Jail hearing postponed

Protest marchers hail court-ordered delay

By Joe Hirsch
NYCity News Service

Photo by Amy Ponce
Residents marched and rallied against the jail the city wants to build
in Hunts Point.

A court order won by the owner of the Oak Point rail yard has forced the city Department of Correction to postpone a hearing to review controversial plans for a new jail in Hunts Point.

The announcement brought hoots and hollers of elation from a group of about 100 local residents who had marched to the site of the proposed jail to protest the city’s plans.

The April 14 march was planned to dramatize opposition to the jail. Critics of the plan argue that there are better uses for the land—a 28-acre corner of a former rail yard–and for the $375 million the city wants to spend on the jail.

City officials contend the jail will improve conditions for inmates, make it easier to transport them to court, and be more convenient for visitors.

“I hope they don’t build a jail, so the kids don’t end up there,” said Diane Bagley, 49, who has lived in Hunts Point for 21 years, and participated in the march with her 5- and 6-year-old grandchildren.

There were many former inmates among the marchers, who argued that the city should focus on funding community improvement projects, as well as improve re-entry programs for ex-offenders.

“I done 18 years of my life incarcerated in New Jersey and Puerto Rico because I was a drug addict,” said Gringo Bayamon, a 42-year old activist who came from Trenton to march.

“It was hard for me when there were programs,” he continued. “Now there’s nothing.”

Hector Claudio, a raspy-voiced 47 year-old Bronx resident who hobbled along with the marchers with the help of an aluminum cane, said he had spent 17 ½ years in jail for various drug possession cases.

“We need housing for the families,” Claudio said in heavily accented English. “It’s not fair it’s all in jails.”

The owner of the property, Steven Smith, appeared at the site just as the protesters arrived in the fading late afternoon daylight, after the orderly one-hour march through the streets of Hunts Point. There were some tense moments as police who had shadowed the protesters along their route tried to stop the crowd from entering, until Smith told them he would allow the group on the site.

Smith bought the land in 2002, intending to build a power plant there, a plan that also aroused community opposition. He soon sought bankruptcy protection.

According to The New York Times, the city offered to help him get the permits for the plant and to forgive back taxes if he leased a corner of the site for a jail.

Now, however, Smith says the city’s announcement of its jail plan has scared off at least two potential buyers who were negotiating to buy the entire property.

That, he told Metro on Friday, took him back to Federal Bankruptcy Court, where he won a restraining order stopping the hearing. The April 16 hearing was to have laid out the scope of an environmental impact statement and sought public comment on it.

Many local residents say they want to see the city use taxpayer’s money to fund schools and parks rather than another prison, and contend that the city is trying to push the project through quickly to evade prolonged public scrutiny, a contention the Correction Department vehemently denies.

“This community had absolutely zero input,” said Kelli Terry-Sepulveda of The Point Community Development Corporation to the protesters, who had huddled against chilly waterfront winds, a few yards from the shoreline. “We know what is best for our community.”

As she and a long list of other members of the coalition opposing the jail spoke to the gathering, the lights of Riker’s Island gleamed from across the river.

Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. told reporters that building a jail would “send the wrong message to the community,” and Councilwoman Maria Del Carmen Arroyo, who appeared just as the crowd was thinning out, also joined the chorus of disaffection toward the proposed project.

“Congratulations on a very small victory,” she told the jubilant few jail opponents who remained at the waterfront as twilight fell. “The judge decided to postpone the decision. Regardless of which party wins in court, we need to let the owner know that the property should be developed responsibly.”

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