Although the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has backed away from its controversial proposal to build a new, 40-story jail on top of a historic government office building at 80 Centre Street, it still aims to bring more prison capacity to Lower Manhattan. The revised iteration of this plan is to expand the Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC), located at 125 White Street.
This will be the subject of meeting this morning between Mr. de Blasio and local leaders in the American Legion Post located at 191 Canal Street, between Mott and Mulberry Streets. City Hall officials have said that preliminary plans for the expanding the MDC facility include demolishing the existing buildings (which are 15 stories tall) and replacing them with a 50-floor jail that would contain more than triple the space for prisoners within the current facility. This possibility has raised grave reservations among local activists, including many of those who helped derail the original plan for 80 Centre Street.
The grassroots organization Neighbors United Below Canal (NUBC) was part of the coalition of groups that successfully pushed for the Mayor’s original plan to be abandoned. Nancy Kong, one of NUBC’s founders, said of the new proposal, “we are troubled to learn that 125 White Street is the City’s choice for the new 50-story Manhattan jail, a site selection that, once again, remarkably excluded the community from the process.”
She continued, “our fundamental ask from the beginning was for the Mayor to adhere to the processes and laws designed for community input, especially for a project of this size, scale and cost. We are guided by legal experts that will ensure that the ULURP process is not altered and that the community’s right to participate is not usurped or diminished.”
The MDC is sometimes referred as “the Tombs,” a reference to a Dickensian facility that once occupied the same site, and was notorious for both corruption and squalid conditions. It housed prisoners who ran afoul of the law in Manhattan from the 1830s, until the early 1970s, when a U.S. District Court judge ordered it shut for numerous violations of federal law. The structure took its name from its original design, which resembled an Egyptian sarcophagus.
After the federal courts intervened, the City closed down the Tombs for almost a decade, shifting its prisoner population to Rikers Island. After a nine-year renovation, the facility reopened at the same location — at White and Centre Streets — with a dramatically smaller capacity (the old structure had held up to 2,000 prisoners, but the refurbished Tombs was designed for only 900), and a scaled-back mission: the new “Manhattan Detention Complex” was meant primarily as a holding facility for detainees scheduled for appearances in the several court buildings located nearby.
The de Blasio administration now appears poised to expand both the prisoner population held there, and the mission of the facility — transforming it into a penal complex for detainees serving long sentences.
Just as surely, however, the community that mobilized to defeat the Mayor’s original plan appears to be preparing for a second round in the same battle.