Rush to cell: City moving too fast in plan to expand House of D, close Rikers, locals say

The Brooklyn Detention Center will be demolished and a new jail built in its place as part of former Mayor de Blasio's plan to close Rikers Island.
The Brooklyn Detention Center will be demolished and a new jail built in its place as part of former Mayor de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island.
Photo by Zoe Freilich

Mayor DeBlasio must pump the brakes on his plan to replace Atlantic Avenue’s House of Detention with a jail eight times its size in his quest to close Rikers Island, according to some locals, who blasted the city for moving too fast with the massive redevelopment it announced last month, and hopes to start pushing through a necessary public-review process before the end of the year.

“The cake is already in the oven, and the city is here to only ask you what color you would like it frosted,” said Justin Pollock, who lives on Smith Street blocks from the House of D. “The plan needs to be withdrawn and the affected communities brought to the table in order to meaningfully engage in the planning of the borough-based jail system.”

Pollock joined members of a standing-room-only crowd who came out to Park Slope’s PS 133 on Thursday for a meeting about DeBlasio’s scheme, which calls for building a jail as high as 40 stories with the square footage of roughly 24 football fields to fit 1,150 detainees who’ve been convicted or are awaiting trial — 335 more than can occupy the current 11-story building’s 815 beds — and with about half a football field’s worth of space for community organizations or potential retailers interested in opening storefronts at the facility.

But before breaking ground, officials must first sign off on a rezoning of the Atlantic Avenue lot and three companion sites in Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, as part of a collective Uniform Land Use Review Procedure that will unfold in each borough the facilities would be located in, which local civic gurus said could kick off as early as the end of this year after the city fleshed out its plan in August.

Pollock said he contacted the offices of Boerum Hill Councilman Stephen Levin, a supporter of Hizzoner’s plan to expand the jail on the border of Downtown, and DeBlasio after the mayor last year announced his 10-year scheme to relocate roughly half of the 9,500 inmates locked up in the East River island’s violent cells to “safer” ones across the five boroughs, hoping to share thoughts on how to successfully do that from the perspective of a House of D neighbor.

But the mayor’s office denied his request for a sit-down, he claimed, saying the city would request locals’ opinions in early planning stages — and then dropped its plan to massively grow the jail and subsequently kick-off the required ulurp process to the surprise of residents.

“The plan was clearly rushed,” Pollock said. “And with the city’s announcement, the clock started ticking.”

And he wasn’t the only local who demanded the city take its borough-based-jail plan back to the drawing board — the leader of a neighborhood civic group argued that if four boroughs must get new facilities, then a fifth should be built out on bucolic Staten Island, so that families and attorneys of inmates from the Rock don’t have to schlep to Kings County to visit them.

“A jail must be built on Staten Island,” said Cobble Hill Association president Amy Breedlove.

But the small number of Staten Island detainees currently held on Rikers Island made it impractical to build a new facility to hold them in their home borough, according to a rep for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

“There are currently around 350 people in jail from Staten Island, roughly 4 percent of the jail population, and this number will be closer to 200 by the time that the [Rikers] population reaches 5,000,” said Patrick Gallahue.

Other attendees from prison-reform group No New Jails NYC argued the city can reduce the number of inmates on Rikers Island — and ultimately close its jails — without building new ones in the boroughs at all, by instead ending pre-trial detention, cash bail, and end restrictive probation and parole policies.

And another Smith Street resident said the city should first find ways to improve inmates’ mental-health treatment before rushing to build local jails, claiming that packing more detainees in an expanded House of Detention without doing so would simply relocate people with violent tendencies from Rikers Island to Boerum Hill.

“All of the problems that exist on Rikers would exist equally, if not more so, at the localized borough facilities such as the Brooklyn House of Detention,” said Maryanne Fishman.

City officials will now hold similar sessions in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens, before they kick off the borough-based-jail scheme’s ulurp process, and set a deadline of Oct. 15 for locals to share written comments on the plan with the Department of Corrections.

Written comments can be submitted to Howard Fiedler at 75-20 Astoria Blvd., Suite 160, East Elmhurst, NY 11370, or e-mailed to boroughpla[email protected].