BY LYNN EDMONDS
Northeast Queens politicians reacted fiercely to a report from DNAInfo that said College Point could be the site of a new city jail if Riker’s Island is shut down.
Though sources at City Hall say there are no plans to build a jail there, or at any of the other sites mentioned, local officials made sure to make their opposition known.
“It’s outrageous that the city would even think about burdening the College Point community yet again with another large scale development – let alone proposing that it be a jail that would house 2,000 criminals. I’m appalled that while we’re protecting the Mayor’s back in Albany, he’s going behind our back to hurt our community,” stated state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside).
“City Hall’s proposal to shift inmates to a neighborhood as densely populated as College Point is appalling,” said Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz (D-Kew Gardens Hills). “College Point Corporate Park has become a convenient dumping ground for large scale development and relocations, a burden borne by our residents. Moreover, this plan blatantly ignores public safety and quality of life issues. I stand with Senator Avella and the community in unequivocal opposition to this proposal.”
“Since my first day as Council Member I have fought tooth and nail for College Point. Any attempt by the City to target College Point for a proposed jail site will be met by fierce and complete opposition,” said Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside).”We have taken the steps to turn College Point around by working with the residents, small businesses, the corporate park and the cultural, civic and sports associations to bring a new renaissance to the neighborhood. The days of broken promises and dumping grounds are over for College Point.”
Serious questions about how to handle Rikers Island rose to the surface in 2014, when Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, slammed Riker’s Island in a report, alleging that guards had often abused youths to the point of injury. The report found that young prisoners were too often beaten and placed in solitary confinement for months at a time. The report also found that the testimony of young male inmates who reported abuse or even rape at the hands of a guard was not taken seriously.
In February 2016, as the city was still grappling with reforms, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan/Bronx) proposed shutting down the jail, which currently holds about 10,000 people. It mostly serves as a holding plan for those awaiting trial or as a place of incarceration for those convicted for misdemeanors or serving a sentence of less than a year.
Mayor Bill de Blasio dismissed the plan to shut down Rikers, saying that it would take too many resources and that there were no facilities to place inmates in as an alternate.
But the DNAInfo report claimed that city officials were looking into alternative jail sites, and thought about divvying up inmates between several facilities, including a new one in College Point near the Police Academy. The jail could house up to 2,000 inmates, the report said.
Other sites being looked at, according to DNAInfo report for potential jails, include Hunts Point in the Bronx, Howland Hook and Arthur Kill in Staten Island and sites in East Williamsburg and East New York in Brooklyn.
It is unclear as to whether moving the inmate population around to new facilities would change the alleged culture of abuse in the jail.
The total shut down and building of new jails could cost $7 billion and take 10 to 30 years, the report found.
However, several City Hall sources said the College Point rumor might have originated from leaked documents stemming from past discussions about reform at Rikers, including the city’s plans to follow through on a federal mandate to move minors from Rikers island, and do not reflect a plan, or even a desire, to build a jail in College Point.
Another possibility according to one source is that the proposed locations, including College Point, were put into the report DNAInfo found to “show how challenging finding a new site for a jail could be” due to neighborhood opposition and other logistical problems.
Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton) agreed that community opposition would likely kill any proposed plan to move jails to College Point or other communities.
“We know no matter you put it, in College Point, wherever you put it, we’re going to hear from local communities,” Richards said.
He said Rikers Island needed reform, but he didn’t think splitting prisoners up in jails throughout the city was the answer, partially because of how it would impact communities.
“I will say that there is no doubt that Riker’s Island needs reform. God knows what’s going on on that particular island.
We know the decrepit conditions there are problematic. I hear the calls to shut it down, but in my opinion it’s very complicated. Where do you put many of these prisoners? Do they go into local communities?”
The redistribution of inmates would also go in tandem with a plan to reduce the inmate population from 10,000 to 7,500, or by about 25 percent, the DNAInfo report said.
A reduction in the Riker’s island population is something that many activists and politicians say needs to happen. About 82 percent of inmates on Riker’s island are pre-trial detainees Glenn Martin of JustLeadershipUSA told City Limits in November 2015. And many of them are there because they can’t afford bail, not because a judge determined they were so dangerous they had to stay in jail as they awaited trial. Helping keep pre-trial detainees who don’t pose a danger to the population out of jail is also something that Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) has been working on as chair of the Courts and Legal Services Committee.
Reducing the prison population, in the long-term, was something Richards wanted to see as well, and another reason why he was hesitant to endorse a move that would, at the end of the day, likely create more prison infrastructure.
“One of the ways to ensure we don’t have to build more jails it to ensure criminal justice reform is taking place. People have jobs, all the systematic things that bring people to prison, mental health is a big component as well,” Richards said. “We shouldn’t be in a rush to build new jails.”
Richards another potential consequence of closing Rikers island that might begin to be a factor if the idea of closing the island continued to brew.
“You shut down a whole island like that, it is ripe for opportunity to do some development on it,” he said.
The City Department of Corrections deferred to the mayor’s office for comment.
Monica Klein, a spokeswoman for the mayor, released a statement Monday that said, ”Creating a culture of safety in our jails is our top priority – today, not a year from now. While the City continues to examine whether Rikers Island’s closure is feasible, our focus today remains on reform of the correctional system that will make our jails safer now, and into the future— whether at Rikers or elsewhere.”
by Domenick Rafter