By Jonathan Sperling
Anti-jail activists, anti-Rikers/pro-community jails activists and vocal Queens residents collided at a packed hearing to discuss the city’s proposal to build a new, community-based jail in Kew Gardens on Wednesday.
The meeting, which took place at Queens Borough Hall, was designed to give stakeholders an opportunity to question officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office and members of Community Board 9 about the specifics the jail proposal. The 1,258,000-square-foot, 270-foot-tall jail would be constructed on the site of the Queens House of Detention on 82nd Avenue. The project includes a large underground parking garage and a 676-space public parking lot next to the new jail.
As the three-and-a-half-hour meeting wore on, clear divisions emerged — not just between some hearing attendees and the city officials, but between many of the attendees themselves.
#CLOSErikers campaign members disagreed with No New Jails NYC members who denounced residents from Kew Gardens and neighboring Forest Hills who said they don’t want a new jail placed in their community. Each group occupies a different space on the spectrum of criminal justice reform.
“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.”
The #CLOSErikers campaign, launched in 2016, states that closing Rikers begins with reducing the detainee population and diverting money from the criminal justice system to community support programs. The group supports community-based jails, with conditions.
Supporters of No New Jails also spoke in favor of closing Rikers, but against building additional city jails.
“I’m not opposing the jail in Kew Gardens because of property values, or parking or the community vibe. 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,” said Tia Keenan, a Kew Gardens resident who held an anti-jails sign handcrafted by her young daughter.
“We oppose this jail. We stand with No New Jails. My 5-year-old knows that communities need schools, NYCHA needs funding, we need public housing, public transportation, healthcare, mental health services,” Keenan continued.
Other residents of Kew Gardens opposed building the jail in their neighborhood because they are concerned about the proposed jail’s impact on local businesses, the overall safety of the community and the effect that it could have on the neighborhood’s strained subway and Long Island Rail Road service.
“Our issue here is not political, it’s a quality of life issue. And it’s also an issue of the useless waste, because they’re putting facilities here that we don’t need,” Vivian Kurzy, a Community Board 9 member, told the Eagle. “There are poor communities that need clinics, walk-in drug rehabilitation. This community is like upper middle class, we don’t need those things. They would really benefit a poorer neighborhood.”
Kurzy also said that the issues at Rikers don’t simply end by moving the jails to a new location.
“You don’t reform a jail by closing a building. You reform a jail by the whole point of view, the training, the facilities. That’s an easy answer, ‘close Rikers.’ And then what are you going to build five little mini-Rikers? It doesn’t address the Rikers issue,” Kurzy said.
The hearing came to a boiling point when Queens Assistant District Attorney James Quinn criticized the plan to close Rikers.
“The people on Rikers Island now — the number of people being held on misdemeanor charges on Rikers Island simply because they can’t make bail, from Queens County — you know how many of them there are? There are 11. Eleven. I ran those numbers today,” Quinn said.
“You can talk all you want about closing down jails and having a city with no jails, but you are talking out of emotion. You are not talking about fact,” Quinn added.
Quinn reiterated the numbers in a phone call with the Eagle on Thursday.
UPDATE 4/28/19, 5:45 P.M.: A previous version of this article misstated a chant by No New Jails NYC, but cannot confirm the actual wording. The sentence was removed.