'Alternatives for Rikers Island': NYC officials considering plan to dismantle notorious prison

A jail cell is seen in the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit at the Rikers Island Correctional facility in New York. © Brendan McDermid
New York City government agencies have prepared plans for top officials detailing how the city could build two 2,000-bed facilities as "alternatives" to the decaying Rikers Island jail, according to city documents.

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said there was "no concerted effort to look for sites for an alternative to Rikers Island" following a report by DNAinfo that suggested city officials are mulling such a plan. Now, DNAinfo has revealed documents indicating that five city agencies prepared an October presentation – titled 'Alternatives for Rikers Island' – for First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris.

Sources told DNAinfo that top city officials studied a plan to phase-out the notoriously-violent city jail, built in 1932, as recently as last month.

"We were looking pretty heavily at options to close Rikers," said a source who worked on the presentation. "We had looked up a ton of possible sites around the city and state and I think it was seriously under consideration."

City Hall denied a "comprehensive plan" is in the works.

"There is no comprehensive plan to close Rikers or any active effort to look for sites," said De Blasio spokeswoman Monica Klein in a statement to news media. "The administration has examined the feasibility of closure in the past and determined there were numerous, significant challenges associated with this notion, which the mayor has publicly discussed."

The presentation offered multiple options for phasing-out Rikers with two detention centers around the city while revamping existing jails in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. Each plan would cost an estimated $3.1 billion to $3.5 billion, while saving the city more than $500 million in the process of shutting down aging Rikers facilities.

A more recent analysis of closing Rikers put the total cost of building two new jails and rehabilitating existing detention facilities at $7 billion, sources said.

De Blasio spokeswoman Klein would not discuss whether the mayor had seen the presentation or whether he knew his first deputy, Shorris, had received the plan.

The presentation analysis was prepared by the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, Department of Correction, the Department of Design and Construction, the Economic Development Corporation, and the Office of Management and Budget.

Supporters of plans to close Rikers cite the age and history of violence that marks the 10,000-inmate city jail on the East River, as well as the cost of transporting inmates to courts throughout the city.

“The culture is too toxic. It is too distant from families and the courts,” said Phil Desgranges of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York Daily News reported.

“The place is too decrepit. It has to be shut down. ... The facility itself is leading to a lot of the violence.”

Since 1990, the city has settled six class action suits filed against the Rikers jail, with corrections officers accused of widespread abuse. A number of fatal incidents at Rikers Island and other city detention facilities triggered an investigation of violence at New York City jails. Results of the investigation found that violence is on the rise despite less inmates and more money spent on facilities, the city's comptroller found.

In August 2014, the US attorney's office for the Southern District of New York released a report describing a “deep-seated culture of violence” against adolescents at the facility.

One month prior, an investigation was published by The New York Times which detailed 129 cases of inmates who were seriously injured in altercations with correction officers in 2013. It showed that mentally ill inmates bore the brunt of that violence.

Riker's Island is the nation's second-largest jail system, housing around 10,000 inmates in 10 facilities.