By David Brand
A new jail will soon rise in Kew Gardens; the old, vacant one will be demolished. A parking lot will one day sprawl across 82nd Avenue. And starting in 2026, buses will no longer shuttle people charged with crimes back and forth between Rikers Island and the Queens Criminal Courthouse.
But on Thursday, an hour before the City Council began to vote in favor of an unprecedented plan to build four new jails as part of the effort to close Rikers Island, it was business as usual at the courthouse on Queens Boulevard.
Anxious defendants conferred with attorneys outside courtrooms and prosecutors hustled through the hallways on their way to hearings. Corrections officers kept watch.
They had opinions on the new jail, though.
“I’m in favor of the jail plan,” said defense attorney Victoria Brown-Douglas, as she stood with her 18-year-old client outside a first-floor courtroom. “It paves the way to re-entry and brings jobs to the community.”
“Every time I go to Rikers Island I feel like I’m going to a plantation,” she added.
Her client, charged with robbery and facing three years in prison, just got off Rikers Island after nearly a month in jail. He said he plans to re-enroll in high school, which he dropped out of when his family moved from the Bronx to Brooklyn.
“I don’t want to go [to Rikers] again,” he said. “Or any other jail.”
A family huddled outside the courthouse after a loved one’s hearing. He was on his way back to Rikers.
“They’re opening new jails, but what’s the difference?” said Phianna, a family member who declined to give her last name. “Rikers is a hell hole. We all know that. What’s the difference going to be?”
Other court visitors were also skeptical of the plan to build a new jail in every borough but Staten Island. One man had never heard of the first Universal Land Use Review Procedure application to incorporate multiple sites across four boroughs until Thursday, but he immediately echoed the opposition of the No New Jails coalition.
“What? They’re using taxpayer money to build new prisons?” the man said. He declined to give his name while waiting to make a court appearance to get a disposition on a low-level offense.
“The jail population is going down so why open new jails?” he continued. “What we need is jobs.”
Another man waiting to make a court appearance had a more pragmatic perspective. He said he spent a “horrible” week on Rikers, but he understands that the city will need some detention facilities to house detainees.
“It should definitely be shut down. I’ve been there and the things you see are exactly like you hear,” he said. “I’m excited for Rikers to close. I see why they want the new jails though.”
Defendants and family members aren’t the only ones affected by the specific plan to construct a new jail behind the courthouse. Court personnel will feel the impact — sometimes literally as the nearby demolition and construction shake the walls.
Several court officers said they thought the plan was a bad idea, but not for ideological reasons.
“It’s going to be a disaster,” said one court officer standing near the courthouse entrance. “All the Corrections people are gonna come to park. There’s no parking as it is.”
Indeed, court visitors often have to park in expensive garages or find spots in residential Briarwood, on the other side of the Van Wyck Expressway.
“Ask the people of the neighborhood what they think of it,” added another court officer, who said he may try to transfer to Civil Court in Jamaica.
Queens Community Board 9 unanimously rejected the plan in May, while residents of Kew Gardens and Briarwood have opposed the proposed jail tower, citing parking and safety concerns. Councilmember Karen Koslowitz’s support for the plan hinged on the city building a municipal parking lot before beginning construction of the 195-foot tower.
Then there were the nihilists — or at least those who didn’t want to share a hot take with a guy carrying a notebook.
“I just keep my head down and go to work,” said one court officer. “It doesn’t make any difference.”