March 13, 2019 By Jon Cronin
The Queens and Bronx Borough Presidents penned a joint letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio last week blasting him for failing to solicit community input as he moves forward with his plan to develop borough-based jails—including a large facility in Kew Gardens.
The two borough presidents stated that they are upset that the mayor has not reached out to the communities where the borough-based jails are expected to be developed. The mayor’s plan is to develop these jails so the city can shut down Rikers Island.
“As you know, we have been—and continue to be—strong proponents of closing Rikers Island, and share with you the goal of reforming and modernizing our city’s jail system,” Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz wrote.
“The irony, however, of unveiling a citywide plan for ‘modern community-based jails’ in the absence of community input is not lost on the boroughs,” the letter reads.
The plan involves building a 1.9 million square foot center, which could be as high as 30 stories, in the Queens Borough Hall parking lot next to the Queens County Criminal Court. The facility would also have an infirmary that would serve all the inmates in the jail system.
The plan also calls for the development of jails in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.
A large number of Kew Gardens residents are adamantly opposed to the plan. Civic leaders knew nothing of the plan until de Blasio announced it at a press conference on Aug. 15.
“The backlash to the current plan is what happens when affected communities are not treated as partners in reform,” the letter says. “Relocating the jail system currently housed on Rikers Island necessitates careful planning and community engagement every step of the way.”
The sites where the new jails are to go up have to be rezoned and City Planning is about to start process. The borough presidents are calling on the mayor to slow down.
“We urge your administration to restart the process in order to best implement this vitally important proposal,” the letter reads.
Katz and Diaz added that since the plan to close Rikers Island has a 2027 deadline, it is feasible to restart it now.
Katz did not say whether or not she supports a jail going up at the Kew Gardens site and just focused on the lack of community feedback. Her rivals in the Queens District Attorney’s race have been more forthcoming. For instance, Rory Lancman has expressly said that Rikers should be closed and a facility should go up in Kew Gardens.
The mayor’s office refutes the claims made by the borough presidents, arguing that it has been working with the respective communities.
“We’re working with local residents every day…,” said Raul A. Contreras, a spokesman for the mayor’s office. “We continue to respond to the concerns of local residents, but we won’t delay our mission to close Rikers and improve conditions for those detained and for their families supporting their rehabilitation.”
In order to close Rikers, the city plans on reducing the city inmate population from about 8,000 to around 5,000. It would then house the inmates in borough-based facilities.