Whether or not you believe in the abolition of the carceral state in New York City—in its case, 9,400 people in jail are waiting for trial on any given day—the announcement of the start of the Rikers Island jail replacement project may be good news. The Department of Design and Construction (DDC) will start issuing Request for Qualifications (RFQs) for early program work later this month, in preparation for four design-build projects to create new jail towers in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
The brief will aim to create a new borough-based jail system comprised of smaller, safer, more humane facilities, located within easier reach of courts, families, lawyers, social workers, educational services, and care providers. The jails will be sited: in Manhattan in place of the existing jail complex on White Street (replacing the Tombs); in downtown Brooklyn in a reconstruction of the existing detention facilities; in Queens in place of a decommissioned detention center on 82nd Avenue, and in the Bronx on a city-owned property that had once been a police tow pound. While the towers had originally been planned to reach a maximum height of about 450 feet, those limits were later slashed to 295 feet, as the city revised its estimates of what the incarcerated population would number in 2025.
The outlines of this plan can be traced back to the work of former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which issued a 2017 Justice in Design report produced by Van Alen Institute and led by NADAAA. That report brought together a wide range of stakeholders within the criminal justice system (including corrections officers, families of incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated persons, social workers, psychologists, and other experts) to gather their experiences and insights on how to create a more humane jail system.
The de Blasio administration frames the Rikers replacement projects as no less than a historic decarceration plan, which aims to reduce the number of people in jails to 3,300 and vastly expand alternatives to detention and incarceration. The city says it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in these programs since the beginning of the administration, in a manner reminiscent of Laura Kurgan’s Million Dollar Blocks project that argued for replacing jails that cost a million dollars a year per block with the equivalent social services.
The housing segments in the new towers are expected to be organized as single cells with no more than 32 people within each housing unit instead of the current dormitory-style cells, according to best practices to promote safety, according to the decarceration plan’s outlines. They would provide better space for programming and access to educational and recreational activities, as well as for meeting with lawyers and social workers, and welcoming family members with child-friendly areas. Modern air conditioning and heating, natural light, and more normalized environments will also contribute to more humane conditions for both corrections officers and incarcerated people.
The call will seek “vendors with significant design-build experience, with an emphasis on a team’s ability to design facilities that integrate well into surrounding neighborhoods,” DDC Commissioner Lorraine Grillo said in the press release, which notes that the Rikers Island Jail Complex Replacement Act of 2018 was passed specifically to prioritize design, quality, past performance, and qualifications rather than price.
The first two Request for Qualifications (RFQs) are for early program work, including for a new parking garage at the Queens site and demolishing the outmoded detention center, and building a space in Brooklyn for the transfer of incarcerated people to court appearances during the construction of the new Brooklyn facility. The other RFPs are expected in the first quarter of 2020.