Community Board 2 narrowly votes not to approve mayor’s House of D expansion

Community Board 2 narrowly votes not to approve mayor’s House of D expansion
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Call it a jailhouse knock.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to raze Atlantic Avenue’s House of Detention and rebuild a larger incarceration complex in its stead stumbled when it failed to get the approval from Community Board 2 members by a hair-thin margin at a raucous meeting Wednesday night.

Members issued their purely advisory vote with 17 to 16 voting against their land use committee’s previous conditional recommendation to accept Hizzoner’s plan to raze the Boerum Hill lockup and replace it with a larger jail as part of the city’s borough-based jails plan.

One member scolded the city’s criminal justice record toward people of color and abuse by jail guards.

“If an institution is built 80 years ago or whatever and they can’t get it right then, they’re not going to get it right now,” Samantha Johnson said at the board’s May 8 meeting inside a packed auditorium at New York City College of Technology in America’s Downtown. “Melees and assaults and rape have happened in these institutions. We cannot trust that the culture is going to change when we train people,” the Fort Greener said. “Nobody is going to hold these people accountable, not even the mayor, because we all know, he’s running for president.”

The land use committee at their meeting last month voted in favor of de Blasio’s plan to close the beleaguered jail complex by 2027 and move its incarcerated people to four borough-based jails with several conditions, including lowering the jail’s target population from 1,437 to 875, cutting the building’s proposed size by almost half — both in accordance with recent and future criminal justice reforms — and adding a new jail to Staten Island, the only borough spared from the plan.

Several board members said they couldn’t vote for the scheme due to the city’s continually-changing plans for the post-Rikers jail’s size and population.

State legislators passed a sweeping package of reforms on April 1, which will end cash bail and pretrial detention for almost all misdemeanor and nonviolent felony defendants, among other reforms, and which will reduce the amount of people awaiting trial in jail because they can’t afford bail.

The legislation will not come into effect until Jan. 1, 2020, but a recent study by the criminal justice reform advocacy group the Center for Court Innovation found that more than two out five people detained pretrial in the five boroughs would have been released under the new laws.

On May 6, the mayor’s office promised to shrink the jails due to the drop in inmate population and criminal justice reforms, reported The City.

Citing that report, one board member said that it was difficult to decide on the city’s plan if it kept changing and due to the fact that bureaucrats were not forthcoming with precise figures.

“This shows that the plan actually keeps changing, which is really unfortunate, because we very much want to do the right thing and we’re constantly given different information and misinformation,” said Sandra Rothbard. “The biggest problem for us was that a lot of issues with the city’s plan were very vague. When we asked for specific numbers, they were not provided.”

Council Speaker Corey Johnson reportedly chimed in, saying that he was worried about the size of the proposed facility between Smith Street and Boerum Place, according to a leader of the board, who said he had a private conversation with the Manhattan pol.

“He [Johnson] too had concerns about the density of the facility proposed for 275 Atlantic Ave.,” said District Manager Robert Perris. “It was a private conversation with someone I’d known before he was in government services.”

A spokesman for Johnson said that communities around the four jail sites were concerned about their height and density, but stopped short of confirming whether the speaker himself shared these concerns with regard to the Boerum Hill jail, ahead of the council’s future vote on the proposal.

“Communities around the four proposed new jail sites have expressed concerns about the height and density of the buildings,” said Juan Soto in an emailed statement. “Now that the scaled back proposal is going through our public review process, we expect to hear substantive feedback from local community boards and other stakeholders, which the City Council will consider when it’s our turn to review the proposal.”

Reps for the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice handed out guidelines and principles for the proposed jail by the borough’s Neighborhood Advisory Committee — which included local community and business leaders — exclusively to board members at the beginning of the meeting, which one member criticized as being too short notice to take into serious consideration.

“The mayor’s office handed us this now today, which didn’t give us enough chance,” the member said.

She asked for the reps to explain and take questions on these guidelines but Lenny Singletary, the board’s chairman, told her that he could not fit that into the board’s procedure ahead of a vote.

Protesters — some of whom said they were from No New Jails NYC, the activist group opposed to any new jails — packed the room and shouted their opposition to the mayor’s plan, demanding the board reject the proposal.

Soon after land use committee Chair Carlton Gordon began explaining his group’s proposal and answering board members’ questions, activists drowned them out with chants, saying that the board wasn’t representative and that the city should invest in its community instead, as the meeting descended into disarray.

“This so-called community board does not represent the community,” protested one audience member.

“You all don’t have the money to fix NYCHA, but you’re using capital funding to build new jails,” said another.

When Singletary eventually called the vote, the audience yelled “shame” and “no new jails” at each member voting in favor of the plan’s approval, while applauding and cheering at those voting it down.

The community board’s vote marks an initial step in the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which the city must pass before it can break ground.

The mayor’s proposal will now move on to Borough President Eric Adams, who will host a public hearing on it at Borough Hall on June 6 at 6 p.m.

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kdugg[email protected]glocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.
Demanding justice: Fort Greene community board member Samantha Johnson voted against the borough jail plan, citing the city’s poor criminal justice record towards people of color.
Photo by Kevin Duggan