Feb. 15, 2018 By Tara Law
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced plans yesterday to move 5,000 Rikers Island inmates to four community jail facilities, including the former Queens Detention Center in Kew Gardens.
The center, located at 126-01 82nd Ave. was closed in 2002 in response to budget cuts and a shrinking inmate population. Rikers detainees will also be moved to existing centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn and to a new jail opening in the Bronx.
The announcement was timed with yesterday’s release of a critical report by New York State’s Commission of Correction, which said that violence at the Rikers rose during the last year. The news also comes days after inmates brutally attacked a Rikers corrections officer.
De Blasio said that the move would bring the city “one step closer to closing Rikers Island.” The mayor released a 10-year proposal last year to close the troubled jail, which has received national attention for its brutal conditions. His plan requires the reduction of the city’s prison population–which stands at 8,700–to 5,000, so that community-based facilities can accommodate all the inmates.
Councilmember Karen Koslowitz, who has voiced concerns about the project in the past, spoke out in favor of reopening the center.
“The reopening of the Queens Detention Center not only makes sense, but is the right thing to do,” Koslowitz said. “This proposal restores the Center back to its original purpose and ensures that Queens’ borough-based jail facility is located in our Civic Center, close to our courts.”
Koslowitz noted that the smaller jail facility would bring several benefits–including improved safety for Department of Corrections personnel, an environment more suited to inmate rehabilitation and savings on transportation costs.
The Queens House of Detention was built in 1961 and once housed as many as 500 inmates awaiting trial in borough courts.
Koslowitz previously said that she would only support the reopening of the jail only if the city stops using the Comfort Inn at 123-28 82nd Ave. as a homeless shelter.
She said that she has received written assurance from Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks that the homeless would be removed from the hotel by Feb. 2019.
The Kew Gardens center and the other sites will go through the public review process known as Uniform Land Review Procedure (ULURP). The procedure will require hearings and recommendations by the community board, borough president, City Council and the City Planning Commission.
Koslowitz’s support of the jail is contingent upon the city’s willingness to engage the community on the project and the closing of the homeless shelter at the Comfort Inn, said Howard Pollack, her special adviser.
The Mayor and Johnson made their announcement the same day as the Commission of Correction released a report finding that the level of violent incidents reported at Rikers rose from 2016 to 2017 despite increased scrutiny of the jail.
Serious incidents at Rikers from Jan. 1, 2017 to Nov. 25, 2017 shot up in numerous areas when compared to the same period in 2016.
The rate of inmate group/gang assault went up from 55 to 143— an increase of 160 percent. Hospital admissions of inmates at Rikers soared by 2,300 percent, increasing from 5 to 123. The rate of inmates sexually assaulting other inmates went up from 29 to 48, an increase of 66 percent.
“Comprehensive physical plant evaluations of the Rikers Island facilities have exposed conditions that are unsecure [sic], unsanitary and dangerous, for staff and inmates alike,” the report read. “Rikers Island is, and has been, violating essential constitutional protections and State laws.”
Rikers made headlines Saturday after corrections officer Jean Roston Souffrant, 39, was seriously injured in an attack by inmates.
The inmates were reportedly members of the gang the Bloods, and were housed at a unit for unruly inmates under 21. Four inmates were charged with multiple counts of gang assault, obstruction of government administration and harassment.
The de Blasio administration also announced yesterday that the Department of Corrections will receive $4.5 million “to fund a rapid increase of safety and security measures designed to immediately address violence against New York City Department of Correction officers.”
The security enhancements will include adding Emergency Service Unit (ESU) patrol groups; giving more corrections staff tasers, and increased coordination with the NYPD for information sharing, including assigned NYPD gang intelligence staff to corrections facilities.