Department of Correction Commissioner Martin Horn explained to us in a lengthy interview (posted in full after the jump) why he’s still committed to reopening and doubling the Brooklyn House of Detention in Boerum Hill despite continued pressure from locals and elected officials to look elsewhere. Recently, City Comptroller Bill Thompson, also a mayoral candidate, urged Horn to sell the 50-year-old jail for its land value, estimated at up to $75 million, because reopening it could roll back the area’s economic gains. Expanding the existing facility would cost $440 million. Horn said only two new sites were considered and promptly dismissed because they weren’t connected to the courthouse. “If the city were to sell every piece of land available for development in a hot market, we wouldn’t have Prospect Park. But parks, we recognize, are an essential city service. So are schools, hospitals, roads and – yes – jails,” he said via email. In addition to its location, Horn said the jail is critical because of its maximum security cells.
At one point, the department sought a developer to bookend the doubled facility with housing or condos, but received only one response that eliminated even the existing jail. While some of Horn’s critics still continue to push this alternative plan, he asks, “I wonder whether supporters of the proposal are “advocates” for a greater commitment to reentry or are they simply opponents to the proposed jail, and advocates for a proposal in which they may have a proprietary interest?” Before the jail was shuttered in 2003, local residents complained of visitors queuing up outside and hiding contraband on private property, and officers parking on sidewalks. Bail bond businesses also once dominated the now trendy Atlantic Avenue corridor. Two of the partners in the alternative proposal, Hamlin Ventures and Time Equities, also have an interest in Horn’s decision: They are both developing market rate projects nearby. See his full responses after the jump…
Brownstoner: When the Brooklyn House of Detention was closed in 2003, you said it was to cut costs, even after $45 million in renovations. What has changed to warrant the reopening of the facility?
Department of Correction Commissioner Martin Horn: First of all, we want to tear down several severely outdated and dilapidated wooden and plastic jail buildings on Rikers Island – but 2003 presented an immediate challenge to cut costs because of a citywide budget cut. The Brooklyn jail was selected for closing at the time because compared to our other jails, its small capacity meant that its per capita costs were relatively high. In other words, it was more efficient to operate a jail that holds more defendants so that costs are spread over a larger population. We never suggested that the Brooklyn jail would be closed permanently.
What else has changed? We’re not planning simply to reopen a 749-bed jail, but to open a 1,469-bed jail. That nearly doubles the scale of the operation, which offers great cost-per-inmate efficiency.
City Comptroller Bill Thompson argued the city stands to lose revenue by reopening, instead of selling, the jail. Critics of your plan estimate the site could sell for $45 to $72 million, and depending on how it’s developed, could bring in $20 million every year in new tax revenue. In contrast, expanding the existing facility would cost $240 million, according to the most recent solicitation for architectural services (Mayor Bloomberg, in his message on the 2009 budget, said the total cost for the Brooklyn House of Detention would be $440 million). What are your numbers on how much the city is saving, or losing, by expanding the existing facility versus building a new one in a manufacturing area?
If the city were to sell every piece of land available for development in a hot market, we wouldn’t have Prospect Park. But parks, we recognize, are an essential city service. So are schools, hospitals, roads and – yes – jails.
The original Brooklyn jail made sense because it is adjacent to the Brooklyn Court house. That is how jails are situated all over the United States. That is why the Manhattan Detention Center is connected to the Manhattan Criminal Courts in a thriving Chinatown neighborhood. Let’s face it: no location any place else in Brooklyn is closer to the Brooklyn courts than the original location of the jail and the adjacent parcel. It simply makes sense to hold Brooklyn residents charged with Brooklyn crimes and held for the Brooklyn courts in a Brooklyn jail, and the nearer to the Brooklyn courts, the better.
Then, of course, there are the issues that discourage us from relying any more than absolutely necessary on our Rikers Island location – the age and condition of several housing facilities that were intended to be temporary when built 30 years ago; its total reliance on one two-lane, one mile bridge as the only access to the mainland and the only way for 1,500 inmates to be bussed to and from court every day; the cost, environmental impact and security challenges of all of those transfers; the inaccessibility of Rikers to families wanting to visit defendants (350,000 visitors annually) and attorneys who need to consult with their clients.
Do you agree with Thompson that your plan could roll back some of the economic gains made in Downtown Brooklyn in the years since the jail has been closed? Why or why not?
I’m not a developer or an economist, and I don’t know the basis for his pessimistic prediction. I do know, however, that we never suggested to anyone that the jail would be forever closed, yet the development of the area took off while the jail was still operating. And I don’t think that a reopened jail will affect it. Is he suggesting that the Brooklyn Courthouse location should be sold and the Courthouse relocated as well?
If you were planning a new jail and did not have the current property would you advocate building the jail in a residential and commercial neighborhood like Boerum Hill?
Jails should always be built adjacent to or as near to the Courthouses they serve as possible. So, yes, as long as the Courts are in Downtown Brooklyn, that is where the jail should be.
Can you describe your search for an alternative site? Where did you look? How long did you look? What other sites were considered, and why were they ultimately rejected?
I asked elected officials in Brooklyn “if not here, where?” Nobody ever suggested a reasonable alternative. For the reasons stated above, this is where the jail belongs.
What were the locations suggested and by whom? Please be specific.
(His spokesman responded) We considered 270 Jay Street, which I think is/was a Transit Authority building which is inappropriate for retrofitting as a jail, and a site in Sunset Park in the area of the federal prison, which didn’t have the same proximity to the court house. No word on whether these were recommended by others or by whom.
You have argued your plan is necessary to give detainees better access to their families and legal services than they have on Rikers Island. On another note, when the jail was open, nearby residents complained about the queue of visitors outside, some who would hide drugs and weapons on private property. According to the new solicitation for architectural services, the visitor’s center is one of the few things that would not be expanded. How do you explain that? Can you guarantee residents won’t experience the same disturbances as in the past, especially with the center expected to accommodate twice the number of visitors for which it was built?
What concerns people is clearly the question of whether a jail can be a good neighbor, whatever the surrounding neighborhood. With our goal of 30,000 square feet of retail space, I think we can guarantee that the building will fit better – both visually and operationally – than the original jail. The visit area was already substantially enlarged as part of the earlier renovations to the building. Our plans call for a redesign of the existing building entry lobby to accommodate greater numbers of waiting visitors inside, so that they will not have to wait outside.
I suggest a visit to the neighborhood surrounding the Manhattan Detention Center would illustrate for your readers just how well a jail can fit into a neighborhood that is a bustling and safe business, commercial and residential area.
Another main complaint was officers’ vehicles parking where they shouldn’t be, including on sidewalks. How could you guarantee that would no longer be an issue?
The design instructions to our architects include 18,000 square feet of sub-surface parking for 50 cars. We will ask the architect if the site can accommodate more. And the fact is that the problem – in the vast majority of complaints – was not illegal parking by Correction officers. Underground parking will help a lot. So will the Mayor’s recent actions to drastically reduce the number of government parking permits. And I think we can work with the precinct to ensure that parking regulations are enforced.
You have argued that community-located jails reduce recidivism. Has there been a study proving that, and what were its findings?
To be precise, I have argued that recidivism is reduced when inmates maintain strong connections to their families, including through visits, which would be enhanced by making the jails more accessible. And yes, national studies have proven it to be true. Furthermore, I think we need to remember that the people who will be held in the jail – awaiting trial or some resolution of their case – will be the fathers and sons and brothers of Brooklyn-people not yet proven guilty of their charges-people who under any circumstance should be able to take visits from and stay in touch with their families, friends and communities.
It is also true that inmates need to be connected to community-based programs that can help them after discharge with three essentials without which they will not succeed; employment, housing and addiction services. These Brooklyn-based service providers need to be close to their inmate clients. Incidentally, independent research on the effectiveness of our “discharge planning” programs showed that inmates who joined programs while in jail and stayed in the community programs for 90 days after discharge were significantly less likely to return to jail.
The one response to the city’s original inquiry, which sought a development team to double the jail’s capacity and “bookend” it with development sites, replaced the jail with a “Re-Entry and Rehabilitation Center” and creating onsite “First Step” housing by a group called Common Ground, which the city already contracts in its effort to solve homelessness. Advocates argue that the “Atlantic Gateway” approach, as it was dubbed, could reduce recidivism and is more appropriate for a residential and commercial community. Some stakeholders have also argued that if the city does re-use this site, they should at least take this opportunity to build a world-class, groundbreaking facility. What is your response to those arguments?
My short response is that it compromises public safety. It doesn’t even provide a safe terminus through which we can securely deliver inmates to and from Brooklyn courts, as the current jail does. It doesn’t help me to improve safety in our jails or eliminate decrepit or unsafe housing areas on Rikers Island. It doesn’t bring any Brooklyn inmates closer to families, attorneys or community supports or put them in safer areas. It doesn’t shorten travel times to Brooklyn courts, or save on transportation costs to the courts. No other jail or prison system has reentry programs that exceed New York City’s. No other system has tied together so many of the community pieces needed to help an inmate return to the community and succeed in a law-abiding life. But I wonder whether supporters of the proposal are “advocates” for a greater commitment to reentry or are they simply opponents to the proposed jail, and advocates for a proposal in which they may have a proprietary interest?
Why wasn’t “Atlantic Gateway” considered? And why wasn’t the proposal made public by the department?
It was considered. And it was promptly eliminated because it did not meet the basic criteria, which called for ideas for multiple uses of the parcel COMBINED with about 1,500 jail beds. As one of its authors acknowledged at the Stakeholders meeting last week, it was “non-conforming” to the RFEI. It was rejected for that reason. Note too that it was the only proposal received. The market was not enthusiastic to develop the site as envisioned in the RFEI.
We should be very clear about that RFEI process, which I initiated, following more than a year of conversations with community leaders, including many now part of the Stakeholders group. In response to community concerns about making the jail fit with the community, and as part of a two-year effort to consider those concerns, we went looking for ideas on how to combine a jail with other uses. We were looking for jail PLUS. All that this proposal had was the PLUS.
The Department of Correction didn’t make it public because the Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) process was conducted for us by the city Economic Development Corporation (EDC). EDC’s policy is to not release unsuccessful responses to its RFEIs. It was ultimately released by its authors.
Furthermore, the advocates for Atlantic Gateway are missing something critical in our plan. We are not expanding our city jail system or adding cells. This plan is all about SHRINKING the size of the city’s jail system. In fact, we will reduce our total capacity by 3,000 simply by building fewer cells off Rikers Island than we will demolish on Rikers Island.
Another argument against the existing facility is that it is old and outdated, having been built in the 1950s with only 40 square feet allocated per individual cell, whereas today’s standards are higher. Opponents of reusing the jail argue conditions for inmates would improve with a new one. What is your response to this argument?
It is certainly in far better condition than the Rikers Island facilities that it will replace when reopened and expanded. The Department of Correction is authorized to house inmates in the current configuration of the original building by both of the independent oversight agencies that supervise us – the NYS Commission of Correction and the NYC Board of Correction. The cells in the existing Brooklyn jail might not be as big or nice as they might be if built today, but they will be better than many that we use today on Rikers Island. The addition will conform to all current applicable standards.
Would any inmates from other county jails or the state prison system be housed at the Brooklyn jail? What about maximum-security inmates in the individual cells?
The Brooklyn jail will primarily house detainees for trial in Brooklyn. However, it is possible that someone serving time in state prison or who has previously served time in state prison would be required to appear in Brooklyn courts, and thus might be held in the Brooklyn jail. It is also possible that on occasion an inmate with a securing order from another jurisdiction might be held there for purposes of safety or security, just as we might house someone from Brooklyn elsewhere. However, it is unlikely to occur with any frequency. The Brooklyn jail is being opened and expanded to hold inmates close to the courts. And because one-third of our annual admissions are from Brooklyn, it is very likely that we will always have more Brooklyn inmates than we can accommodate in the Brooklyn jail, leaving no room for others. The original building was built with maximum-security cells and that is one very important reason why the City cannot give it up.
Does the community still have an opportunity to influence the Department of Correction’s plans for the Brooklyn House of Detention? If yes, what aspects could they influence?
We clearly continue to be committed to our plan. But as I told the Stakeholders organization in March, we have already accepted some of their recommendations for design. And, as soon as an architect is selected and retained, we will convene the first of continuing meetings with local organizations and officials to continue to get their input.