Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

In October 2019, the City passed into law a plan for the closure of all jail facilities on Rikers Island by 2027.

Justice advocates, community activists, and City officials understand the City’s jail system can be much smaller and closer to communities and families; safer with modern, well-designed facilities that promote the dignity of those who visit, work and are incarcerated; and fairer, changing the culture inside the jails, fostering community connections, and providing greater access to services. 

As of December 2021 approximately 5,370 people are currently being held. The City is working with our partners in law enforcement and the State courts to continue to pursue the stated goal of no more than 3,300 people by 2027. 

New facilities in Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx are scheduled to be built before the closure of the jails on Rikers Island in 2027. Once the new facilities are completed, all detained individuals on Rikers Island will be transferred from Rikers to live in the new jails.

The City recently passed a zoning change to ban the use of incarceration on Rikers Island by 2027, upon completion of the new jails. In the interim, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability is conducting a feasibility study on the island’s potential to generate and store renewable energy, and the City is initiating a community engagement process to determine the future use of the island.

Additionally, a 2021 law requires the transfer of portions of Rikers Island that are not in active use as a jail site to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. As of December 2021, the Department of Correction had already transferred three parcels of unused land totaling approximately 43 acres on Rikers Island The first transfer, which occurred in the summer of 2021, involved the now vacant James A. Thomas Center, a 1,200-bed jail built in the 1930s.

Rikers Island is located in the East River, just north of LaGuardia Airport. For more information, visit the Department of Correction website.

Female individuals held on Rikers Island are housed in the women-only Rose M. Singer Center.

Since the start of the Administration, the Mayor’s Office has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to reducing crime, lightening the touch of enforcement, and decreasing the number of people who experience jail.

Key recent criminal justice investments include:

  • $66 million in supervised release, which has diverted approximately 15,000 people from jail since its inception in March 2016
  • Over $30 million annually in alternatives to incarceration, to reduce the number of people serving city sentences
  • Over $40 million in reentry planning and wraparound services, including expanded investments to serve people coming home to NYC from both Rikers and New York State DOCCS prisons
  • $332 million in the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP), which was designed to improve social supports and public safety infrastructure in 15 public housing developments (includes capital and expense funding)
  • Over $100 million in the NYC Crisis Management System – a series of violence intervention and support systems that are simultaneously operating in 32 communities across the 5 boroughs
  • $25 million in expanded transitional housing, to provide 500 beds citywide for justice impacted individuals

The island is named after Abraham Rycken, a Dutch colonist who purchased it in 1664.

Rikers Island was purchased by the City in 1884. It initially served as a Union Army camp location.

Building jails on the island were part of the plan when it was purchased in the 1880s. However, new jail facilities would not open on Rikers until 1932.

  • A key goal of the borough-based jail system is to provide a safe and humane environment for people who work and live in the proposed jails, improving upon what the jails in New York City currently provide to people in detention and to those who work in the facilities.
  • The Department of Correction’s (DOC) existing sites on Rikers Island, and those in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx (the Barge), were built more than 40 years ago and have severe operational challenges. Facility layouts are outdated and do not contain the necessary space, daylight, or social infrastructure parameters to provide the support services necessary for modern detention sites and practices.
  • The proposed program will provide support space for quality educational programming, recreation, therapeutic services, publicly-accessible community space, and staff parking. The support space will incorporate natural lighting and will include a public-service-oriented lobby, visiting area, space for robust medical screening for new admissions, medical and behavioral health exams, health/mental health care services, medical clinics and therapeutic units, and administrative space.
  • Each facility will be designed to integrate with the surrounding neighborhood and provide community space to be used for programming, which can include street-level retail space.
  • The proposed program will provide support space for quality educational programming, recreation, therapeutic services, publicly-accessible community space, and staff parking. The support space will incorporate natural lighting and will include a public-service-oriented lobby, visiting area, space for robust medical screening for new admissions, medical and behavioral health exams, health/mental health care services, medical clinics and therapeutic units, and administrative space.
  • Of these fundamental principles, housing unit programming (including the layout of spaces provided and a direct supervision model of management) is a key part of what defines the square foot per person in detention anticipated in the borough-based jails plan. The unit management provides each housing unit with directly accessible program space and direct access to outdoor recreation space, minimizing unnecessary resident circulation, travel time, and scheduling constraints. Residents can access this programmatic support space directly without the need for escort, and most aspects of the residents’ day, including meals, recreation, education, counseling, training, and video visitation, can occur on the housing unit level. To further enable a program-enriched daily experience, technologies like mobile communication devices will allow controlled access to entertainment, services, distance learning, tele-visiting, and court appearances.
  • The current proposed space program and goals set out by the Department of Correction and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice are consistent with best practices for justice design and have a direct relationship to the square foot per person in detention.
  • Housing Unit and Cell Design Criteria:
    • Maximum number of cells per housing unit (24 for therapeutic and 32 for general population)
    • Direct daylight in every cell
    • Direct access to recreation areas from every housing unit
    • Consistent cell design type
    • Single occupancy cells and dormitory design
    • 38% programmatic mix of therapeutic housing units
    • Optimal daylight orientation for day rooms
    • Optimal proportions for housing units to provide clear sightlines
    • Compliance with DOC and national design standards
    • Compliance with Justice Implementation Task Force Guidelines
  • The borough-based jails program:
    • Staff: 28 SF/bed
    • Security: 3 SF/bed
    • Health Services: 14 SF/bed
    • Community Space: 20 SF/bed
    • Services: 43 SF/bed (public entrance and lobby, visitation, intake, admissions and transport, and discharge)
    • Resident: 137 SF/bed (male and female housing units – admissions, general population, special population (18 and highest classification), therapeutic)
    • Residents’ Program: 347 SF/bed (education, classrooms, program space, library, commissary, gym, chapel, mosque)
    • Support: 223 SF/bed (circulation, MEP, food service, laundry, warehouse, building support)
    • Total: 814 SF/bed (parking not included, based on proposed Brooklyn site)
  • As a product of these considerations, the borough-based jails have been programmed using cutting-edge best practices to set a standard above many of its contemporaries. It is also important to note there have been relatively few new jail facilities built in large U.S. cities in the last 20 years. However, to form a basis of comparison, the most similar “modern jail facilities” in terms of program are Philadelphia (1,190 beds currently being planned) and Denver (1,560 beds designed in 2006).
    • The following illustrates the general programmatic differences that make the borough-based jails unique:
    • The NYC borough-based jails will be full-service, stand-alone sites, unlike those in Denver and Philadelphia.
    • The NYC borough-based jails will have fewer beds per housing unit (16-32 beds each) compared to Denver (48-64 beds) and Philadelphia (8-48 beds).
    • The NYC borough-based jails will contain robust health clinics in addition to adequate treatment spaces for physical, behavioral and mental health care, compared with no clinics in Denver and undersized clinics in the Philadelphia site.
    • The NYC borough-based jails would have direct-light into the cells, inside and outside visitation spaces with ample programming spaces, both on the housing unit level and facility-wide (indoor gym, auditorium, classrooms, chapel and mosque for example). Neither the Philadelphia nor Denver sites include these elements.
    • The staff areas and public-facing areas of the NYC borough-based facilities would be appropriately sized compared with the smaller sizes in Denver and Philadelphia.
  • As demonstrated by the Denver and Philadelphia facilities, other jails throughout the country operate at a lower square footage per person because they have more beds per housing unit, minimal or no programming space, no room for contact visits, and no direct access to outdoor recreation spaces. The borough-based jail system would provide humane spaces for all people who live and work in the facilities, as specified above.

The goal of no more than 3,300 people in detention by 2027 remains a reasonable target. We are in a unique moment coming out of a global pandemic, in which the courts are still not fully operational, and case processing rates have slowed significantly. Given continued investments in effective community-based alternatives to detention and incarceration, neighborhood-based public safety solutions, legislative reforms such as parole and bail reform, and the anticipated reopening of the courts, 3,300 by 2027 remains a fully reasonable number.

Notably, New York City has the lowest rate of incarceration of all large U.S. cities. The average daily population in NYC jails is down by approximately 50% since 2014 and 74% since its peak in 1991. In addition, annual admissions to DOC custody have fallen by over 75% since 2014. This steady progress indicates that the City’s plan to create a smaller system, allowing for the closure of the jails on Rikers Island by 2027, is on schedule.

Based on our data projections, along with a more-than 25 year trend of reducing the jail population, we are confident that through strategically reducing crime, shortening case processing, and offering safe alternatives to detention (along with other initiatives), the City can continue to reduce the population to our stated goal

At this point, to ensure that Rikers Island closes with sufficient capacity citywide, it is most appropriate to plan for a population of 3,300. However, as the design and construction of the new sites progresses and we move closer to the date of Rikers closure, projections can be revisited and there will be opportunities to adjust plans accordingly if that proves viable.

This money is part of the City’s plan to end mass incarceration and ultimately keep us the safest large city in the U.S. with the lowest incarceration rate. This is transformative criminal justice reform and is an investment in New Yorkers—returning people to their communities while creating a justice system to be proud of.

Capital funds are also different than expense funds and not interchangeable. This larger investment comes alongside hundreds of millions of dollars in investments in neighborhood and communities.

There are currently approximately 350 people in jail from Staten Island—roughly 4 percent of the jail population—and this number will be closer to 200 in 2027. Therefore, it would be inefficient to build a site in Staten Island for such a small population.

A primary goal of closing Rikers and building borough-based jails is to allow family members, service providers, and attorneys greater access to the people in detention, as well as closer access to the Courts. Rebuilding the jails on Rikers Island would undermine these goals. The sites on Rikers Island are built under a philosophy of another era and achieving the design and programmatic goals of the program to close Rikers sites on Rikers.

Building a courthouse on Rikers Island would raise significant issues since courthouses must be accessible to the public and the location of Rikers Island is physically isolated.

The City has continued to shrink capacity on Rikers Island as the jail population decreased. The George Motchan Detention Center was closed and turned into an asset for training and staff wellness. As the total population continues to decrease, DOC will continue to reduce the size of the system by decommissioning entire facilities, as appropriate.

The City’s current commitment is to decommission the barge when the borough-based jails go into operation, as committed to in the Points of Agreement.

In the proposed plans for the borough-based jails system, women will be housed in a centralized facility within the proposed Queens facility. This decision was made after listening to feedback and concerns from numerous focus groups and meetings with formerly incarcerated women, currently incarcerated women, women’s service providers, and Department of Correction (DOC) staff.

The proposal to centralize the relatively few women projected to be in custody (200) in one site would permit access to both programming and visiting space for longer periods of time than if the spaces were shared, through split schedules with the men in custody. Having dedicated intake, programming and visiting spaces would, in turn, open the opportunities for both deeper and richer activities and the kind of visiting experience that enhances relationships between those in custody and their loved ones. Under this proposal, this same principle of dedicated spaces yielding better delivery of services is also applicable to providing better gender-responsive medical services, including mental health, substance use, medical needs, and reproductive health services.

We understand that a centralized facility, despite all the advantages including the strong support of those who will be served by this program, also presents some challenges. The primary concern of the people participated in focus groups and meetings is the transportation challenges for visitors from other boroughs. This challenge—ensuring proximity to loved ones—is one of the reasons that motivated the move to a borough-based jail system. The City is committed to engaging in strategies to increase access to the Queens facility. It will accomplish that through the Justice Implementation Task Force, the Women’s Subcommittee of the Re-entry and Diversion Council, defender organizations, and other advocates by developing a plan to improve access to the women’s site.

The concept for the centralized women’s site is that it operates, from the perspective of someone in custody, as a standalone facility with the overall goal to ensure complete separation between men and women in custody. Males and females are housed in separate wings of the building, circulate in separate halls and elevators, and participate in medical, programming, visiting, religious services and recreation in separate areas.

Generally within the building, public facing spaces and support spaces for administrative support, parking, locker rooms, kitchen, laundry, warehouse, mechanical systems, and maintenance areas will support both the men and women housed in the building, creating operational efficiencies without diminishing the separate dedicated program.

Both female and male officers will supervise women in custody as is current practice at the Department of Correction. DOC is currently working to develop new gender-responsive curriculum training content that will be delivered to new recruits and to any staff member assigned to work with women in custody. This content will center on gender-responsive approaches which are guided by research; that is relational, strength-based, trauma-informed, culturally competent, and holistic; and accounts for the different characteristics and life experiences of women and men, and responds to their unique needs, strengths, and challenges.

While we appreciate the benefits and desire of advocates for a fifth facility that is a standalone women’s site, no viable site has been identified to date that we could use on the timeline to close Rikers as quickly as possible.