An alternative plan to the borough based jails

Downtown architect (and BPC resident) Bill Bialosky, representing a group of local architects, has come up with an alternative to the city’s borough-based jail plan: rebuild Rikers from scratch on the island. And unlike the city’s idea for massive jail towers, their master plan strategy makes a lot more sense.

The “Humane Alternative to the Borough Based Jail Plan” follows several principles, perhaps the most important of which is that jails should not be built in towers. It doesn’t work for the inmates, for corrections officers or for neighbors.

“Borough based skyscraper jails will be obsolete the day they are done, and will do little to address the concepts of reform or correction, which require considerably more space than what is available on these tiny urban sites,” Bialosky said. “The city never studied a campus solution, which we feel is the only way to create an environment for a total reformation of our carceral system.”

His plan uses the 409 acres at Rikers (vs. the 10 acres in total at the four proposed borough sites) to rebuild progressive jails, AND it uses the city’s ferry system (Rikers already has a dock within a short distance from Astoria, Soundview and East 90th Street) to get both visitors to the island and inmates off of it. “It boggles my mind that we are not using the ferry now to transport the buses filled with inmates into Manhattan,” Bialosky notes. “The bus gets on the ferry (no one ever gets off the bus) and the ferry goes to the Governors Island depot. Five minutes later they are at the courthouse.”

In my mind, I don’t see why there can’t be courthouses there as well — at least to handle some of the hearings, reducing the need to move inmates by bus or water. And then there are all the other uses and services that could be added to the campus, once you are not trying to squeeze things in to a grid: schools, farms, exercise facilities, housing for visitors. Might I add that everything can be moved by water from an island: garbage, food supplies, building materials.

The plan does not get into the specifics of building design or construction, but it does note that most modern prisons in other regions are low-rise campuses, even in urban settings. And there are all sorts of advantages — it’s not hard to imagine — to building on an island with tons of acreage. No neighbors, lots of swing space, no ULURP required, phased construction — even construction techniques are cheaper. Bialosky estimates that it could cost half as much to build on Rikers Island than at the four borough-based jail sites, which right now are running at $8.1 billion (and that’s without inflation).

“There is so much space out there, that the ‘renewable Rikers’ ideas can coexist,” Bialosky said.

Tower jails, the proposal argues, are unsafe in emergencies, difficult to evacuate if needed and provide very little natural light or opportunities for outdoor recreation — one of the tenets of progressive prison construction. Their plan acknowledges that many of the current structures at Rikers are outdated, temporary or abandoned, but would be phased out one by one as construction moves forward over the next decade.

Speaking of the next decade, the plan also touches on financing and looking at the city’s Ten-Year Capital Strategy, which gets us to 2031. That has the $8.1 billion set aside for new jails, and $5.5 billion set aside for new schools. Just noting: the city has 1.1 million school children, and about 4900 inmates. (Download the full report here, if you want to read it yourself. It’s pretty user-friendly.)

If the city rebuilds on Rikers, it will still have two huge jails, currently empty, to contend with on White Street. But there never seemed to be a better time for adaptive reuse than here, in two buildings that were only built (or renovated) 40 years ago.

“Evidence shows the beneficial mental and social aspects in a treatment-oriented environment of access to natural light and fresh air, connectedness to nature, thermal and acoustic comfort, and variety of outdoor spaces and views to experience the
changing of seasons,” the plan reads. “Real prison reform goes beyond closing Rikers and replicating the same mistakes in skyscrapers.”



  1. this is such a great idea, city council of corse are adverse to great ideas so not optimistic, more space, less cost and not at the expense of residents in each community, easy to get too and with court houses on the Island makes hearings less cumbersome. answers all the progressives concerns but of course they will scream about something else.

  2. Looks great. Now will the city actually consider this?

  3. This makes too much sense, and doesn’t line the developers pockets/as much. It will never happen sadly due to the payoffs that were probably already made. Shame.

  4. There is absolutely no reason there should be a prison in NYC. Ship them out to Jersey or upstate NY. Get rid of Rikers and any other plan to make jails in Manhattan proper

  5. Sure beats a gigantic skyscraper wall of jail cells plopped down in the middle of my neighborhood. Any idea seems a huge improvement over that nightmare.

  6. Thank you for the reporting, this is revolutionary thinking, best idea yet. Not just the physical plan of the jail but the way we think about the entire system, why do we put people in jail and what we expect to get out of it? The idea of the skyscraper jail in a very tight space in the middle of a neighborhood feels physically and psychologically bleak and hopeless, for those inside and outside. This is the way to go.

  7. wow! what a great idea

  8. The idea of re-creating Rikers is very welcome. We cannot build the 4 jail/prison towers as proposed with out accepting the consequences for a lack of imagination. Now is the time to make reforms. The towers proposed are abusive in many ways – they represent our self-abuse. If we build them we will fill them. (Sentencing laws have been adjusted to serve political ideas for far too long. Sentencing required by “Rockefeller drug laws” are an example.) The prison towers are a blatant mis-use of money and grim evidence of an inability to learn and adjust this powerful social system. Jail reform actually exists, but not for NYC, unless this proposal is defeated and time is taken to plan it. The tower proposal doesn’t even pretend to advocate for reform. Reform is a value that comes from thinking about what hasn’t worked and addressing it.

  9. I guess Bill wasn’t paying attention when they detailed all the reasons not to build new jails on Rikers and how concentrating all the jail facilities there is part of the main problem in the first place.

  10. Detention Centers next to courts makes too much sense. Witness the hundreds of bus trips to court and back to Rikers each week as well as the long journeys by relatives to visit the detained. That is senseless.
    Rikers was created to remove those detained to an island far from public scrutiny and mindfulness. Not a 21st century solution to a major social issue.

  11. Why even build jails. Let’s just go right from arrest to state prison, and just ship all the poor, addicted and mentally ill upstate. That should protect your perfect idyllic neighborhood. Maybe we can even build a wall on Canal Street and down Broadway and force people to show ID to come near your homes.

    Clearly the only experience anyone here has ever had with the justice system is finding an excuse to get out of jury duty.

    The Manhattan jail has been based on Centre Street since the 1800’s.

    Housing detainees close to court saves money, is more secure, provides easier access to legal resources and allows families much easier access to incarcerated kin.

    We could also the ebtire criminal justice system to Rikers. Think of how many new lofts could be built with all the nice 1930’s detail in the current court buildings! Who wouldn’t pay millions for a living room in the rotunda of 60 Centre?

    • No one has suggested repurposing the three jails we currently have in the neighborhood, which I believe hold close to 1200 detainees total. The issue is with tearing them down and rebuilding them bigger AS WELL AS adding jails to three other residential neighborhoods.