NYC Scales Back Jails Master Plan
(09/13/2010)

NEW YORK — The New York City Department of Correction ditched plans to double the size of a proposed new jail in Brooklyn as corrections officials unveiled a revised master plan designed to right-size the municipal detention facilities.

Corrections officials are moving forward with plans to renovate and reopen the long-shuttered jail in downtown Brooklyn as part of the department’s revised facilities master plan, which is designed to modernize and rationalize the city’s jail system.

The most significant capital investment in the city’s correctional system in two decades, the master plan includes the construction of a major new facility to replace substandard existing beds on Rikers Island.

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“This plan allows us to build critically needed capacity and support space faster and less expensively, with less uncertainty over land use issues and with lower construction and operating costs and maximal operational efficiencies,” says Dora Schriro, commissioner with the DOC.

The city’s department of design and construction is presently putting out an RFP to design the new jail, which has an estimated price tag of $660 million, officials say. Capital funding for the construction project is in place, having been included in funds already appropriated to the DOC.

The DOC will demolish 50 temporary housing units to make way for the new 1,500-bed Rikers Island facility. The pre-fabricated, wood modular buildings and aluminum-framed spring structures with plastic and canvas covers have become inefficient and costly to operate and maintain after more than 20 years of use.

The overhaul, which is scheduled for completion by 2017, will reduce total capacity at the island complex by 3,000 beds, cutting system-wide jail capacity to about 16,800 beds. The DOC also plans to take offline the 1,200-bed James A. Thomas Center — the original 1933 House of Detention for Men on Rikers Island — that sits empty at present.

An additional 800 new beds will come online at a separate Rikers Island facility that is close to completion.

Projections suggest scant to slow growth over the next five years to a possible maximum average daily population of 14,000 inmates, according to a DOC report.

Since 1992, the DOC’s average daily population declined from a high of more than 21,000 inmates to approximately 13,000 inmates.

However, the department plans to maintain total capacity at 16,800 beds to ensure there are sufficient beds to accommodate short-term surges in population numbers, the temporary loss of beds during facility maintenance and the segregation of special categories of inmates, officials say.

In overhauling operations, the DOC will also replace its decades-old inmate classification system with a system that employs objective risk and needs assessment instruments to enhance facility safety inmate re-entry planning. The new Rikers facility will also incorporate a centralized admissions and discharge center to streamline inmate processing.

“Placing the new jail on Rikers allows for operational efficiencies, notably centralized intake and discharge, inmate property, and a new infirmary, given that Rikers Island is where most of the department’s other jails are located,” officials say.

DOC officials also plan to relocate an 870-bed jail barge that is currently moored in the Bronx to Rikers Island. The move is part of the recently unveiled jail facilities master plan, which is projected to cost approximately $400 million less than the original overhaul plan.

The original master plan included proposals to construct a new jail in the Bronx and double capacity at the 759-bed Brooklyn Detention Center at a total cost of $1.1 billion. However, the planned expansion of the Brooklyn facility stalled following a 2009 court ruling instructing the city to engage in a public review process before proceeding with the project.

The city scaled back the Brooklyn redevelopment proposal, deciding to renovate rather than expand the facility that closed in 2003, while officials also abandoned the proposed expansion of the 467-bed jail in Queens, which has remained closed since 2002.

The cost savings will be funneled into infrastructure improvements at existing facilities over the next ten years, including upgrades to HVAC and fire-safety systems and the renovation of facades, roofing and windows in several jails, officials say.

The replacement of aging temporary housing units on Rikers Island with a new permanent facility and the renovation of basically sound, existing facilities in the boroughs, which can be brought back online in short order at minimal expense represents the most efficient and prudent means of overhauling jail beds and right-sizing system capacity.

“It is the highest and best use of existing facilities, and at the same time, it provides the Department of Correction with the facilities it needs.” Schriro says.

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