Low blow: Pols, activists slam city for borough-based jail plan due to high number of inmates

Low blow: Pols, activists slam city for borough-based jail plan due to high number of inmates
Photo by Kevin Duggan

They need to try harder!

The city must reduce the number of incarcerated people it plans to move into borough-based jails as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island, attendants of an April 11 Community Board 2 meeting said.

Hizzoner’s plan to close down the beleaguered jail complex, reduce the incarcerated population from currently just under 8,000 people to 5,000, and relocate them to four borough-based jails should aim for a lower number of incarcerated people, given the recently-passed reforms to the justice system in Albany, according to one state legislator.

“I urge the city to set a more ambitious goal of reducing the average daily jail population to 3,500,” Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon (D–Boerum Hill) said at the meeting, which was held at Clinton Hill’s Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School.

State pols passed a sweeping legislative package 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.

Simon cited the study and news reports by The City that the department as well as the Correctional Health Services are looking into moving incarcerated people with mental health issues, drug-related problems, and complex medical needs off site in or near city hospitals.

If these plans reduce the amount of incarcerated people the department has to rehouse, they won’t need to tear down Atlantic Avenue’s House of Detention to build a new 395-foot-tall jail with 1,437 beds, according to another state representative.

“For those of you who think we don’t need any new jails, we sure don’t need the one in Brooklyn to double in size,” said state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D–Boerum Hill). “Whatever else your plan does and doesn’t include, it should not include a 40-story building, or even a 36 one.”

Councilman Steven Levin (D–Boerum Hill) said the proposed plans for the Kings County facility were out of proportion with the neighborhood and the mayor’s goals to make a significant dent in the number of jailed New Yorkers.

“It is obviously, as proposed, way too big, it’s so far out of context,” he said. “We should not build excess capacity. If we want to have a system that has fewer people incarcerated, then we should not be building a system that is bigger than that.”

Photo by Kevin Duggan

A representative for the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Initiatives told the audience that they were very supportive of the current legislative reforms and that they were looking to see if they could lower their projections.

“We are working very closely right now to understand what the impact will be of these changes on the population projections and we’ll be able to return back and share that,” said Dana Kaplan. “We are optimistic that in terms of how we will get to reducing the population from less than 8,000 today to 5,000 and we’re happy to do more and we’re very much on track.”

One resident scalded the city for planning to include an underground parking garage with 292 spaces for staff and department vehicles despite the many public transit options near the building, saying that planners could use that space for jail facilities instead and make the above-ground structure smaller.

“All the subways, many buses, they do not need 300 parking spaces,” said Michael Levine. “They are planning for yesterday’s needs for tomorrow.”

During the four-hour meeting, the community board heard emotional testimonial from dozens of activists and former incarcerated people of Rikers Island, which it will consider for its purely advisory vote as part of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure the city must pass before it can break ground on the larger site between Boerum Place and Smith Street.

A former incarcerated person turned activist supported the city’s proposal for borough-based jails, but told of his harrowing experience of incarceration in his teens.

“The Department of Correction has destroyed my life,” said Vidal Guzman, a community organizer for Just Leadership USA, an organization that works to reduce the incarcerated population across the country.

Guzman said that abusive correctional officers traumatized him and that he was lucky to survive his time behind bars, unlike Kalief Browder, a Bronx native who died from suicide in 2015 after spending three years on Rikers Island after being accused of taking a backpack.

Another speaker denounced the plan as not solving the issue of mass incarceration and said that bringing the jails closer to the communities alone will not guarantee a more just system as seen with the federal Sunset Park prison.

“We don’t need a kinder gentler version of mass incarceration, we need no mass incarceration,” said Justin Cohen. “They said they were going to be safer. You don’t need to look any further than Sunset Park where a bunch of our neighbors were just incarcerated and treated in worse conditions than you can imagine in close proximity to all of us. We have to imagine a system where we don’t need 6,000 cages for our neighbors and that’s the conversation that we should be having.”

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.
Photo by Kevin Duggan