Why the Chinatown Jail Proposal is a Terrible Idea [OP-ED]

Posted on: August 22nd, 2018 at 5:00 am by

Photo: Karlin Chan

The following editorial on the Mayor’s “community-based” jail for Chinatown was written by area activist Karlin Chan.

I knew we were screwed when my inquires regarding the proposed expansion of the Manhattan Detention Center (MDC) at 125 White Street announced by Mayor de Blasio went unanswered. It got me thinking. Was it really necessary to close Rikers Island when by the Mayor’s own plan and estimate would reduce the current population from roughly 8,300 to the goal of 5,000 in 10 years? Since the Riker’s Island Prison Complex was built to hold 15,000 prisoners, is there still an overcrowding problem? The call to close Rikers stems from violent attacks against corrections officers and among inmates themselves. Weren’t these problems caused by the current administration’s own “hands off” policies?

The mayor has provided many reasons to justify the need to close Rikers; chief among them being the cost of transport and timely need to produce inmates to court in Manhattan for proceedings, and the need to house them closer. But, aren’t the current resources of the Department of Corrections being misused?  The MDC at 125 White was built to house 800+ inmates. As it stands, most inmates have already been convicted and sentenced to terms of 1 year or under mainly for non-violent crimes (e.g. Steve Croman). Wouldn’t updating an older, underpopulated building or developing a new facility on Rikers make more sense and free up bed space for those with pending cases at the MDC?

I have lived in close proximity to the Manhattan criminal courts for decades, and not once witnessed a mass daily transfer of prisoners into or out of the Tombs. On average, there are usually 8-10 buses daily holding 15-20 inmates each.

Now let’s talk about community engagement on the “Chinatown” jail set for 80 Centre Street (White Street no longer part of plans). Simply put, there has been NONE.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer formed a “Rikers closing task force” back in February, yet no Chinatown residents were included at the table. This was contrary to what she told me at a CB3 full board meeting in March (video above).  I find it completely unacceptable to exclude residents, while opting instead to include the executive directors of two Chinatown-based nonprofits who don’t live in the affected area (Wellington Chen, Jackie Wong). In addition, the mayor’s office (through Councilwoman Chin) had allegedly arranged several private meetings to gain community support for the project, the last of which took place 2 weeks ago where officials gave a Power Point presentation that did not include the “community benefits” Chin “fought” for.  No affordable housing tower above the proposed prison at 80 Centre Street (similar to the proposal for Mott Haven Bronx).  Nor public parking garage.

And since we’re on the subject of parking, the proposed plan for a community-based prison, if passed and developed, would likely wipe out the scarce public parking around Chinatown, Little Italy, Tribeca, Battery Park, and SoHo. It would also exacerbate traffic congestion caused by vehicles navigating between the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Holland Tunnel, and the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges (infrastructure designed more than a century ago for horse-drawn carriages). Worth and Centre Streets are already congested, and are the only access roads wide enough to accommodate the dumpsters and assorted construction vehicles to the project site. Therefore, any demolition and subsequent construction could literally shut down these access roads to Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Lower East Side from the Brooklyn Bridge and Holland Tunnel.

Photo: New York City

We must also consider environmental impact, health, noise and quality-of-life concerns with a project of this scale. Columbus Park, located just across the street, is fully utilized all day, every day, by seniors and the nearby Transfiguration schools for lunch recess. Despite this, and the mounting community backlash from Chinatown residents, Councilwoman Chin remains firmly behind the mayor’s proposal to build this “jail of the future” at 80 Centre, defending her position by citing community benefits. I have not seen any realistic benefits proposed. I am reticent to bank on any deal proposed by this administration. Just look at de Blasio’s backtracking on the affordable housing deal signed and sealed for a NYCHA development (originally for 100% now 25%).

I am all for prison reform, but real prison reform. Simply moving inmates into a new facility in a different neighborhood will not address violence among detainees nor attacks on personnel without significant changes to current policy.

Then again, building condos for prisoners instead of homeless veterans on New York City streets may not sit well with some New Yorkers like myself who must draw the line when mayor de Blasio has gone #FullLibtard for a symbolic victory.

Now let’s talk cost. As local government has no money, taxpayers will eventually foot the billions needed for closing Rikers Island and the development of four Borough-based jails.  A $10 billion figure was recently reported in a tabloid, but it could run much higher.

Can NYC taxpayers really afford this plan?

There are a series of public hearings planned before this plan is approved, and I hope my neighbors would take the time to attend and share their input. Or at least sign the petition.

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