Packing perps! Pol open to idea of enlarging Boerum Hill jail to allow Rikers closure

Hard cell: Plan could put condos at jail
The Brooklyn Paper / Tom Callan

He’s betting on the House.

A Boerum Hill councilman said he is open to the idea of expanding the neighborhood’s 800-bed House of Detention as part of the city’s plan to close the jails on Rikers Island.

“I’m in favor of closing Rikers, there’s a capacity for jails in our Downtown area, and we’ve learned through the reopening that having a facility there isn’t terribly onerous to the surrounding community,” said Councilman Steve Levin (D–Boerum Hill).

The facility on Atlantic Avenue and Smith Street reopened in 2012, worrying locals who feared the inmates would cause a ruckus in their nabe. But there have hardly been any complaints since, according to Levin, who said it makes sense to start exploring the possibility of enlarging the jail following last week’s release of Mayor DeBlasio’s report detailing his 10-year plan for closing Rikers.

The mayor’s proposal does not pinpoint any specific sites for expansion or for new jails, and says that it will be up to politicians to find spots where doing so might be feasible.

“Ultimately, closing all the jails on Rikers Island will depend not only on reducing the size of the city jail population to 5,000, but also on the willingness of neighborhoods and their elected officials to identify appropriate new sites,” it reads.

DeBlasio’s plan calls for reducing the population at Rikers’s jails from around 9,500 to 5,000 over the next decade, which will allow it to be dispersed among newly opened or enlarged facilities across the city.

Expanding the House of Detention — which currently holds just 466 inmates, according to city data — would require a city-approved re-zoning, which would hinge on support from Levin, as Council usually defers to the local member.

The city explored growing the jail to house 1,500 people in 2009, but nixed the idea after locals fought back, deciding to expand Rikers instead. But now that the mayor hopes to close the scandal-plagued jail, it makes sense to move inmates closer to the courts Downtown, said Levin.

“The principle of having jail facilities next to our court is the right principle,” he said. “Downtown makes the most sense because it’s close to the courts, and one of the benefits to having jails decentralized is cutting down on transportation costs.

The pol acknowledged there may be community opposition, but said he has only received one complaint since the House of D’s 2012 reopening, which was about inmates peering into a neighborhood apartment from the facility’s rooftop recreation area.

The jail put up netting to block inmates’ views after that, and Levin said he has not heard of any problems since, a sign that expansion might not necessarily be felt throughout the neighborhood.

“It’s been five years, my office is down the street,” he said. “If people have complaints I probably would have heard them by now.”

DeBlasio has not yet approached Levin about making the jail bigger, but the councilman said he has had informal conversations with the administration about the possibility.

And the pol noted that he has not decided on whether or not to support expanding the House of D, but said concerned locals should consider how their worst fears about it have yet to come true.

“I’m not pre-approving anything,” he said. “It’s important to note that the experience over the last five years hasn’t been the worst case scenario.”

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at lgill@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill