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BY SYDNEY PEREIRA
Downtowners blasted Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build a 40-story jail in Chinatown as a part of the plan to close Rikers Island at a packed town hall on Sept. 12.
City representatives gave a presentation on the borough-based jails plan — but it was largely drowned out by booing, shouts that the mayor is racist and chants of “No jail!” After repeated efforts by city officials and local politicians to quiet the crowd during the presentation, the town hall was eventually opened up to public comments from dozens of Downtowners blasting the plan.
Though many supported the idea of prison reform, and even closing Rikers, nearly everyone in the audience and who spoke opposed the plan for another Downtown jail.
“Closing Rikers Island, in my view, is a laudable goal,” said Nicholas Stabile, a board member of Chatham Green Cooperative, on Park Row. “But the process that the mayor employed to achieve this goal, it focuses only on half the equation: the people inside the jail. It ignores the other half of the equation: the people in the surrounding community. There was not a single slide up there about who’s in the community, how this affects the community, and what is going to happen,” Stabile said. “Like, honestly — what were you thinking?”
When the mayor announced plans to close Rikers and open a new jail in every borough except Staten Island, residents were initially told Downtown’s existing jail, the Manhattan Detention Center — aka “The Tombs” — at 125 White St., would be renovated for this purpose.
But last month, the city released scoping documents for a totally different site, at 80 Centre St., which currently houses the District Attorney’s Office, the city’s Marriage Bureau and other court-related services. Outrage ensued at an “emergency meeting” organized by Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou. Shortly thereafter, City Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Borough President Gale Brewer organized the Sept. 12 town hall.
Local politicians, while all supporting the larger goal of closing Rikers, slammed the process thus far.
“I do believe that we need a different system than Rikers,” Brewer told the audience. “You have to have a process to get to a good end point. I listen, but I am frustrated. I may disagree with you on whether or not there should be a jail,” Brewer said, “but I will never disagree that there should be a community process that has lots of time in order to have your input.”
The borough president said the city’s intention to hold one Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, for all four jails should be stopped through a zoning change in each borough to allow for four separate ULURPs.
Councilmember Chin contended that the proposal “is not a done deal.”
“Right now, it’s so important to really hear what the community concerns [and] community needs are,” Chin said. “And that’s what we’re doing now.”
The audience was then supposed to break out into workshop sessions after the public comments, but the comment period and protests ate up all the time the city had at the venue, PS 124 at 40 Division St. in Chinatown. Chin suggested perhaps smaller follow-up meetings would allow for further detailed dialogue and feedback.
Vidal Guzman, who said he spent seven years incarcerated at Rikers Island, including about one and a half years just waiting to go before a judge, spoke in support of closing Rikers — asking the audience not to “demonize” incarcerated people.
“I felt like they demonized people,” Guzman, a community organizer for Just Leadership USA, said after the town hall. “Everyone believes in saying ‘Well, we believe in prison reform.’ But one of the things we don’t want to say, is how do you make [it] that individuals actually detained or incarcerated are actually getting the help they actually need? And how do you make sure whatever the mayor actually builds, that the money is being put back into our community?
“We can’t keep incarcerating our way through problems,” Guzman added. “We understand that Rikers is beyond reform. There’s no way you can reform Rikers Island. There’s no way you can reform a place that is torture, a place that has basically belittled people, the place that took family members away from people.”
Closing Rikers is part of a broader strategy to reduce the city’s jail population to 5,000 by 2027. This year, the jail population has averaged around 8,200 — the lowest in three decades and 12 percent less than last year.
The proposed facilities would each have around 1,500 beds, for a total of 6,000 prison beds citywide.
Scoping documents say The Tombs’ facilities are outdated, falling short of modern detention facilities, in terms of inmates’ space, sunlight and social spaces and, additionally, the Tombs doesn’t meet the need for 1,500 beds Downtown, currently falling 500 short of that number.
“The city hired a master planner earlier this year to help us identify sites and consider their merits,” Patrick Gallahue, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said by e-mail. “After considering 125 White St., as well as 80 Centre St., it was determined that the latter was a better option for a number of reasons, including the site layout and opportunities it would afford.”
Each borough’s jail is expected to include space for educational programming, recreation, therapeutic services, publicly accessible community space and parking. Manhattan’s planned new prison could be as tall as 430 feet high, at the Centre St. location.
Some 20,000 square feet of community space would part of the city’s plans. The north tower of The Tombs would also be set aside as a community benefit, possibly with affordable housing, senior housing or community space.
But many said that community space isn’t enough, in addition to slamming the engagement process so far.
“This process does not give the community enough time to be meaningfully engaged,” said Raymond Tseng, head of the Hoy Sun Association. “Setting this location without community engagement — that is not what we want. We had no say, and there was no community engagement in this at all. No jails!”
Community Boards 1 and 3 held a joint meeting about the new prison plan on Sept. 6, and this month they are both discussing each board’s formal resolution on the jail plan.
Anthony Notaro, CB1’s chairman, said there are “two dimensions to the process.”
“First, how the Mayor’s Office has handled this has been poor,” Notaro said. “Communication has not been swift, and it’s been sporadic and they’re moving way too quickly.
“On the other level, CB1 and CB3 and Chinatown: We still need to coalesce to make sure we understand what are the needs [and] what are the impacts. And that needs to be discussed, rather than just simply saying ‘No.’ ”
Local businesses also oppose building a new, larger jail Downtown, saying that people already bypass the existing Manhattan Detention Center.
“The Manhattan Detention Center, no matter what they want to talk about, is a dead zone,” said Jill Sung, the president and CEO of Abacus Federal Savings Bank. “People basically want to avoid that area. … It’s very vacant. It’s very desolate.”
She charged that the plan is an “experiment.”
“It’s a leap of faith, and I can’t afford that leap of faith,” Sung said.
The city’s public scoping meeting for Manhattan’s proposed jail at 80 Centre St. will be held Thurs., Sept. 27, at 6 p.m. at 1 Centre St.
The public can also submit written comments at the meeting and until Oct. 15 to Howard Judd Fiedler, the administrative architect and director of the design unit at the city’s Department of Correction, at 75-10 Astoria Blvd., Suite 160, East Elmhurst, N.Y. 11370 or at email@example.com.