Nobody’s happy with the city’s plan for a new borough-based jail system.
It’s not that they are opposed to the closing of Rikers Island — everybody who spoke Thursday night at a public hearing at P.S. 133 in Park Slope agreed that the jail needs to close. But what has happened since that was decided and how quickly it has moved left most in the audience of more than 100 uneasy and some quite angry.
“My concern is that the public engagement has been lacking,” said New York State Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon. “The public should have been engaged months ago.” She asked the city to withdraw the current scoping, engage with the community, and draw up a new plan.
With the closing of Rikers, the city has proposed four new jails — one in each borough except for Staten Island — under a scheme that will reduce the number of detainees while providing easier access for families and lawyers.
In Brooklyn, the plan is to increase the size of the Brooklyn House of Detention at 275 Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill. The 11-story building will be demolished and replaced with a building that could reach 40 stories, towering over the surrounding neighborhood.
The ground floor will have retail and a community space. The current capacity of 800 detainees will double to 1,510, according to the city’s presentation. The goal is for the new jail to be completed by 2027. (Where the inmates will go during construction was not explained.)
The atmosphere in the room was tense; people held up signs, saying “We could build more jails … or we could just end cash bail,” referring to the controversial criminal justice practice. What they did not want to hear were politicians.
When Senator Velmanette Montgomery suggested eliminating the floor area ratio increase and building more, smaller jails in the borough, groups of anti-jail activists, who are against the building of new jails but in favor of closing Rikers, responded with jeers. Councilman Stephen Levin had trouble finishing his prepared statement and was almost booed out of the room.
Justin Pollack, a resident of State Street, criticized the city for the speed of the process. “The plan was clearly rushed,” he told members of the planning committee, including Perkins Eastman architect Eric Fang, Dana Kaplan from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and Brenda Cooke from the Department of Correction. “No alternative has been presented.”
Other concerns were voiced. Some said there was a lurking NIMBY-ism behind some of the criticisms of the new jail, while others questioned whether the borough-based system is actually an expansion or reduction of the current prison system in the city.
Toward the end of the hearing, members of the public began to criticize the city for addressing the wrong issues. Another resident of State Street, in stirring words, said the real problem is the culture of Rikers itself, with its inferior training and lack of awareness around issues of mental health.
Kei Williams, a Black Lives Matter organizer in New York and member of the No New Jails campaign — the former of which formed a strong presence at the meeting — put it more succinctly: “There is no way we can talk about building new jails without talking about safety.”
[Photos by Craig Hubert unless otherwise noted]
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