The New York Law School, located in Tribeca, hosted a panel discussion on January 18 that featured Jonathan Lippman, who served as Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals from 2009 through 2015, and later headed up the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.
That panel’s recommendations — about closing the centralized jail facility at Rikers Island and dispersing the City’s incarcerated population to new facilities located in four of the boroughs — inspired the push by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to erect a new, 50-story prison in Lower Manhattan, along with similar penal institutions in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
During the question and answer session, residents and community leaders from Brooklyn and Queens interrogated Judge Lippman about the current state of these plans. Sandy Balboza began by noting, “I live half a block from the Brooklyn jail. We’re not against a jail. But we’re against a jail that’s ten times larger than the one we have now.”
Judge Lippman replied, “I hear you, I agree with you. One of the commission’s criticisms of the City is that the [proposed new] jails are out of scale. They cannot be out of character,” with the surrounding communities in which they will be located, he observed, adding, “people who live around the jails today know best. You know best — you’re living there.”
“You’ve got to go to these ULURP hearings,” he continued, in a reference to the Uniform Land Use Review Process that is a legally required preliminary to major development decisions, such as the construction of a new prison. “Talk to the people making these ultimate decisions,” he urged. “We need you. The community has to be engaged.”
“The community has not been engaged,” Ms. Balboza. “The City has formed these Neighborhood Advisory Councils, but they don’t listen to us. They just present to us and tell us what they’re going to do. The process is being rushed.”
This was a reference to a component of the de Blasio administration’s plan that has become controversial in its own right. City Hall plans to conduct a single ULURP process for all four proposed jails, an unprecedented merging of disparate projects in widely separated locations. Critics charge that this will create a context in which opponents of the plan will be divided, disorganized and cut off from information, while its advocates will be the only relevant voice in the dialog. Further stoking skepticism about the process is that members of the Neighborhood Advisory Councils will be appointed by the Mayor’s office. (The Council for Manhattan has yet to meet, and no appointees to that panel have yet been identified.)
Judge Lippman responded that, “if you look at the square footage in jails proposed by City compared to other places around the country that have done it right, these are way, way, way greater. The scale has to be down. So speak to your Council member, keep at it, and go to the ULURP hearings and have your say.”
Ms. Balboza pushed back, saying, “my neighbors and I are very involved, but we’re not being listened to.”
Brooklyn resident Justin Pollack asked why the Commission headed by Judge Lippman, “recommended only one jail for the State’s most populous county?”
The judge replied, “our original thought or plan was that we should really make small jails and do like 20 of them around the city, 300 people each, little jails. But in a bow to the reality that people don’t want jails next door or in their back yards, we ultimately came to the conclusion it was not viable to recommend 15, 20, 30 jails around the City. We decided the best way to make sure everyone shares the burden was one in each county. But Brooklyn has a best argument for having more than one jail.”
He added, in a swipe at the Mayor’s plan, that, “it certainly doesn’t help when the administration says, for political purposes, they’re not going to build a jail in Staten Island.”
Mr. Pollack retorted that the proposals by the Commission headed by Judge Lippman have had an ironic and unintended effect: “this plan results in larger jails.”
Queens resident Sylvia Hack began by noting, “I serve as co-chair of Land Use for Community Board 9, which will be overseeing the ULURP process. We can honestly say there hasn’t been any kind of communication, either when the Commission was working, or when [architecture firm] Perkins Eastman was hired for $7.6 million. There has been no communication with the people who will have to live with the decisions that are being made.”
“The Mayor’s office continuously bends the truth,” she continued. “And we are not prepared to be ignored. We want the justice and humanity and consideration that our community deserves. We’ve only got our voices. These Neighborhood Advisory Committees are a joke, and this whole process is a travesty. We are not prepared to simply roll over and play dead.”
“We, as a Community Board agree wholeheartedly with your Commission about criminal justice and bail reform, but that’s the state legislature’s job, Ms. Hack continuyed. “Our job, as a Community Board, is not to see a small community overwhelmed by a 1,510 bed jail rising 30 stories, plus 145 trauma beds, to which every other borough will bring prisoners.”
“We look to you and people like you,” she said pointedly to Judge Lippman, “who sat on this Commission, without any community members, to speak up for us. Because we are at this moment opposed. We are not against to having our existing detention center renewed, as long as it is kept small.”
This was a reference to the disparity between the current Queens Detention Complex, which is ten stories tall and can houses 460 inmates, and the facility that the de Blasio administration wants to create there, which will be many times larger. (This facility was closed in 2002, but would be rebuilt and reopened under the City Hall plan.) A similar contrast can be found in plans for Manhattan, where the City Hall proposal would construct a complex housing thousands of inmates in a skyscraper prison located Downtown.
Ms. Hack concluded, “this jail is in the wrong place. Your Commission recommended new jails that would positively change the culture and context of a neighborhood. And this plan will do that, but negatively.”
Judge Lippman admitted, “the buildings are too large,” but insisted that, “community engagement is the key to making this happen in the way that it should. You need to go to those hearings and speak to your representatives.”