Brooklyn residents denounced the city’s plan to expand the Brooklyn Detention Complex as part of its plan to close Rikers Island, and demanded that officials go back to the drawing board to come up with an idea that doesn’t include constructing new jails and perpetuating incarceration during a packed meeting kicking off the public review process on Thursday night.
Opponents of the proposal to raze the current 815-bed jail at 275 Atlantic Avenue and build a new 1,110-bed jail roughly eight times the size criticized the city for not first consulting with local community leaders before unveiling the proposal in August. It’s part of the city’s plan to close the nine remaining jails on scandal-plagued Rikers Island and move inmates to four borough-based facilities closer to their homes. In order for that to happen, the jail population must be reduced to 5,000 people. Currently, there are approximately 8,200 people who are awaiting trial or have been convicted at the jail complex.
Officials touted the new plan, which would also include retail and commercial space, as smaller, safer, and fairer than Rikers, calling it a “good neighbor” in promotional materials. Proponents argue that the jails will bring incarcerated people closer to their families and courthouses, increasing their chances of successful re-entry after release.
But skeptics said the city should focus on addressing the issues that caused Rikers Island to spiral out of control in the first place, including correctional misconduct, bail, bad policing, and draconian laws instead of building a jail that’s more aesthetically pleasing.
“What is the guarantee that we will not end up with four new jails that are just miniature Rikers?” said Kei Williams, a founding member of Black Lives Matter. “Not only do these new jails fails to guarantee increased safety for incarcerated people but they will continue the legacy of harm to incarcerated people and inner city communities at large.”
But supporters of the proposal argued that it seemed like locals were hiding behind criminal justice reforms when in reality they just don’t want a taller building and more traffic.“From my perspective the most important thing right now is to close Rikers Island,” said a representative from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, noting a new report showing that use-of-force incidents have spiked in the past year, up to 5,175 use-of-force in 2018 from 4,673 incidents from 2017. “I’m afraid that the urgency trumps almost everything. I’m concerned some of the objections here are perhaps deflections kind of NIMBY arguments that are not really allowing the real urgency of closing this place.”
The new House of Detention would top out at 430 feet (roughly 40 stories), and would include community space on the groundfloor, and an underground parking garage. Inside, there would be smaller units in a bid to increase safety, educational programs, medical screenings, re-entry programs, and a “respectful” screening area for visitors in what is likely a response to the at least 50 women who have taken legal action against the Department of Corrections after they say they were sexually assaulted while visiting Rikers Island.
Speakers frequently prefaced their remarks with the assertion that they wanted to close Rikers, followed by criticism of the current plan. “According to this process, we must accept this density or keep Rikers open. This can not be the only solution,” said Justin Pollack, a Smith Street resident who lives across from the jail. “We as a city should not have such little political courage that we can not build smaller, safer, more humane jails that will also fit in our neighborhoods.”
State Sens. Velmanette Montgomery and Brian Kavanagh, along with Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon (whose districts are near the current complex) wrote a letter to the city asking it to scrap its current plan and engage the public before coming up with a proposal for the new jail.
The meeting was the first of several in which residents can weigh in on the plan as it proceeds through the city’s uniform land use review procedure (ULURP). (A town hall held in Chinatown earlier this month was not part of the official review process.) For those who did not make it to the meeting, the public comment period is open until October 15. After that, the city will draw up an environmental impact statement and present that to the public. If the project passes ULURP, the jail is scheduled to open in 2027.