By David Brand
Yesterday, the Queens Daily Eagle generated some conversations in City Hall after contacting all 51 city councilmembers — in conjunction with sibling publication, the Brooklyn Eagle — to find out where the legislators stand on the controversial land use application for building four new jails, one in each borough except Staten Island.
The Queens jail, part of a stated proposal for closing the detention centers on Rikers Island, would rise 270-feet and house a maximum of 1,150 detainees behind the Queens Criminal Courthouse in Kew Gardens. Queens’ 15 councilmembers differ on the proposal.
Three Queens councilmembers flat-out say they will vote against the plan. Democrat Paul Vallone, nominal Democrat Robert Holden (he won his seat on the GOP line) and Republican Eric Ulrich all told the Eagle they will vote no on the plan to create four “borough-based” jails.
Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer leans toward opposing the jail for different reasons than his conservative colleagues. Van Bramer has aligned himself with the progressive wing of the party and the No New Jails coalition, which calls on the city to divest from jails and invest in social services, housing and education for low-income people of color disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system.
Of the 11 remaining Queens councilmembers (including Antonio Reynoso, whose district is mostly in Brooklyn), six say they are firm yes votes. The six supporters are Councilmembers Karen Koslowitz, Daniel Dromm, Rory Lancman, Francisco Moya, Adrienne Adams and Reynoso.
Meanwhile, Councilmembers Donovan Richards and Costa Constantinides say they are leaning yes, but have not decided yet.
Councilmembers Barry Grodenchik and I. Daneek Miller say they are undecided. Councilmember Peter Koo has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Each of the supporters premised their vote on changes ultimately being made to the height and scope of the project.
Koslowitz, for example, said she supports the plan — so long as the city reduces the height. Several councilmembers signalled that they would vote in lockstep with Koslowitz, who is taking a stand in favor of a politically unpopular project.
Councilmember Daniel Dromm told the Eagle he is “definitely supporting [Koslowitz’s] principled, moral stance" to support the Kew Gardens jail, despite "NIMBY pushback in her district.”
"I really admire her” for standing up, even though the plan is unpopular among her constituents, he added.
Moya said his vote is based on a desperate need to close Rikers.
“It’s a monument to violence and mass incarceration and it has to be shuttered for good,” Moya said. “The City’s borough-based jails plan isn’t perfect but every day that Rikers remains in operation is an injustice and this plan is the best option available right now.”
Like Moya, Lancman said he is willing to take a politically unpopular position on building a new jail because it means closing the violence-plagued facilities on Rikers.
The plan “represents our best and only real hope to close Rikers Island in our lifetime and reform the criminal justice system here in New York City,” Lancman said. “We either close Rikers Island now through this plan, or our grandchildren will be talking about the evils of Rikers Island and wondering what to do about it.”
And Adams, who chairs the land-use subcommittee that hosted the Council lone public hearing on the plan, “is in favor of the borough-based jails with some modifications to the administration’s plan,” said a spokesperson.
Adams want to reduce the size and scope of the proposal and ensure more programming is available for detainees, the spokesperson added.