Wrecking ball is only fix for ‘horrible’ Queens jail, city says

Inside the Queens House of Detention. Photo via the Mayor’s Office for Media and Entertainment

Inside the Queens House of Detention. Photo via the Mayor’s Office for Media and Entertainment

By David Brand

There’s a reason why the hulking jail that looms above the Queens Criminal Courthouse has no role in the plan to close Rikers Island, an official from the mayor’s office said Wednesday.

The place is “horrible.”

“There are pretty horrible conditions,” said Dana Kaplan, the deputy director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice Justice Initiatives and Close Rikers. “It wouldn’t be approved if we were to seek certification.”

Kaplan met with Queens reporters on Wednesday ahead of a presentation on the city’s borough-based jails proposal. The plan includes demolishing the Queens House of Detention in Kew Gardens in order to make room for a new 1,258,000 square foot jail with 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.

It isn’t just that the facility has fallen into disrepair since then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg shut it down as a cost-cutting measure in 2002. Outdated infrastructure in the Queens House of Detention makes it implausible and even inhumane as an alternative to Rikers Island jails, Kaplan said.

“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.”

A rendering of a proposed ‘borough-based’ jail. Rendering via the Mayor’s Office

A rendering of a proposed ‘borough-based’ jail. Rendering via the Mayor’s Office

Kaplan said there were no concrete plans on when the city would actually demolish the site, but the old jail will have to go in order to make room for the new facility, which would rise 270 feet and have space for 1,437 detainees and inmates.

The city has packaged the Kew Gardens jail and three other proposed jails in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan into a single Universal Land Review Use Procedure application. The ground floor of the Queens jail would be reserved for commercial space, offices for nonprofit organizations or some other community use, the city says.

The city has proposed housing all women detainees and inmates at the Queens site, which would include a maternity ward and nursery. There are about 200 women in custody in New York City jails, according to the city.

Though it has not housed detainees overnight in nearly two decades, the jail still plays a role in the criminal justice system. Detained individuals wait inside the jail before and after they are produced at the Queens Criminal Courthouse.

In January, two detainees attacked a corrections officer while waiting for the bus back to Rikers Island. The two men appeared in court for a hearing related to the assault charges on Wednesday. The site also hosts law enforcement trainings.

Over the past 17 years, the jail has also housed plenty of fictional prisoners, including characters from the series “Orange is the New Black.” That Netflix show and other jailhouse dramas have filmed in the facility in recent years.

“The Queens House of Detention is a wonderful place to stage your production,” the city’s Office of Media and Entertainment writes on its website.

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