Everybody Agrees Rikers Island Should Close. But What Happens Next in Brooklyn?


Nobody thinks Rikers Island should stay open.

That much was clear from Community Board 2’s public hearing on the city’s plan for a new borough-based jail system last Thursday. But among those who attended the meeting — about 300 people who filtered in and out of the large auditorium at the Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Clinton Hill — there was a split down the middle about what to do next.

“No human should ever be there at all,” said KeKe Dunston, a former police officer and inmate at Rikers who spoke about her experience. “I don’t want [jails] at all, but I have to be realistic. What are we going to do?”

brooklyn house of detention

With the closing of Rikers, which the mayor’s office says can happen by 2027, the city has proposed four new jails — one in each borough except for Staten Island — under a scheme that will reduce the number of detainees while providing easier access for families and lawyers, according to representatives for the mayor’s office. The current capacity of 800 detainees will double to 1,510.

brooklyn house of detention

Proposed street level view of the detention complex. Rendering via NYC Mayor’s Office

A good section of the audience last week was vocal activists from No New Jails NYC, a group that believes that the closing of Rikers does not mean you should build a new jail somewhere else.

Most of the others were associated with JustLeadershipUSA, a group that is dedicated to cutting the US correctional population in half over the next decade, and which counts many formerly incarcerated people in their ranks. They agree with the borough-based system but want modifications to the current plan that would reduce the total number of inmates.

In the middle, or maybe off to the side, were local residents who were worried, most of all, with the height of the proposed new building. Under the city’s current plan, the 11-story building that is currently home to the Brooklyn Detention Center will be demolished and replaced with a building that could reach 40 stories, towering over the surrounding neighborhood.

house of detention

The atmosphere was less tense than the last public meeting, which happened in September. But few saw what the city is proposing as an actual solution, so they were left feeling like they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Rikers needs to close, but is this the only way to do it?

house of detention

“This is not small, community-based jailing,” a local resident said. “Instead, it looks to me like they’re redistributing the same system to create the same problem. I feel like the plan should focus more on getting to the root of the problems.”

Victoria Phillips, a social justice activist, argued for more mental healthcare for inmates and brought up the recent incident in Sunset Park as more reason for local jails: if it’s easier to see them, it’s easier to hold the jail accountable.

Reaching out to the audience, she tried to link all their struggles together. “It’s not alright to just show up tonight and complain about it,” she said. “You have to show up and actually do the work.”

But what the result of that work will be is still unclear.

[Photos by Craig Hubert unless otherwise noted]

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