Feb. 4, 2019 By Christian Murray
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Councilmember Karen Koslowitz were the subject of heavy criticism Thursday night at meeting held at the Kew Gardens Community Center where attendees denounced the city’s plan to build a 1,510-bed jail next to the Queens County Criminal Court.
The meeting, which was hosted by the newly-formed Community Preservation Coalition, aimed to solicit feedback about the city’s plan to build four community-based jails—each with 1,510 beds—including one at 126-02 82nd Ave. in Kew Gardens.
The city plans on building the jails so it can close Rikers Island, a site that has been plagued with allegations of violence and human rights abuses.
The detention center proposed for Kew Gardens would be approximately 30 stories high, consisting of 1.9 million square feet. The site would also include an infirmary that would serve inmates across the city.
Several speakers were critical of the mayor for not seeking community input prior to announcing the plan at an Aug. 15 press conference; others queried the mayor’s logic in closing Rikers in favor of community jails; and several chided Koslowitz for not rejecting the plan.
Koslowitz, who represents the district where the proposed jail will be sited, is viewed as a key player as to whether the plan will move forward. The mayor’s proposal has to be approved via a public review process, which means it will go before the city council for a vote. Opponents of the plan want her to denounce it.
Koslowitz, who backed the plan when de Blasio announced it last year, was represented by Alex Anderson at the meeting who outlined her current position.
“I wouldn’t say she is for a jail in Kew Gardens but the reason she has not come out against it is because she is dealing with the political reality that it is likely to pass,” Anderson said. “If she comes out against it the mayor will shut her out and she will have no seat at the table to negotiate the worst-case scenario. She is looking out for the people of Kew Gardens…and you are being listened to.”
Many scoffed at Koslowitz’ strategy. However, Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, who has no direct power over city issues such as these, came to her defense at the meeting.
“This tactic, while you may not like it, is smart,” Hevesi said. “If she becomes the enemy… she will have zero say as to how this goes down.”
Many attendees disagreed with the tactic, and throughout the evening they urged residents to flood Koslowitz’ office with phone calls and e-mails to express their dislike of the project. A list of phone numbers was distributed of other elected officials residents should call.
Many of the participants vented about how the community was shut out of the decision-making process from the get-go.
Mara Einstein, a Kew Gardens resident and a professor at Queens College, said de Blasio’s announcement of the neighborhood jails was akin to how the public was notified about Amazon coming to Long Island City. She said in both cases residents were kept in the dark—yet their neighborhoods will be forever changed.
Sylvia Hack, co-chair of Community Board 9’s Land Use & Housing committee, said that the community only learned of the “mega jail” when de Blasio held the press conference. “He hadn’t told or contacted any community members beforehand.”
However, the concept of closing Rikers Island in favor of community-based jails is not new. A commission was put together in 2016 by former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to investigate the closing of Rikers and criminal justice reform.
The commission, chaired by former judge Jonathan Lippman, argued in favor of borough-based jails, noting that it makes sense for prisoners to be close to the courthouse; near their relatives and visitors; and more accessible to workers. Rikers, according to the commission, is located in an isolated part of New York City and is like a modern-day penal colony.
The commission recommended the building of five neighborhood jails, one for each borough, and closing the jail complex at Rikers Island.
The attendees at the meeting were not critical of criminal justice reform. Their focus was on how the large facility would change the fabric of the neighborhood.
“We want civil reform, we want criminal reform, we want bail reform. We want to the things that’ll make the criminal justice system work better,” said Andrea Crawford, who is a Community Board 9 member. “What we don’t want is for our neighborhoods to be crushed. That’s exactly what will happen and nobody is listening.”
The attendees argued that the Rikers Island jails complex should be fixed and a state-of-art prison built there. By doing so, Kew Gardens and other neighborhoods around the city would be spared.
James Quinn, who is with the Queens District Attorney’s office, described the “shut Rikers” concept as a “movement” that is not based on reality.
He echoed many of the same arguments that Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown, also a naysayer, has put forward. (click for Brown’s viewpoint)
Quinn said that replacing Rikers with community-based jails depends on the city reducing the inmate population from 8,200 to around 5,000. He said that even if that number were achieved questions have to be asked as to what the city would do if crime rises.
“Some of these things are going to put the public at risk,” Quinn said.
Quinn, like Brown, also questioned the cost of the proposal and whether city funds would be put to good use. He said, based on the Lippman Commission’s findings, that it would cost $11 billion to build the new jail facilities. He said the project would need to be financed—so the cost would like to be double.
He said that the city council should get behind a bill put forward by Councilmember Robert Holden that would look at the cost to rehabilitate Rikers Island. Few councilmembers, however, have announced support for Holden’s bill.
The Mayor’s Office has put together a Neighborhood Advisory Committee, a 20 or-so-person group, which was formed after his August announcement to provide community input on the jail.
Dominick Pistone, who is the president of the Kew Gardens Civic Association and a committee member, said the representatives of the mayor’s office are not engaging in a discussion about whether a new jail should be sited in Kew Gardens.
Instead, he said, it’s more about what ancillary services should go on the site, and what residents would like to see in a community facility.
He said it was disappointing. “They are not listening to us,” Pistone said. “They just want us to tell them what color the drapes should be.”