Even as New York City has recorded a sharp plunge in crime in recent years, its jail complex on Rikers Island has been plagued by levels of abuse, neglect and mismanagement that have turned it into one of the country’s most notorious correctional facilities.
The dismal conditions have set off waves of protests, lawsuits and federal investigations.
Now the city will officially acknowledge the failures of its main jail by declaring that Rikers Island will be shut down, a momentous decision that supporters say pushes the city to the forefront of a national movement to reverse decades of mass incarceration that have sent African-Americans and Latinos to prison in significantly disproportionate rates.
The City Council on Thursday is expected to approve a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s second largest jail network, pledging within seven years to rebuild the corrections system with safer, smaller and more humane jails that officials say could become a model for the rest of the United States.
But the plan still faces major obstacles, including opposition to new jails in some neighborhoods where residents worry that they would harm the quality of life and criticism that the city is boxing itself in if crime were to spike or more jail cells were suddenly needed.
And the plan is reliant on an aggressive timeline, the city’s crime rate going down even further and the commitment of future elected leaders to seeing it through.
Rikers, which sits in the East River near La Guardia Airport, would be replaced by four jails scattered across the city that would provide job training, mental health counseling and education services.
“For decades, this city and this country’s answer to every societal problem was to throw people in jail,” Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, said. “Nothing symbolizes those failed policies in this city more than Rikers Island. We now have a historic opportunity to change course and recognize the dignity of the individuals and communities that have had their humanity overlooked for far too long.”
To appease opponents, the city announced this week that the new jails would be smaller than first anticipated with a combined daily capacity of about 3,300 prisoners, down from an earlier estimate of 5,000. The last time the city had 3,300 prisoners was in the 1920s.
The city’s plan is feasible politically and pragmatically in large part because of New York’s plummeting jail population. At their peak, during the crack cocaine epidemic in the early 1990s, the jails held nearly 23,000 people every day.
Today they hold about 7,000 people, but downsizing the new jails would require driving that figure down by more than half.
“I don’t trust the numbers, and I don’t know where it’s coming from,” said Elias Husamudeen, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents more than 10,000 corrections officers in the city. “What are you going to do if you end up with 5,000 people?”
At the core of the changes, the city will close Rikers, the 400-acre complex of eight jails that opened in 1935 and houses most of the incarcerated people in New York City.
In their place, the city will build a new jail in each of its four largest boroughs — the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. They will be closer to courthouses, eliminating a chief complaint about Rikers that it placed defendants far away from their legal representatives and that its remote location caused delays in court hearings that kept people in jail longer.
The plan, which is expected to cost over $8 billion, calls for Rikers to be shut down and the new jails to be open by 2026. For the city to make that deadline, it will require future Council members and at least one more mayor to stick to a timeline set by their predecessors.
The decision by the city to rebuild its jail system follows years of horrid stories of despair and violence within Rikers’ concrete walls.
For every infamous prisoner housed there, like the “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz, there also many people who spend months or years there without going to trial or being convicted of a crime, like Kalief Browder, whose case intensified the pressure to close Rikers.
He spent three years at Rikers, two of them in solitary confinement, after he was charged at the age of 16 with stealing a backpack and his family could not afford the $3,000 bail. A judge released him, but two years later Mr. Browder, who struggled with the trauma he had experienced at Rikers, took his own life in 2015.
New York City officials had long resisted calls for wholesale changes at Rikers, including shutting down its jails. In 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio dismissed the idea, saying it was a “noble concept,” but financially unrealistic.
But facing re-election and increasing criticism from prisoner advocates, Mr. de Blasio shifted course and is now a leading champion of the plan, which comes at a time when New York City, by some measures, is the safest it has been since the 1950s.
“We have one, historic opportunity to close Rikers Island and create a criminal justice system that is smaller, safer and fairer,” Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, said on Tuesday. “For too long, communities have been torn apart by mass incarceration. In New York City, where we have both the lowest incarceration rate and lowest crime rate of any big city, we’re proving you don’t need to arrest and jail your way to safety.”
But Robert F. Holden, a City Council member who has criticized the new jail plan, said that no neighborhood would want a towering jailhouse and that the city should instead keep Rikers open and invest in improvements there.
“There are certain politicians in the City of New York who are using this as a religious movement,” Mr. Holden, a Republican who represents an area of Queens that includes Maspeth and Ridgewood, said on a radio show on Sunday.
Some of the loudest voices in the debate have said that the mayor is not going far enough. Prison abolition groups like No New Jails NYC have urged the city to take the $8 billion for new jails and instead invest that money into communities.
The remaking of New York’s jail system, the second largest in the United States behind Los Angeles County’s, comes during a moment of reckoning for a criminal justice system that critics say has exacted an unfair toll on black and Hispanic people.
The city’s decision also follows changes by New York State and the city to reduce the number of people sent to jail.
New York State repealed the 1970s antidrug legislation known as the Rockefeller Laws that established mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders. In January, the state will outlaw cash bail for most people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies and will require prosecutors to provide evidence to the defense far earlier.
In recent years, New York City has banned solitary confinement for young people who are incarcerated, expanded diversion programs that keep people out of jail and eliminated arrests for most people found with small amounts of marijuana. The city has also expanded a supervised release program that allows defendants to wait for trial outside jail.
Other large cities have made similar changes, but none have embarked on the rebuilding of its corrections system from the ground up the way New York City has.
City leaders believe those changes will make it possible to have only 3,300 people incarcerated in 2026 in a city of 8.4 million people.
“We will keep fighting to bring this number down even further,’’ Mr. Johnson said. “New York City should be a model of progressive criminal justice reform nationwide.”
Despite years of planning the new jails, the city has disclosed few specifics about how they would look both inside and out. Many details will be filled in over the coming months, the city has said.
Neighborhood groups have seized on the lack of details. They have voiced alarm about the potential sizes of the jails, arguing that they could become eyesores that tower over the communities.
Seeking to address those concerns, Mr. Johnson and other City Council members reached an agreement to lower the height of the buildings.
The Manhattan site, which was estimated to reach 450 feet tall, now could be 295 feet. The Brooklyn jail could also be 295 feet tall, down from 395 feet. Those jails will be built where the city currently operates detention centers, both within walking distance of courthouses.
The Queens jail will be on the site of a decommissioned detention center across the street from a courthouse. In the Bronx, however, the jail site is two miles from the courthouse, a move that has been criticized by elected officials.
For nearly 85 years, Rikers has cast a dark shadow on the city. Locals refer to it as “the island” or “the rock,” a collection of white and tan buildings that are noticeable when flying into La Guardia Airport. The city bought the land in the late 1880s, when it was only a few dozen acres, and used it as landfill that enlarged it into its current size.
In 1935, the first inmates moved into a penitentiary on Rikers, as the city began to shut down jails on what became known as Roosevelt Island. Like Rikers, the facilities there had developed a notorious reputation for deplorable conditions.
The next debate over Rikers will be what comes of the prime real estate. Council members have already signaled that they would not allow it to return as a jail.