Prison activist: Moving inmates from Rikers to Brooklyn would be win for residents

Prison activist: Moving inmates from Rikers to Brooklyn would be win for residents
Photo by Louise Wateridge

It is good for what jails you!

The proposed closure of scandal-plagued Rikers Island would be a boon for the borough, says one prisoner advocate, allowing Brooklynites awaiting trial to stay in safer local facilities that are much closer to their loved ones and the courts. Locals are already objecting to housing more inmates or new jails in their backyard, but they should stop being so selfish, he said.

“It’s almost obnoxious to hear people in Brooklyn push back on the idea of building a new, safer jail or rehabbing an old jail,” said Glenn Martin, an ex-con who was born and raised in Bedford-Stuvyvesant and is now president of Just Leadership USA, whose goal is to cut the country’s prison population in half by 2030.

A growing chorus of pols are demanding the city close the notoriously brutal jail complex, but that would require it to find somewhere else to house the approximately 7,200 inmates behind bars there — which means building new facilities, expanding existing ones, or dramatically reducing the number of inmates in the system.

Currently, there are only around 3,000 other jail beds around New York — 800 of which are at Boerum Hill’s Brooklyn House of Detention on Atlantic Avenue, the borough’s only city-run jail, which usually houses around 600 at any given time, according to Corrections Department statistics.

The city already floated the idea of making Brooklyn’s big house even bigger in 2010. It scrapped that proposal amidst massive community opposition, expanding Rikers instead, and neighbors say they would fight any attempts to put it back on the table.

“We would continue to be against any expansion at the site,” said Howard Kolins, president of civic group Boerum Hill Association, though he says the current facility is a good neighbor and he supports overhauling Rikers in general. “We think it becomes a burden on the community.”

But Martin — who spent a year in Rikers for armed robbery — says moving more Brooklyn yardbirds to their home borough would take them out of the toxic environment at Rikers and give them the chance to be closer to support services and court houses, which can help speed up trials.

“Community-based jails create opportunities for people to be closer to their families, social services, lawyers,” he said.

However, Martin says the city won’t necessarily need larger — or more — slammers if the city can shrink the number of people awaiting trials behind bars.

He believes it can be done by decriminalizing minor and non-violent offenses such as public urination and littering that often lead to jail time when people fail to show up to court dates, eliminating cash bail that many low-income residents can’t afford, and speeding up trials so inmates spend less time languishing — Martin claims that reducing the average wait from 150–200 days to 100 days would cut the city’s inmate population by 1,000 people.

Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has now formed a commission to study strategies to reduce Rikers’ population, which will look at the impact of these reforms, in addition to supervised release, raising the age of criminal responsibility, and using community justice centers instead of courts.

The year-long study will need to work out a way to prune Rikers’ residents down to at least 5,000 to make closure a reality, according to Councilman Brad Lander (D–Park Slope), who is sitting on the panel.

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