.

Two locations proposed for Brooklyn and Queens already have existing jails that would be renovated. The property in the Bronx currently is used by the New York Police Department as a tow pound.

For Manhattan, the new jail would occupy what's now a nine-story state office building that houses courtrooms, the Manhattan District Attorney's office, a marriage license bureau and other offices that all would have to relocate. The plan calls for more than doubling the square-footage of the building by allowing it to go up to 430 feet (131 meters) in height.

The existing structure is "constructed of Maine Coast granite" and has a lobby "decorated in an elaborate Art Deco Egyptian design," according to a city website.

Simone Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said in an email on Wednesday that he's already heard some concerns about the preservation of the building.

"It aesthetically works well with the general monumental scale of the Civic Center area," Bankoff said. "Hopefully it could be sympathetically converted to jail purposes without unduly impacting it architecture."