In Queens DA race, a spectrum of perspectives on city jails plan

Former Judge Gregory Lasak denounced the city’s plan to close Rikers Island jails and build a new detention facility in Kew Gardens. Each candidate has called for closing current jails on Rikers Island, but they differ on what to do next.  Eagle  photo by Jonathan Sperling.

Former Judge Gregory Lasak denounced the city’s plan to close Rikers Island jails and build a new detention facility in Kew Gardens. Each candidate has called for closing current jails on Rikers Island, but they differ on what to do next. Eagle photo by Jonathan Sperling.

By David Brand and Jonathan Sperling

Dozens of Queens residents and activists grabbed the microphone at a public hearing last week to denounce the city’s plan to close Rikers Island and open a new, 270-foot jail in Kew Gardens. One of them is running for Queens County District Attorney.

Former Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak’s testimony generated particular attention because, for decades, he had a hand in sending, or sparing, hundreds of New Yorkers from city jails. Come Jan. 1, 2020, he hopes to have an even bigger role in the city’s justice system as Queens DA.

“There's no need to build a jail here, especially the size that's anticipated,” Lasak told the crowd at the lively event inside Queens Borough Hall on April 25. It’s an issue he has consistently hammered at DA forums and in an opinion piece for Eagle earlier this month.

“When I hear about this place that's being rushed through I think of a proverb I've heard since I was a kid, 'Haste makes waste,'” he continued. “What is the push here? And if there's such a push … why don't we go to Rikers Island with shovels and start to build a brand new, state-of-the-art facility on Rikers Island.”

He was the only DA candidate to attend the community hearing, but he is not the only candidate to articulate a stance on the city’s plan, which calls for closing Rikers and opening four new jails with a capacity for about 5,750 total detainees — 1,437 each in Kew Gardens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx.

The city plans to demolish the dormant Queens Detention Center — also known as the Queens House of Detention — that looms behind the Criminal Courthouse, demap 82nd Avenue and build a 1,258,000-square-foot detention facility and 676-space parking lot on the site. The jail would house all women who are detained in New York City, as well as hundreds of men, and feature ground-level commercial space.

Each candidate agrees that the Rikers Island jails, as currently constructed, are outdated and dangerous and should be closed, but they differ on exactly what the city should do next.

Their answers run the spectrum from rebuilding the facilities at Rikers to embracing the city’s so-called “borough-based” jails plan to calling for the closure of Rikers and building no new jails at all.

Status quo, with adjustments

Attorney Betty Lugo, a former Nassau County prosecutor, is most in line with Lasak’s proposal for updating the jails at Rikers Island.  

“[Rikers] its own private community where corruption is prevalent. We have to close it, but I would leave it on the island,” Lugo said at a at Queens DA candidates forum at the CUNY School of Law in March. “Close it and leave it on Rikers Island and separate nonviolent offenders from violent offenders so there won’t be abuse.”

Lugo later clarified that she supports continuing to detain people on Rikers Island but decreasing the population and improving the design of the jails.

Moving off the island

That isn’t the prevailing perspective in the mayor’s office, the city council or in the rest of the field of DA candidates, however. Aside from Lasak and Lugo, the other five candidates propose removing all detainees off Rikers.

Nevertheless, only one DA hopeful, Councilmember Rory Lancman, has endorsed the city’s proposal, which was first articulated by a criminal justice reform commission chaired by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

“I support the ‘Close Rikers’ plan full stop. I was proud to stand with Judge Lippman and the Lippman Commission,” Lancman said at the CUNY Law forum. “You cannot reform Rikers Island. It is a violent dystopian nightmare that has been there for decades. You must build community based jails, including in Queens, where until recently there was a jail.”

Lancman reiterated his support for the city’s plan during an interview with the Eagle in April.

“My district is 150 feet away from the jail site and, frankly, I think the community is being engaged,” Lancman said. “It will be better for inmates, for the Department of Correction, the administration of courts and for detainees to be housed [near the courts]” instead of having to board buses early in the morning from Rikers Island to various borough courthouses.

Former Queens prosecutor and Civilian Complaint Review Board Director Mina Malik said the plan requires more community input, but she did not completely denounce the city’s plan.

"Rikers Island is an abomination and it must be closed. Unfortunately, the district attorney does not have jurisdiction to decide the future of Rikers Island,” Malik told the Eagle in a statement. “Should the mayor's plan for closing Rikers go forward, we should use it as an opportunity not only to reduce how many people we detain, but also to change how we treat people in detention.”

"I can't stress enough that it is critical that the Queens community has its concerns fully heard,” Malik continued. “The issue of closing Rikers Island and building detention facilities in residential areas is too important to ignore the voice of the people."

Malik also said she supports the “Nordic model” of detention, which treats detainees with “dignity, provides services for their needs, vigorously supports their reentry and demonstrates low recidivism rates.”

Borough President Melinda Katz said she supports closing Rikers Island, but sent a letter to the mayor’s office in January denouncing what she called “the lack of meaningful community input in the development of this plan” and demanding that the planning “start anew.”

“The affected communities simply were not consulted during the development of the plan, especially the proposal to erect a 1.9 million-square-foot facility at 126-02 82nd Avenue in Kew Gardens,” Katz wrote about the proposed project, which would rise just yards from her Borough Hall office.

She criticized the project in similar language during her Jan. 25 State of the Borough address and again at the CUNY Law forum.

“I am for closing Rikers,” Katz said. “I think we need to go to the community and figure out where the jail needs to be.”

No new jails

Former state Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves and public defender Tiffany Cabán have both staked out positions more in line with the No New Jails movement, which calls for closing Rikers and decreasing the jail population enough to ensure that the city does not have to construct any new detention facilities.

“As a prosecutor with the Department of Correction, I actually walked the tiers of Rikers Island so I know how toxic and violent the atmosphere is,” Nieves said during the CUNY Law forum. “Now, I support the closure of Rikers Island and I think Rikers Island needs to be closed, but I do not support the creation of super community-based facilities.”

“What we need to do is use existing facilities and we need to decarcerate Rikers Island,” Nieves continued. “The answer to closing Rikers is not building more facilities to hold people. It’s actually holding less people, de-incarcerating the population.”

Cabán has expressed similar contempt for the city’s plan, which would not result in the closure of Rikers until 2027. “I support the No New Jails movement in opposing the Mayor’s plan to construct new jails,” she said in a February tweet.

“We need to close Rikers and we need to do it a lot faster than what the city is proposing,” Cabán said at the CUNY Law forum. “It is ridiculous that their plan is a 10-year plan.”

“I do not support the new jails because, what happens is, when you build cages, you fill them,” she continued.