BY DASHIELL ALLEN | “While most Chinatown businesses focus on food, health and medicine, this Chinatown dig specializes in mass incarceration,” activist and comedian says Aaron Yin in a video on Tik Tok.
“This twin-building jail complex is nicknamed The Tombs,” Yin says, “because once you look at them you can’t help but feel dead inside.”
The dismantling of the now-emptied Manhattan Detention Complex, known as “The Tombs,” is imminent.
Scaffolding is set to surround the Chinatown facility on Tuesday, with demolition, or “deconstruction,” as the city likes to call it, beginning in May or June.
Lower Manhattan is overwhelmingly opposed to the city’s $8.3 billion “borough-based jails” plan to replace Rikers Island with four “megajails” to be located in every borough other than Staten Island with a combined total of 3,300 beds. In Manhattan, the new jail would reach a maximum height of 335 feet, which would be between 30 and 40 stories tall.
Speaking to The Village Sun, project opponents raised a plethora of concerns about the massive plan — ranging from the displacement of Chinese small businesses, to the health risks caused by construction, to a lack of evidence that the new jail would fundamentally alter the myriad problems plaguing Rikers since it first opened in the 1930s.
At the same time, the conditions at Rikers Island are widely decried as a “humanitarian crisis” that cannot be allowed to continue. In 2021 alone 15 detainees lost their lives out of a total population at Rikers of between 5,300 and 5,500. In a 2014 report, Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District Court of New York, described the “repeated use of excessive and unnecessary force by correction officers” on the island as violating detainees’ “constitutional rights.”
The question foremost in many people’s minds, then, is what should take Riker’s place? Is it possible to close Rikers without causing a displacement impact on Chinatown? Will a megajail ever be a vehicle for social justice? Can the carceral system itself even be reformed and, if not, then what is the path to what some advocates are demanding — the “abolition” of all jails?
“We want to look to the roots of these problems,” said Jihye Song, an organizer with Youth Against Displacement, a Chinatown and Lower East Side activist group. “Ultimately, we have to go to the root cause first, and the surface level comes after.
“If your solution is to do the bare minimum and not change the system — it’s just moving the cups around,” she added.
The community has some ideas — but the city doesn’t appear to be listening.
Alternatives to the city’s plan
In September 2021, Elizabeth Glazer, the head of former Mayor de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice, and one of the borough-based jail plan’s chief architects, co-authored a report titled, “What To Do About Closing Rikers.” In the report, she and Michael Jacobson, the director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance and a former commissioner of both the city’s Departments of Correction and Probation, expound upon “seven actions the next mayor should take” to improve the current plan.
While the current plan would reduce the detainee population to 3,300 — with a total of over 800 beds in each facility — Glazer and Jacboson’s target number is lower, 2,200.
The report acknowledges of de Blasio’s jails scheme that, “although succeeding where past attempts had failed, the necessities of reaching a political agreement resulted in a plan with substantive shortcomings that must be addressed so that the new facilities are part of a transformed justice system, not a decentralized mini-version of Rikers.” (Part of that political agreement involved a contentious $35 million payment to the nearby Museum of Chinese In America a.k.a. MOCA.)
In an interview with The Village Sun, Glazer explained in detail the steps that Mayor Adams could take, starting as soon as tomorrow, to at the very least reduce the harm caused by detainment at Rikers Island.
Key to Glazer’s plan is the use of currently empty or underutilized state-owned jail facilities across the city, including the Lincoln Detention Center on W. 110th Street and Bayview in Chelsea. That would ideally allow the Chinatown facility to remain at its current size. She believes that several smaller jails located around Manhattan could prove more just and humane compared than a single, larger one.
(Both facilities she mentioned have been shuttered for years and are still owned by the Department of Corrections, according to the city’s ACRIS database. A criminal justice nonprofit had briefly considered turning the Bayview Detention Center into a community center, although plans were scrapped in 2019. Meanwhile, a few years back there was speculation that the Lincoln facility could be redeveloped as luxury housing.)
“There are also some options to expand what’s already the city’s plan to provide therapeutic beds for people who are incarcerated and require physical attention, in hospitals,” she said.
Additionally, these options “would not require a new land use process,” given that the sites are already zoned for use as jails, she noted.
“If you believe that it’s a good idea to move off Rikers, and I think it is a good idea, then the question is how can jails both operate in a more humane way that permits a decent environment for both the people who work there and the people who were incarcerated?” Glazer asked.
Still, she, admitted, in her understanding, The Tombs would need to be demolished either way, even if the new facility replacing it was no larger than the current one.
“When I was there we did look at whether it would be possible to simply rehab the existing building, and for a whole range of reasons it just was not possible,” she said. “It would really mean that you would have to take the building down to its walls.”
Ironically, when The Tombs was last remodeled, in the 1980s, the $42 million renovation ($118.5 million in 2022 dollars) was described by The New York Times as “one of the most humane and efficient jails anywhere.”
The use of smaller state facilities wasn’t considered during the 2019 ULURP (city land-use review) process, according to Glazer, who noted the city was prioritizing speed and didn’t consider it feasible to negotiate with state agencies.
“There was a contentious relationship between the governor and the mayor,” Glazer said, laughing slightly. “And that relationship has changed quite a bit. So that opens up that lane that really didn’t exist before,” he said, referring to the more amicable rapport between Governor Hochul and Adams.
Glazer also called for the number of Correction officers to be cut, calling Rikers the “most richly staffed jail on the face of the planet.” According to her report, as of July 2021, the jail was employing close to 9,000 officers for a total population of 5,800 — close to two officers per detainee.
According to Glazer and Jacobson’s report, it costs the city $447,000 annually per each detainee at Rikers. While the ratio of Correction officers to detainees has increased by 218 percent over the past decade, the rate of violent incidents on the island has increased by 2,043 percent.
“If you right-size the correctional staff to that population, the savings are something more than $1 billion in operating costs,” she explained. “And you think of what that money could be used for to really provide a high level of training and support to officers, to invest in programming, to invest in everything in the city.”
Even before any that would happen, Glazer would like to see the city take immediate action to reduce the current number of detainees on Rikers.
“It’s unconscionable for the conditions to remain as they are and simply to wait for new buildings,” she said. “Bottom line is we should move as quickly as possible to start moving people into these smaller facilities and these other options, like therapeutic beds, and make the repairs as quickly as can be done on the facilities on the island while the building is happening.”
She would also like to see a coordinated effort by the Department of Correction and the criminal justice system, similar to what was done at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the city released 1,500 people from jail in a one-month period.
“That’s with district attorneys, public defenders and courts at the table,” Glazer said. “So just to say that it requires attention and focus everyday.”
What about reimagining Rikers?
Meanwhile, a group of architects, led by Tribeca resident Bill Bialosky, thinks that a more “humane” alternative to closing Rikers would be to redesign it.
“Justice reform is never going to be achieved on tiny, little, postage stamp skyscraper sites throughout the city,” he told The Village Sun.
“It takes space and low-rise and low-density buildings to be able to provide all the myriad of programs that all those people need for us to correct the wellness issues that have never been addressed.”
While one of the main arguments for closing Rikers is its relative isolation from the rest of the city — and the courthouses — Bialosky thinks this could be remedied through free ferry service. And he thinks the courts could be placed on the island, as well.
In 2019, Bialosky’s group presented their proposal to City Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Robert Holden, who promised to at least consider it.
It’s doubtful this plan will be considered, though, given that the City Council voted on a binding resolution in 2019 that bans the use of the 400-acre island as a jail after Aug. 31, 2027. That deadline could also explain the city’s urgency to continue with its current plan.
“Definitely, the idea of building on Rikers had been on the table,” Glazer said. “And, in fact, there was money in the capital budget to build a 1,500-bed facility on Rikers. But I think the ‘Close Rikers’ movement was very successful in making the case that Rikers Island itself should not be used, for moral reasons and for operational reasons.”
Currently, the city is pursuing a feasibility study for Rikers Island to be used for wastewater processing.
‘No one is listening’
Nancy Kong, a resident of Chatham Towers, an apartment complex neighboring the Manhattan Detention Complex from across Columbus Park, likes many of Glazer and Jacobson’s proposals. However, she isn’t sure if she agrees with the final number of detainees in their vision, due in part to the recent rise in violent crime throughout the city, including the murders of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee.
Kong, though, is 100 percent certain that Rikers needs to close.
“Just even what happened during COVID brought light to how incredibly harmful and dangerous, and inhumane the conditions are and it just needed to be addressed,” she said of the current jail.
Either way, she sees the plan as reasonable and “scalable” in size — although she’s strongly against the demolition of The Tombs. In all, she said, she’s “75 percent” in agreement with Glazer and Jacobson’s points.
Kong believes that all neighborhoods in the city should contribute their “fair share” toward housing detainees — not just the four communities currently proposed.
“I’m willing to discuss, negotiate and compromise but literally no one is listening,” she said. “But that’s part of it: You can build here, but build smaller and really make sure that it’s fair and equitable and other communities. All the City Council people that voted for this, why are they not also putting skin in the game? That’s my big issue,” she told The Village Sun.
Since 2018, Kong has attended nearly every community board meeting regarding the jails plan — not just in Manhattan but in the outer boroughs, as well.
“You’re watching a train wreck and the solutions are there,” she said of the city’s current plan. “And no one is listening. I don’t get it.”
Alice Blank, vice chairperson of Lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1, agrees with Kong’s sentiment.
“A project of this scale — what is the rush?” Blank said. “I understand we need to close Rikers, but is this really going to be an advantage here? I think it’s clearly showing that it’s not. I think this process is a very difficult one and it’s not one that anyone has any experience with.
“You have to ask yourself, is this really an intelligent way to go about this, and is this an intelligent way to spend $8.3 billion?” Blank said, questioning the megajails scheme’s overall price tag.
In response to a request for comment on whether he believed the cost-benefit analysis for the borough-based jail plan was sound, Chloe Chick, a spokesperson for Comptroller Brad Lander, said, “Our first priority is to close Rikers because what is happening there a humanitarian crisis — 16 New Yorkers died there this year, and people are not getting food, medical services or access to lawyers. The comptroller supports and continues to push for policy steps to reduce the number of people incarcerated before trial and for the investments in alternatives to incarceration and community-safety models that will bring both more safety and more justice.”
Lincoln Reslter, the councilmember for Northern Brooklyn’s District 33, which includes the Brooklyn House of Detention, which is also in the initial stages of demolition, told The Village Sun in a statement, “Rikers Island is a humanitarian crisis, and during COVID the conditions have been worse than ever before. We need to strengthen and advance the plan to permanently shutter Rikers as soon as possible. I strongly support the efforts to reduce the scale and bed count within the borough-based jails.”
In an interview, Jan Lee, co-founder of the grassroots organization Neighbors United Below Canal Street, stressed that the key to the issue is addressing the “root causes” of why people wind up in jail in the first place.
“We’re looking at a new administration,” he said. “I think every indication that I’ve gotten from Eric Adams, for one, as a candidate, he made very clear he does not approve of the jail in Chinatown.
“I don’t think that the general public has an appetite to spend 8 to 11 billions [dollars] on structures without actually addressing the root cause” of crime itself, Lee said.
“I believe that if we have the bail reforms that work, we have the alternatives to incarceration that work, we have a robust investment in healthcare workers that can address the needs of mentally challenged people, we can phase out the buildings for different use,” he said, pointing out that it’s much more challenging to phase out a single megajail.
It’s worth noting that the $8.3 billion price tag only covers the physical structures themselves. That figure doesn’t take into account the need for restorative programming, job training or any other amenities for the detainees, all of which will ultimately be included in the new jail complexes.
“I am actually disgusted about how many councilmembers and the [former City Council] Speaker Johnson and the mayor ratified this plan by saying we know the inevitability of Black and brown men in urban cities — it’s jail,” Lee said. According to him, the city is essentially saying, “Let’s just circumvent giving all the services in your community. We’re just going to give it to you when you’re in jail.”
In order to construct the four new jails before the 2027 deadline, the city is using the “design-build” method, which means obtaining, through a single procurement process, a single contractor responsible for both designing and building the structures.
However, C.B. 1 Chairperson Blank and Lee both raised concerns over this method.
Blank, who is an architect, noted that the design-build megaproject is “the first of its scale in New York City.” Lee, for his part, thinks that it could lead to the single contractor cutting corners to achieve its goals under budget.
Already, the city’s choice of development and construction companies has been questioned by Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan, a self-described jails “abolitionist.” She pointed out on Twitter that Gilbane Building Company, which was short-listed to do the new jails’ construction, “faced no real consequences for safety violations that led a construction worker to fall to his death.”
City defends its plan
At a heated C.B. 1 meeting last Thursday, more than 30 representatives from the city’s Department of Design and Construction, as well as the Department of Correction, tried their hardest to quell concerns.
Several times plan opponents disparaginly referred to them as “foot soldiers” for the city agencies.
Sasha Ginzberg of the Department of Correction stood firm on the city’s commitment to close Rikers by 2027.
“Any direct experience there makes it clear that those facilities are not fit for any human to live or work there,” she said. “We need to build the borough-based jail system.”
As for using smaller state facilities like those described by Glazer, she said it wouldn’t be possible to have a large range of programming in them, and that transportation between facilities is inconceivable. The D.O.C. rep added that she hadn’t gotten “any indication” from the state that it would be willing to give up the facilities.
“At its core, the borough-based jail plan is a decarceration plan,” she said.
Chinatown activist Lee questioned whether the project could proceed at all as scheduled without the consent of Chung Pak, a senior-citizen apartment complex located on the same block as The Tombs. He asked what would happen if an agreement was not reached with the apartment complex.
“We anticipate we should be having that agreement,” answered Anil Ally.
“You should have had that approval already,” Lee retorted. “What is your Plan B?”
“We’re working on it,” Ally said.
“Will you take legal action against them?” Lee shot back.
“They’re gonna do whatever they want and they don’t give a damn about us,” interjected Edward Cucchia, an attorney whose office wall abuts The Tombs.
Ultimately, the one thing with which everyone in the community agrees is that the city’s borough-based jails plan can and should be improved — whether that means using Glazer and Jacobson’s report as a blueprint, or making deeper investments into addressing the root causes of homelessness and mental health.
Regardless of which plan the city eventually pursues, “you’re still locking a ton of people up,” said Yanin Penan, a member of Youth Against Displacement. “It’s still addressing nothing about housing, nothing about the mass displacement and insecurity that people are experiencing in this city.”