By Todd Maisel
Opponents of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island and build four “borough-based” jails converged on City Hall to continue their protests on Sunday, a day before the land use process was scheduled to begin.
One proposed jail would rise 30 stories in Kew Gardens, next to the dormant Queens House of Detention and the Queens Criminal Courthouse. All women detainees in the city would be housed at the Kew Gardens jail, the city announced Friday.
The other jails would be located at the site of the Brooklyn House of Detention in Boerum Hill, the site of the Manhattan Detention Center in Lower Manhattan and in a new facility in the Bronx’s Port Morris neighborhood. The four jails will have space for a combined 5,750 detainees.
Kew Gardens Civic Association President Dominic Pistone said the city tried to “ram through the jail plans” without properly engaging the affected communities.
“It is our fight in Queens, imposing a megalopolis is totally out of scale,” Pistone said, adding that that money could better serve other New Yorkers, like NYCHA residents who frequently go without heat.
The borough-based jail plan depends on the city’s ability to reduce the jail population. Currently, about 8,000 people are detained on Rikers Island or in other city jails. Many of the detainees are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime.
Criminal justice reformers say the city can significantly reduce the jail population by eliminating cash bail. A bill to detain only defendants charged with the most serious felonies is making its way through the state legislature. Six of Queens’ seven state senators have sponsored the Bill Elimination Act.
But Pistone questioned how the city would proceed if the crime rate, which has dropped to historic lows, rose again.
“What are they going to do, go back to prison barges?” Pistone said. “This whole thing is a mess and should be started over again. Criminal justice reform must come before prison reform, because you won’t know how many jails you will need.”
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. organized the event at City Hall to specifically oppose the plan to build a new detention center at an NYPD impound lot in Port Morris, roughly two miles from the Bronx courthouses in Concourse Village near Yankee Stadium. He said that locating jails next to courthouses, as would be the case in Kew Gardens, is “the right way to go.”
“Experts say that if you are going to build new jails they should be located next to the courthouses. This is the new paradigm,” Diaz said.
Protestors responded by shouting “not in Kew Gardens,” “not in Chinatown” and “no new jails.”
Diaz acknowledged the demonstrators and said “we have different issues” regarding the jails, but added that the project should be split into separate Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) for each community. The city has packaged all four proposals into one ULURP package.
“We have different concerns than does Kew Gardens, and they are doing one ULURP that encompasses all the different communities when this all should be all separate ULURPs so that every community in every borough can have their issues addressed,” Diaz said. “If we allow this to happen this will continue on with other issues, and then the only outcome will be different communities pit against each other and that should never ever be the case — we should be heard.”
Robin Shapiro of Forest Hills, held a sign opposing the Kew Gardens jail. She said she lives less than a half mile from the proposed site and worries about congestion and potential dangers.
“The children’s population has increased three-fold in seven years with multiple schools located throughout that area,” Shapiro explained. “There is gridlock already on Queens Boulevard and it would make the streets impassable at that juncture.”