Queens Jail Turned TV Set Has Role in Rikers Closure

By David Brand

Over the past 16 years, it seems that everyone in Queens has proposed a new use for the vacant Queens House of Detention near the Criminal Courthouse in Kew Gardens.

In 2014, Queens County District Attorney Richard A. Brown said it should be used for DA office space. That same year, former District 30 Council Member Elizabeth Crowley said it should be used to detain teenagers removed from Rikers Island.

In 2017, a former intern to the district attorney said, in an op-ed for City Limits, that it should be repurposed as a homeless shelter.

Today, the city’s website says it “is a wonderful place to stage your production,” having hosted scenes from “Orange Is the New Black” and other series.

After all that brainstorming, the future of the Queens House of Detention has finally begun to crystallize as the mayor and local lawmakers rely on the jail as part of a plan to close Rikers.

In February, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council agreed to move forward with a plan to close Rikers Island and house inmates in borough-based jails in Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx — though not Staten Island. The plan calls for the construction of a new jail in the Bronx and renovation of three sites — including the repurposed Queens House of Detention — in the other three boroughs. Combined, the four sites would jail 5,000 detainees.

“This agreement marks a huge step forward on our path to closing Rikers Island,” de Blasio said in a statement at the time. “In partnership with the City Council, we can now move ahead with creating a borough-based jail system that’s smaller, safer and fairer.”

Rather than go through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure separately, the city will combine each site into a single application. The mayor said the application could be submitted for certification as early as the end of this year and the design process could begin as early as 2019.

Despite that ambitious timeline, Community Board 9 Chair J. Richard Smith told the Queens Daily Eagle that the issue has not yet come before the community board.

“When something actually begins that’s when the community board will get involved,” Smith told the Eagle. “Too many times you get wound up and involved in something and it doesn’t happen. We want to see actual plans before we get involved.”

In 2017, Community Board 9 member Andrea Crawford told DNAinfo that she could see both sides of the proposal.

“The neighborhood is highly residential and things like perhaps more traffic, overcrowding [and] things that come along with nighttime transport could have a negative impact on the surrounding community,” Crawford said. “However, on the flip side, we already have the criminal court there.”

Smith said he does not have a “personal opinion” about reopening the jail. He said it was too early for the community board to take a position because the city has not “put [the community board] at the table with planners,” but he said that the construction work needed to renovate the jail “would be good for the community.” He said he deferred to Kew Gardens residents and to the local Council Member Karen Koslowitz.

Last year, Koslowitz and ten other council members wrote a letter to de Blasio urging him “to locate a new community-based jail at the site of the former Queens Detention Complex in Kew Gardens as part of a citywide alternative to the Rikers Island jail complex.”

“It is centrally located in a civic center, it is connected to the courts, and with the proper capital investment it can be functional for this use,” the lawmakers said. “The center was originally built for this purpose and for many years operated with little incident to the surrounding community.”

As of press time, Koslowitz did not provide additional comment to the Queens Daily Eagle, but she did come out in favor of reopening the jail in 2017.

“This smaller facility will bolster the safety for our Department of Correction staff, will create an environment that is more conducive to rehabilitation and will save taxpayer dollars on transportation costs,” she said in a statement.

District 24 Council Member Rory Lancman praised his colleague’s support for re-opening the jail and noted that his council district begins a few hundred feet from the site.

“If we’re going to close Rikers and put jails in the boroughs, it’s incumbent upon us who support the plan to pick where the jails will go,” Lancman told the Eagle. “Fortunately Council Member Koslowitz very early on, courageously and responsibly supported reopening the Queens House of Detention.”

In June, Lancman, the chair of the Committee on the Justice System, held an oversight hearing to examine how the city’s five district attorneys addressed the opioid crisis and implemented alternatives to incarceration.

Lancman told the Eagle he supports the plan to close Rikers and to re-open the Queens House of Detention as part of a larger vision to reduce the prison population through early intervention and alternative to incarceration programs, especially for people with opioid abuse issues.

“There are a number of ways to reduce the prison population consistent with alternatives to detention and incarceration, so hopefully we treat opioid addiction as the health issue it is and really confine use of the criminal justice system to serious opioid trafficking,” Lancman said. “That illustrates the enormous power that prosecutors have to impact and shape the criminal justice system.”

Queens already has three functioning neighborhood jails. The Queensboro Correctional Facility is a 424-bed medium-security prison in Long Island City, the Queens Detention Center is a private jail near JFK airport that houses detained immigrants and the Elmhurst Hospital Prison Ward holds female inmates who require acute psychiatric care.

The Queens House of Detention remained in operation until 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the Department of Corrections to cuts its operating budget by $65 million. The agency determined that closing the jail, which once housed more than 500 people awaiting trial, would account for about half of that money.

That year, Jonathan Chasan, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project told the Queens Chronicle that the city should not have closed the jail and thrust its inmates into the large Rikers complex

“From a managerial point of view, to have a jail adjacent to the courthouse minimizes both transportation and operational costs,” Chasen said.

A spokesperson for Queens County District Attorney Richard A. Brown declined to comment for this story.