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“Replace Rikers” Plan Stalled in Courts


By Matthew Ansley from Upsplash

The two year mayoral effort to replace Rikers Island with four new courthouse-adjacent jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx met a significant roadblock on September 21, 2020. Judge John Kelley ruled in favor of those opposing the New York City Borough-Based Jail System’s (BBJS) proposed Chinatown site by nullifying the City Council and City Planning Commission’s approvals. The nullification comes as a result of the city administrations’ failure to restart the environmental impact review process after site changes were made, moving the proposed 29-story building two blocks north to 124 White Street. 

Neighbors United Below Canal, among other petitioners, have sought to clarify that their response to the proposition is not a NIMBY scenario, charging that the city has cut corners in an attempt to build the jail without properly conferring with the community. By not restarting the process, they claim, Mayor De Blasio, and others, are preventing the public from providing their input and voicing concern. This September’s ruling appears to validate their charge, calling the approvals “arbitrary and capricious, affected by an error of law, and rendered in the absence of proper procedure.” [1] As such, whether or not the new jail will have an adverse environmental impact on the area is, for the time being, unclear. The jail’s cultural, socioeconomic, and historical effect on the neighborhood must be reconsidered in light of the move if any substantive impact analysis is to be considered complete, Kelley explained.

Building the White Street facility would entail the demolition of two existing jail facilities on the street to allow for the construction of a larger, unified one capable of holding more inmates. Moreover, the large-scale municipal capital project will result in traffic and congestion in the area. Because of this, residents of the community are owed a “hard look” at the possible public health and environmental impacts of the project as it will actually be carried out, according to Judge Kelley’s court order. [1]  

This ruling does not bode well for De Blasio’s vision for BBJS. Criticism has also arisen from those opposed to the plan insofar as it entails the production of new jails. It is estimated that demolishing old prisons, creating new prisons, and transitioning between the two will cost the city nearly $9 billion, money which critics argue could be productively spent elsewhere. Echoing recent popular sentiments surrounding prison reform, critics like the No New Jails group contend that the city’s time, money, and effort could be more effectively spent improving social services closely related to the carceral system. Among these, mental-health and educational services are frequently cited as most deserving of redirected funding. Though the “Replace Rikers” plan is part of De Blasio’s goal of halving the NYC prison population by 2026, it is clear that its implementation will need to garner more public support if it is to move forward without additional roadblocks. 



[1] – Hon. John J. Kelley, Decision, Order and Judgment, “Neighbors United Below Canal v DeBlasio,” 21 Sep. 2020,, Accessed 14 Oct 2020.

[2] – Spivak, Caroline, “Bill de Blasio’s Plan to Close Rikers Is Crumbling,” Curbed New York, 23 Sep 2020,, Accessed 14 Oct 2020.

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