City Council Greenlights Closing Rikers Island, Expanding Borough-Based Jail System (Updated)

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The City Council voted in favor of the plan to close Rikers and build new jails in Brooklyn and three other boroughs.

Thursday night the proposal passed with 36 yes votes to 13 no votes. In Brooklyn, the vote was close, with nine council members voting in favor and six against.

In a meeting that was filled with numerous interruptions, there was a smattering of both cheers and jeers from both activists in the audience as well as politicians when the measure had achieved a 26 vote majority.

Councilmember Stephen Levin, who represents Boerum Hill, where the new jail will replace the existing one, voted in favor of the plan. “You can judge a society by entering its prisons,” he said, attributing the statement, incorrectly, to Fyodor Dostoevsky. “This vote today will reflect on the council for years to come.”

house of detention

The crowd at a public meeting about the closing of Rikers Island in April 2019. Photo by Craig Hubert

Along with other council members, he evoked Kalief Browder, who committed suicide at the age of 22 after spending three years at Rikers Island without a trial and without being able to make bail, in his reasoning to vote in favor of the borough-based system.

On Twitter, Levin was criticized for thanking No New Jails, an activist group that opposes the borough-based plan, and referencing organizer, educator and curator Mariame Kaba in his comments. “I reject the use of my name to support JAIL EXPANSION,” Kaba wrote on Twitter. “It’s completely AGAINST what I stand for. Invoking me is gross and has nothing to do with me. It’s bullshit.”

Echoing earlier criticism from Brooklyn Community Board 2, Espinal said during the proceedings, “I feel the conversation City Hall started has not gone far enough. There are too many half-formed solutions.” Menchaca called the plan a scheme to enrich developers and said it lacks community guarantees.

In addition to Levin, Brooklyn council members who voted yes included Justin Brannan, Laurie Cumbo, Robert Cornegy, Mathieu Eugene, Brad Lander, Farah Louis, Antonio Reynoso and Mark Treyger, according to Brownstoner sister pub Brooklyn Paper.

Voting against were Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Inez Barron, Chaim Deutsch, Rafael Espinal, Carlos Menchaca and Kalman Yeger. Councilmember Alan Maisel was not present for the vote.

Later, immediately following Levin’s vote, activists put a halt to the meeting, dropping a sign from the balcony that said, “Blood on Your Hands.” After majority leader Laurie Cumbo demanded that the balcony be cleared, the vote resumed.

Even those who voted in favor were not fully behind the borough-based system. Many of the council members who spoke admitted the plan is not perfect. “It is the most likely path to incarcerating the least amount of people in the most humane conditions,” said Councilmember Brad Lander. “We cannot miss another chance to close Rikers and the brutality it represents.”

Editor’s note: This article was published at 5:44 Thursday, October 17. It has been updated to reflect the final vote count.

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