Queens CB9 votes tomorrow on city jails plan

A standing-room-only crowd attended a public hearing on the city’s plan to build a new jail in Kew Gardens last month.  Eagle  photo by Jonathan Sperling

A standing-room-only crowd attended a public hearing on the city’s plan to build a new jail in Kew Gardens last month. Eagle photo by Jonathan Sperling

By David Brand

It’s listed as the eighth item on Community Board 9’s May meeting agenda, but it’s number one in the minds of many Kew Gardens residents — and observers throughout the city.

CB 9 will vote tomorrow on a resolution to oppose the city’s plan to build a new 1,258,000-square-foot jail, subterranean parking garage and a 676-space public parking lot in Kew Gardens as part of the Universal Land Use Review Procedure. The vote is advisory.

The proposed 270-foot-tall facility would replace the dormant Queens Detention Center behind the Queens Criminal Courthouse and sprawl across a de-mapped 82nd Avenue. It’s one quarter of an ambitious plan to close Rikers Island jails and move detainees to four detention centers in each borough except Staten Island.

A “yes” vote means a board member disapproves of the jails plan — which is how former CB9 chairperson J. Richard Smith thinks most board members will vote tomorrow.

“What happened at the other community board? They voted it down,” said Smith, who still serves on the board.

Brooklyn Community Board 2 voted 17-16 not to support the city’s plan to expand the Brooklyn Detention Complex in Boerum Hill earlier this month.

“This sets a precedent for everyone else,” CB2 member Sam Johnson told the Brooklyn Eagle.
“The ‘no’ means something. There’s a lot of people saying no because they don’t want a facility of this magnitude, whether it be from a NIMBY perspective or a human rights perspective.”

Smith said CB9 members have already made it clear that they oppose the jail plan.

“Let’s put it this way: The people in Kew Gardens on the board are all against it,” he said.

Earlier this year, CB9 voted unanimously in favor of a resolution against the jail plan, Patch and the Forest Hills Post first reported.

The resolution stated that the 1,437-bed jail, which would become the tallest building in the neighborhood, would “quite simply overwhelm and destroy the small historic residential neighborhood of Kew Gardens, and also adversely affect the adjacent community of Briarwood.”

A demonstrator denounces the jails on Rikers Island during a public hearing on the city’s plan to build a new jail in Kew Gardens at Queens Borough Hall last month.  Eagle  photos by Jonathan Sperling

A demonstrator denounces the jails on Rikers Island during a public hearing on the city’s plan to build a new jail in Kew Gardens at Queens Borough Hall last month. Eagle photos by Jonathan Sperling

The plan for closing Rikers by 2027 depends on the city’s ability to reduce the jail population below 5,000 people. The city earlier this month said the jail population will likely drop to around 4,000 people. There are currently about 7,500 people detained in New York City jails.

CB9’s March resolution said the city should wait to see the outcome of criminal justice reform efforts, which could make new jails unnecessary.

“Starting the ULURP clock before the New York State legislature can address comprehensive criminal justice reform is putting the cart before the horse,” CB9 wrote. “To proceed at this point is to present the New York taxpayer with a potential bill upwards of $30 billion for jails that may not be needed.”

Tuesday’s seminal vote will take place after routine public hearings on liquor license applications, a monthly update from the 102nd Precinct and a report from Chairperson Kenichi Wilson.

Smith, the former board chairperson, said he expects the vote will be straightforward, unless the demonstrators who attended a marathon public forum on the jails plan last month return for tomorrow’s meeting.

Three distinct groups spoke out at that meeting inside Borough Hall — those who support the project, those who oppose building a new jail near a residential community and those who oppose building any new jails at all.

“I’m not opposing the jail in Kew Gardens because of property values, or parking or the community vibe,” said Tia Keenan, a No New Jails activist who carried an anti-jails sign created by her young son to the meeting “I’m here opposing the jail in Kew Gardens because I am standing in solidarity with people living the horror of mass incarceration, of broken windows policing, of immigration violence.”

No New Jails advocate Tia Keenan calls on the city to divert funding from new jails into social services and housing.  Eagle  photo by Jonathan Sperling

No New Jails advocate Tia Keenan calls on the city to divert funding from new jails into social services and housing. Eagle photo by Jonathan Sperling

A significant number of community members, including local Councilmembers Karen Koslowitz and Rory Lancman, a candidate for Queens district attorney, do support the city’s jail plan, however.  

The proposed jail in Queens would house all women detained in New York City. Proponents of the plan say the four community-based facilities are vital for ensuring that families and attorneys can more easily visit detainees — traveling to and from Rikers Island can be an all-day challenge, they say.

Deplorable, unsafe conditions at Rikers jails also necessitate the new facilities, they add.

“The reason why I’m asking that you please approve the plan — with conditions —  is that if we don’t do this now, I’m afraid it’s going to be pushed too far down the road. And we have people that are suffering right now,” said Theresa Sweeney, a community organizer with #CLOSErikers campaign.

“I’m a formerly incarcerated woman and we need to think about the women right now who are incarcerated on Rikers Island,” Sweeney continued. “Women are being assaulted and tortured on a daily basis … these are our community members and we want to keep them in our communities.”

In an op-ed for the Eagle last month, Exodus Transitional Community Vice President Kandra Clark said she also supports the plan. Her organization provides services for people leaving jails and prisons.

“The future jail should look nothing like what now exists,” Clark wrote. “There should be light, dedicated visiting space that fosters connection and ample programmatic space for vocational, therapeutic and other services for people in custody.”“It should not be the grim, fortress-like structure that now looms over the area but rather blended into the surroundings with design features that make it more attractive to pedestrians,” Clark continued. “In the end, I also believe that my neighborhood is an appropriate place for a modern, humane jail.”