White Street jail’s getting smaller, but never small enough

The City Council speaker announced yesterday that the borough-based jails being planned to replace Rikers will have max heights of 295 feet, down from the original 450 feet for White Street. While the affected council members seemed to all herald this announcement, to me it just confirms that these plans are half-baked. Just a few months ago the city argued that it needed 45 stories to house inmates here in Manhattan. And now it only needs 29? The rationale is they are reducing the prison population, but why were those factors (reprinted below) not apparent when they started this process? (The council votes on all of this on Thursday, and there will be no surprises.)

There is still not clarity either on how they will reform the prison system by closing Rikers. Decentralization does not seem sufficient. And the other rationale, that the buildings will be designed for rehabilitation, seems to be evaporating as the plan for the physical plant is more and more unclear.

This is how the city says they were able to reduce the jail population and therefore reduce the building size in all for boroughs:
The changes are feasible in large part because of four primary factors. First, the state bail reforms that went into effect in April 2019, which will result in fewer people being detained in city jails. Second, the expansion of the city-funded supervised release program, which will also drive down the number of people in jail. The third factor is the relocation of at least 250 beds from the new borough-based facilities into NYC Health & Hospitals facilities, to house individuals diagnosed with a serious mental illness or other serious health issues in a more clinical setting. And lastly, design changes that reconfigured housing floor plans for the new borough based jails from double loaded corridors to single loaded corridor, resulting in one additional housing unit per floor in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx.

The council’s land use committee also passed a reso that would require that Rikers Island be remapped as a “Public Place” on the City Map so the island can only be used for public benefit. That same ULURP would ban the use of the island for incarceration as of 2026. Councilwoman Margaret Chin was also quoted in that press release: “With advocates demanding an ironclad guarantee that our City will never see a jail on Rikers Island ever again, this marks a critical step to turning the page and continuing the hard work to truly transform our criminal justice system once and for all.”



  1. This is a small but significant concession. The good news is this shows that all the protest and activism is having some effect.

    “There is still not clarity either on how they will reform the prison system by closing Rikers.”

    Exactly. There’s the $20billion question. What does closing Rikers have to do with reforming the system, or reducing the prison population? Seems to me: very little or nothing. Those goals could be pursued at Rikers or anywhere else.

    The disaster will be that we may find, after years of construction and relocation, that nothing changes except the address, and taxpayers out of that $20billion, plus all the negatives that we already know (construction mess, congestion, neighborhood issues, etc.). This whole plan and project seem rushed through without enough research and consideration.

    • Well said. In an era of high taxes in nyc and tight budgets, why raise our taxes even more (not yet acted on but where else to get $20B) for something that the public itself does not view as high priority. This is the mayor taking on a pet project with no public mandate and perhaps getting some side deals as part of it.

  2. so when the construction starts, will the DOC and NYPD triple park on centre st just to make traffic even more unbearable?

  3. It seems to me that the location of Rikers is not the cause of the criticized conditions; deplorable conditions apparently at our local “gulag” The Tombs also. So changing locations has nothing to do with fixing those problems. Systemic reform, and upgrading of facilities, should be do-able at any location, if it’s do-able at all…including at Rikers current location.


    Meanwhile, for those concerned about safety for the community, there was recently a riot at our local “gulag”, the Tombs.

    Once the “reform” happens (if it does), the inmate population will be much larger at this location, right in our neighborhood. What are the risks of a more serious riot? A break-out?

  4. A breakout, of riots?! Fear mongering with hints of a race baiting. Well done Marcus.

  5. The City: ‘Chinatown Jail Setback Signals Slog Toward Rikers Shutdown’

    “A judge’s ruling scrapping approvals for a planned new jail tower in Chinatown has snarled Mayor Bill de Blasio’s road map off Rikers Island — stalling a key part of City Hall’s borough-based jails plan as more legal challenges loom.

    “De Blasio’s office said it will appeal Monday’s order from Manhattan Supreme Court Judge John Kelley, which found environmental and land use approvals for the White Street facility invalid and barred construction from moving forward until new reviews and approvals are complete. […]”