If Lower Manhattan seems jammed with tens of thousands of people who live here, hundreds of thousands who work here, and more than an million who visit here as tourists each year, get ready for another population that may soon join their ranks: several thousand people accused or convicted of criminal offenses.
At the March 27 meeting of Community Board 1 (CB1), chair Anthony Notaro noted that, “the City has made a decision to close Rikers Island,” the scandal-plagued Queens facility that currently serves as the central detention complex for all five boroughs of New York City. It is there that prisoners awaiting trial, denied bail, or serving sentences of less than one year are sent.
“The plan ultimately will be to close that facility and replace it with four City jails in each of the four boroughs, except Staten Island,” Mr. Notaro continued. “The next step is to determine how that will be implemented, what the population will be and lots of other things.”
For Manhattan, “the location would potentially be the old Tombs building,” he noted. This was a reference to a Dickensian facility notorious for both corruption and squalid conditions that housed prisoners who ran afoul of the law in Manhattan from the 1830s, until the early 1970s, when a U.S. District Court judge ordered it shut for numerous violations of federal law. The structure took its name from its original design, which resembled an Egyptian sarcophagus.
A postcard from The Tombs “Wish I wasn’t here”
After the federal courts intervened, the City closed down the Tombs for almost a decade, shifting its prisoner population to Rikers Island. After a nine-year renovation, the facility reopened at the same location — at White and Centre Streets — with a dramatically smaller capacity (the old structure had held up to 2,000 prisoners, but the refurbished Tombs was designed for only 900), a scaled-back mission: the new “Manhattan Detention Complex” was meant primarily as a holding facility for detainees scheduled for appearances in the several court buildings located nearby.
Both of those dynamics now appear poised to change. The closure of Rikers Island will likely mark a return to the decentralized use of “borough houses” in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan, as Mr. Notaro observed.
And if even one-fifth of the current Rikers Island prisoner headcount of approximately 9,000 detainees are moved to a new Manhattan facility, that would 1,800 prisoners being assigned to that complex, along with the 900-plus already housed within the building. This would the detainee population of such a facility larger than Attica prison, in upstate New York.
The old Tombs on Centre Street
Moreover, there is very little chance that a new Manhattan jail would be built anywhere other than Downtown. Given the assemblage of court facilities located between the Brooklyn Bridge and Canal Street, situating a correctional institution anywhere else would entail logistical and security concerns likely to be deemed insurmountable.
But siting a new jail within Lower Manhattan also raises serious urban planning questions. The number of attorneys and family members likely to visit a facility housing nearly 3,000 prisoners would further obstruct already an already-crowded streetscape. The number of guards and administrative personnel needed to staff and run such a complex (along with the fleet of large vehicles need to transport that many prisoners) would exacerbate this local crowding further still.
“This is going to take maybe as much as a decade,” Mr. Notaro concluded at the March 27 CB1 meeting. “It will possibly involve a ULURP application,” he added, in a reference to the City’s “uniform land use review procedure,” which provides an opportunity for local elected officials and community leaders to weigh in on major land-use decisions. “But we’ve managed to make sure that CB1 will be represented,” he said. “It’s in the very early stages of planning, but it’s something we will have real input into.”