Prison Uprising! Furor Over Change of Jail Site

The building at 80 Centre St. currently houses the Manhattan DA’s Office and the Marriage Bureau, plus court-related services. Mayor de Blasio plans a new borough-based jail at the site that could rise more than 400 feet tall. | Photo by Colin Mixson

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Chinatown activists were outraged after the city formally announced it would convert the Marriage Bureau into a new jail as a part of the plan to close Rikers Island and nearly halve the city’s prison population.

After months of believing the borough’s jail would be at the existing Manhattan Detention Complex — nicknamed “The Tombs” — at 125 White St., the city told local stakeholders at an insiders meeting it would be located at 80 Centre St. instead. The new location came as a shock to the Chinatown community, which felt left out of the discussion.

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou quickly held an “emergency meeting” last Wed., Aug. 15, after Mayor Bill de Blasio formally released the scoping documents for a new borough-based jail system.

“I’m not breaking away from the fact that we need to close Rikers Island,” Niou told our sister publication, The Villager.

But the last-minute changes and the complete lack of community engagement on deciding where the jail would be located “enraged” her, she said. She added that she is “criticizing the lack of transparency here.”

“Our community has not had a voice wherever in this process,” she said.

“They named one site for a whole year, and then 10 days before the draft scoping is done, they tell us that it’s a whole different site. That’s insane. When were we supposed to have any input?”

Those able to attend the hastily called, midday meeting felt blindsided by the city. Leaders of numerous Chinatown organizations blasted the city for the lack of public discussion about the location change.

“There was no public hearing for Chinatown to respond or discuss on this very important issue that will directly impact our community,” Eric Ng, the president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, said in a statement. “We are against any plan to rebuild or expand the Manhattan Detention Center and relocation without proper engagement.”

“This process is completely unfair, nontransparent, and insulting to our community,” Raymond Tseng, president of the Hoy Sun Association, said in a statement.

Karlin Chan, a longtime Chinatown activist on Community Board 3, vehemently opposes closing Rikers. He had some of the toughest words for Chin at Wednesday’s meeting.

“I think we should take off the damn gloves here,” he declared. “Councilmember Chin has sold out Chinatown. [She] has turned her back on Chinatown.”

But Justin Yu, Democratic district leader for the 65th Assembly District, Part D, disagreed.

“Our enemy is not Margaret Chin,” Yu said. “Our enemy, in this case, is the City Hall of New York — Mayor Bill de Blasio.”

Yu added that the community needs Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer on its side.

Local politicians support closing Rikers, which would require opening several smaller jails under the city’s borough-based plan.

In a statement on Friday, Chin said, “It’s crucial that the administration participate in a robust community engagement process, which must begin with full transparency about the proposal to move the Manhattan Detention Center from its current location to 80 Centre St.”

The councilmember urged the administration to participate in several town halls in her district to allow for community engagement on the new jail, as well as on how The Tombs would be used in the future.

“As a strong supporter of the effort to reduce the number of detainees in our city that would allow us to close Rikers Island,” Chin said, “I believe this administration must seize this opportunity to provide clarity, address concerns and engage residents, business owners and community leaders in a productive dialogue.”

The city’s announcement last week kicked off the lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) regarding the plan, which would see one jail in each borough except for Staten Island. De Blasio’s scheme to close Rikers is part of a larger 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 13 percent less than last year.

The proposed facilities would each have around 1,500 beds, for a total of 6,000 prison beds citywide.

The existing Lower Manhattan jail is inadequate to meet these needs since it only has 1,000 existing beds, according to scoping documents. Furthermore, the The Tombs’ facilities are outdated, falling short of modern detention facilities in terms of inmates’ space, sunlight and social spaces.

“We’re taking a big step forward in the process of closing Rikers Island and creating a modern, community-based jail system that is smaller, safer and fairer,” Mayor de Blasio said in a statement. “Now we can move full-steam ahead on the engagement and planning for our new facilities, so we can close Rikers as fast as possible.”

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 jail could be as tall as 430 feet high, situated where the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the city’s Marriage Bureau and other court-related services are currently located.

When the Daily News first reported the address change that was announced at the early-August private meeting for stakeholders, community leaders who had attended told the Daily News that the jail possibly could include affordable housing.

However, the documents released last week show that only the Bronx jail is expected to have some 234 residential units, some of which would be affordable.

Under the plan, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office would be relocated to The Tombs’ south tower. The future use of the north tower — which Chin has her eyes on for community use — has not yet been determined.

At this point, Chin and Niou are not saying which location they favor for Manhattan’s jail — White St. or Centre St. Right now, their priority is to keep the focus on ensuring future community input.

“Not everybody is going to be happy,” Niou said, “and not everybody is going to get what they want. Not everybody is going to walk away from it thinking that, ‘Oh, I love this in my neighborhood.’ But at the same time, I think that what can happen is that at least people can feel heard.”

The city has scheduled a public meeting on the proposal for Thurs., Sept. 27, at 6 p.m., at 1 Centre St. People can 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, NY 11370 or [email protected].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *