The votes against NYC’s new jails

New York City Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr.
New York City Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr.
John McCarten for the New York City Council
New York City Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr.

The votes against NYC’s new jails

The City Council has a plan to close Rikers. These 14 voted no.
October 18, 2019

The New York City Council’s approval Thursday of four new jails to replace the notorious Rikers Island complex was one of the most tense, emotional votes in the Council’s recent history. Critics and stakeholders assailed the plan submitted by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration from all sides, and the Council – to an extent – listened, adjusting the plan just days before the Oct. 17 vote. 

But even with the height of the new jails shrunk, and millions of dollars devoted to community-based initiatives, 14 council members voted against at least some part of the plan – compared to the 35 members who supported it in full. The 14 members opposing the plan did not all agree with each other, either. The group includes some of both the Council’s most conservative and most liberal members. Each of those sides had very different reasons for dissenting from the majority. Here’s who voted against the monumental plan, and why they did it. 

The left: Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Inez Barron, Rafael Espinal, Carlos Menchaca and Jimmy Van Bramer

All five are left-leaning Democrats who support closing Rikers Island in theory, but opposed the plan to replace it with new jails. Each also complained about the amount the plan devoted to investing in communities with high incarceration rates. The city estimated that building the jails will cost $8.7 billion, and announced a comparatively tiny $265 million in new community investments. 

“I cannot approve spending $8.7 billion on new jails, without a plan that would match that investment dollar for dollar in at-risk communities like the one I represent,” Espinal wrote in a statement. A candidate for Brooklyn borough president in 2021, Espinal represents Bushwick and Cypress Hills. 

Ampry-Samuel, who is considered a contender to be the next City Council speaker, gave a stirring speech expressing her discontent with the “inappropriately rushed” vote. She argued that her district, covering parts of Brownsville, Bed-Stuy and East Flatbush, should have been more included in discussions, because of its high incarceration rate, even though none of the new jails are planned for her district. “My vote is for my district, always left out of decisions and discussions,” she said. “My vote is with my people.”

These five members all echoed arguments made by No New Jails, a prison abolitionist group that actively lobbied against the plan. Van Bramer, from western Queens, wrote an op-ed decrying the cost of “sky-high cages” and “mega-jails.” 

Menchaca, who represents Brooklyn’s Sunset Park and Red Hook, wrote in a statement that he didn’t trust the de Blasio administration to follow through on the plan to close Rikers. “I do not believe a mayor who since 2015 had to be dragged kicking and screaming to endorse the closure of Rikers,” he wrote. “We should be fighting to end mass incarceration and all cages.”

The right: Joe Borelli, Fernando Cabrera, Chaim Deutsch, Ruben Diaz Sr., Bob Holden, Andy King, Steve Matteo, Kalman Yeger

The eight members here are among the body’s most conservative. All are Democrats except Republicans Borelli and Matteo. Holden caucuses with the Democrats, but was elected in 2017 on the Republican line. Unlike the liberals opposing the plan, this group disagreed with the ultimate goal of closing Rikers. Many made arguments about the plan’s price tag, like Cabrera, who represents neighborhoods in the West Bronx and is challenging Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from the right in the 2020 Democratic congressional primary. “I’m concerned about the $8.7 billion that we’re going to incur as a direct result of these bills,” he said on the floor of the Council chambers. “Sooner or later we’re going to hit this (fiscal) wall.”

Diaz Sr., a 2020 congressional candidate who represents the South Bronx, joined his son, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. in opposing the plan, saying he could not vote to spend the money while people in his district are suffering in public housing and in schools without air conditioning. 

Others, like Holden and King, argued that if there are problems with the city’s correctional system, those issues could just be dealt with on Rikers Island. Holden backed an alternate plan to renovate jails on Rikers and bring defendants to court by ferry. 

These no-votes also showed their discontent with the plan to close Rikers by voting against a land use map amendment that would prohibit the island’s use as a jail starting in 2027 – something supporters of the plan demanded as a guarantee that New York wouldn’t end up with new jails and still house prisoners on Rikers. King voted for the resolution, despite making public comments showing his skepticism of closing Rikers. But two other relatively conservative members, Mark Gjonaj of the East Bronx and Paul Vallone of Northeast Queens, also voted no on the land use rule, which passed 40-9 because the left-wing opponents of the new jails also supported it.

Two members of the 51-member Council weren’t present for the vote Thursday, but likely would have been two more conservative nays. Eric Ulrich, a Republican who represents Southeast Queens tweeted that he would have voted no on the “bullshit!” plan. And Alan Maisel, who represents low-density neighborhoods in deep Brooklyn, including Marine Park, Gerritsen Beach and Mill Basin, had previously told the Queens Daily Eagle he was leaning towards voting no, despite apparently not even knowing where the proposed jails were being sited. 

The NIMBY: Rafael Salamanca

While all the other members voted on the multi-part plan in whole, Salamanca split his vote, approving of the jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, but disapproving of the one in the Bronx. Salamanca represents a South Bronx district that borders the site of the proposed Mott Haven jail. Salamanca had issues with that site from the moment it was announced, since a community non-profit had already been eyeing the location for affordable housing, and instead pushed for another site next to Bronx Criminal Court, further from his district, and with better access for the inmates. Salamanca also seemed to not trust that the Borough-Based Jails plan would lead to the closure of the Vernon C. Bain Center, a floating jail in his district also known as the Barge. 

“The administration cannot simply ignore the valid concerns of the community and expect us to accept this decision,” Salamanca said at the meeting Thursday. “I implore the mayor to continue exploring all siting options near the county courthouse, where this jail belongs and to once and for all, sink the Barge.”

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
20200119