The Queens Advisory Committee (QAC) made revisions on about 25 guidelines the City Council will use to make a final decision on new jails in Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx that would allow the city to close Rikers Island.
Members of the QAC were upset they received the draft document just a day prior to the meeting. Dominic Pistone of the Kew Gardens Civic Association argued that the committee hardly had any time to look over the document and make their own changes prior to the hastily called meeting.
Community Board 9 member Sylvia Hack was bothered by the choice of wording used in the document, which was drafted by city officials.
“For us, the issue is that this jail does not belong in this community,” said Hack. “It is not an asset to our community.”
Fellow board member Andrea Crawford wanted the document to reflect the community’s concerns for criminal justice reform as a priority, which they discussed during a meeting in January.
“Why in the world are we even talking about a jail without having first gotten the criminal justice reform in place and seeing how it works?” she asked.
The city hopes to start the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process on March 25, which many felt was too soon.
“We are not allowed to hire a design builder until ULURP is done,” said Julia Kerson, senior advisor at the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Operations.
Kerson added that even if the ULURP is approved, it doesn’t necessarily mean a jail will be built in Kew Gardens.
“I’ve just never heard of certification from a concept,” Hack countered.
The committee was also opposed to a proposal to include a specialized medical annex (SMA) in the Kew Gardens location.
While there will be clinics in each borough-based jail, the Queens site would have a 100-bed, 125,000-square-foot medical facility to treat patients from all four borough-based jails.
“You’ll be putting them in ambulances and bringing them back and forth to the Queens site,” said Crawford. “It just seems to defeat the purpose of the whole borough-based jail.”
The committee was also opposed to the size of the jail, which could be as tall as 29 stories. They insisted low-rise buildings would be safer for both inmates and staff in the event of an emergency.
Pistone said Kerson was open to the idea of a smaller building in previous meetings.
“Nothing came of it,” Pistone said. “They’ve been evasive, and frankly there’s no trust or faith.”
Committee members also worried about traffic congestion on Queens Boulevard, the Jackie Robinson and Grand Central parkways, and the Van Wyck Expressway.
“This was discussed 22 times,” Crawford said. “We have so many feeds coming into this one section that you are not even considering.”
Residents also thought the money necessary build the jail could be put to better use.
“This is going to cost a tremendous amount of money,” said Laraine Anne Fletcher. “Why not use the billions of dollars to improve the public education system and take care of the homeless problem?”
But a few people were open to the idea of a new jail under certain circumstances.
A new facility that provide better services for the incarcerated was supported by QAC member Kandra Clark. Clark is associate vice president of Exodus Transitional Community, a nonprofit that provides services to formerly incarcerated men and women to help them reintegrate into their communities.
“I’m formerly incarcerated, and for me this is very personal,” Clark said. “Outside of the location and everything, it’s about breaking the cycle of root causes that led to incarceration in the first place.
“People don’t commit crime for no reason, they commit crime because of mental health issues and substance abuse issues,” Clark said. “Advocates have been working for 20 years to close Rikers.”