By David Brand
A Queens community board voted unanimously to reject the city’s plan to construct a 270-foot-tall jail behind the Queens Criminal Courthouse in Kew Gardens, following emotional testimony from local residents, jail abolitionists and supporters of the jail plan Tuesday night.
Community Board 9 members voted 28-0 in favor of a land use committee resolution opposing the jail. The advisory vote is part of the Universal Land Use Review Procedure for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island jails and build four new detention facilities in each borough except Staten Island by 2026. One CB9 member abstained and about a dozen members were absent from the meeting. In March, CB9 members voted 34-0 in favor of a previous resolution against the jail plan. Earlier this month, a Brooklyn community board voted 17-16 to oppose a new jail in Boerum Hill.
“This resolution is opposing very strongly, for many reasons that are listed over eight pages, this jail to be erected in Kew Gardens,” said CB9 Land Use Committee Co-chair Sylvia Hack. “To be doing a ULURP on a concept is denying the good that the land use procedure that is in the charter does and can do.”
The city’s plan depends on the ability to reduce the jail population to fewer than 5,000 detainees by 2026, down from a current population of about 7,500 individuals. The city earlier this month revised the estimated number of detainees to 4,000 by 2026, though the city will not necessarily reduce the size of the proposed jails.
Hack said efforts to reduce the city jail population through criminal justice reform measures recently enacted into law could make new, large-scale jails unnecessary.
“We have followed the state’s legislation on criminal justice reform, bail reform and open file discovery which hopefully will have good effects in the city,” Hack said.
The 1,437-bed Kew Gardens jail would house every woman detained in New York City, as well as hundreds of detained men, and feature family meeting spaces and a medical unit for pre- and postnatal services. The jail will also include retail or community space on the ground level floor.
In addition to demolishing the vacant Queens Detention Center behind the courthouse and erecting the new 1,258,000-square-foot jail, the city plan includes building a new subterranean parking garage for staff and a 676-space parking lot for members of the public. The plan also calls for demapping 82nd Avenue to make room for the project.
During her brief summary of the land use report, Hack said the city’s financial calculations about the proposal were misleading and that the total cost of the four-jail project could reach $30 billion. The city contends that the total project will cost about $11 billion.
Kandra Clark, a Forest Hills resident and the associate vice president of Exodus Transitional Community, questioned the land use committee’s math and said they were spreading misinformation about the cost.
“When is CB9 going to be held responsible for false information?” said Clark, whose organization provides reentry services for formerly detained and incarcerated individuals.
Most meeting attendees, including several community board members, said they support closing Rikers Island to address the systemic violence in the jails and the isolation of the island, but oppose the Kew Gardens project.
Clark, on the other hand, said she supports the city’s jail plan and had hoped the community board would vote in favor of the project with conditions. She said she understands the perspective of advocates who call for eliminating all jails, but said defeating the city’s plan will ultimately uphold a dangerous status quo.
“Abolition is a goal, not a strategy,” she said. “By voting ‘No,’ you’re voting to keep Rikers Island open.”
But jail and prison abolitionists from the No New Jails NYC coalition say their opposition to the jail plan is part of a larger movement to identify injustices in the penal system based on race and poverty. They advocate to transform how society addresses poverty, detention and policing, especially in communities of color.
No New Jails supporters held handmade signs throughout the meeting and spoke about taking the money that will be allocated for the jail project and using it to improve NYCHA facilities, homeless services and schools.
“Which side of history do you want to be on? The side that is remembered for uplifting or for decaying?” said Abdul Rabbani during the meeting. “Vote ‘No’ because injustice will not be tolerated … No new jails, no new human rights violation and no more decaying our communities.”
Writer and Kew Gardens resident Tia Keenan asked community board members to not just oppose the jail in their own backyard, but to consider the impact of the criminal justice system on poor communities of color throughout the city and nation.
“I’m asking you not just to oppose this jail because you don’t want to face the brutality of the jail system, of the criminal punishment system in your community where you would gladly have it in other communities,” Keenan said. “I’m asking you to look at this problem and to say that you do not accept the criminalization of poor people, of black people, of Latinx people, of mentally ill people.”
A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said they welcome the community’s input.
“We appreciate the Queens residents who participated in today’s meeting,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to take all community feedback seriously as we work to close Rikers and create the fairest possible justice system.”