By David Brand
There's already a jail behind the Queens Criminal Courthouse, a fact that prompts community members to question why the city wants to build a colossal new facility on the site as part of its plan to close Rikers Island.
The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice says there’s good reason to tear down the mostly dormant complex.
“There are pretty horrible conditions,” said MOCJ Deputy Director Dana Kaplan in April. “It wouldn’t be approved if we were to seek certification.”
Last month, MOCJ and the Department of Correction invited a few local reporters to see for themselves. The two agencies hosted a tour of a piece of the building, also known as the Queens House of Detention, to allow reporters to get a sense of those “horrible conditions.” The old jail is still used to hold defendants who are awaiting court appearances. It’s also the site of film and TV shoots — “Orange Is The New Black” films here, for example — but detainees haven’t stayed overnight there since 2003.
The vast majority of the building, including the jail-turned-TV-studio, was off-limits to reporters, and the truncated tour left questions about exactly why the place could not be rehabilitated. It also made it hard to compare the jail to modern facilities — like the ones proposed by the city.
After the tour, MOCJ said the cells are smaller than the current standard allowed by the State Commission of Correction. The cells are also arranged in a long row, which prevents direct supervision, MOCJ said.
Those assertions reiterated what Kaplan said in April.
“There is no programming space, [there are] long tiers, the housing units, the cell size. It would be impossible to renovate,” she said. “I think demolition is required.”
The cells were indeed small — single beds with vinyl mattresses lined one wall, a metal toilet and two-tiered shelf were on the other side, with only a tiny sink and slim pathway between them. Sunlight poured in through the elevated windows across from the cells, but it was impossible to see out of the windows from inside the confined rooms.
A weighted dummy lay on the floor of the narrow passage outside the cells, near the entrance to the cell block. Correction officers practice dragging the 150-lb. mannequin to simulate dragging unconscious detainees.
After observing the cells, Department of Correction staff escorted reporters to the holding areas used to detain defendants before they appear in court. Those cells, including the 12-person pen that reporters were allowed to enter, will not be affected by the proposed demolition because they are part of the courthouse, corrections staff said.
Each court part features its own holding pen, from which court officers retrieve defendants. The holding area that reporters visited featured a small room with a plexiglass divider, where attorneys can meet with their clients.
The pen was empty on a Friday afternoon in late-June.
The city’s plan to close Rikers includes demolishing QDC in order to make room for a new 1,258,000 square foot jail. The project also includes a subterranean parking garage for staff and a 676-space parking lot for members of the public. Part of the plan includes demapping 82nd Avenue and building the jail and parking lots on top of the street.
Queens Community Board 9 and Borough President Melinda Katz have both rejected the city’s Universal Land Use Review Procedure application for the jail, which is packaged with the other three facilities. Their votes are advisory and the project will go before the City Council for a binding vote in October.
The city currently estimates that the four new jails will house a population of 4,000 detainees by 2026, down from an initial estimate of 5,000. The detainees would be separated equally among the jails, which will have a capacity for roughly 1,150 detainees.
The Kew Gardens jail would house all women detained in New York City, as well as several hundred men in a separate part of the building.
The reduced population estimate may affect the overall jail size, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said. The city has not revealed new jail size information, however.