City drops plan for Hunts Point jail

The city has abandoned plans to build a new jail in Hunts Point, four years after then Corrections Commissioner Martin Horn announced his intention to build a 2,000-bed facility on a 28-acre waterfront site in the Oak Point rail yard.

In addition, the 870-bed jail barge now moored near the Fulton Fish Market will be moved to Rikers Island in the near future, according to Horn’s successor, Dora B. Schriro. No timetable for its removal has yet been set, but the move will hinge on environmental permits and moving procedures, according to a Dept of Correction spokeswoman.

Public outcry against the new jail and continuing complaints against the barge have been vocal and persistent. Nevertheless, officials attributed the decision not to build to the weak economy and resulting fiscal problems for city government.

“This is certainly welcome news for the neighborhood, which has been a victim of the prison industrial complex,” said Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, executive director of community group the Point CDC, and a member of Community in Unity, the local coalition formed to oppose the jail.

When Horn announced in 2006 that the city would look to replace deteriorating facilities on Riker’s Island with a state-of-the-art jail on Oak Point Avenue, Hunts Point residents and advocates banded together to form Community in Unity, which has met regularly since then to plan rallies and other public actions to sway popular momentum, and to garner support from elected officials.

“It’s definitely a victory,” said Lisa Ortega of the advocacy organization Rights for Prisoners with Psychiatric Disabilities, and a founding member of Community in Unity. The organization will continue to meet to oppose the use of public funding for jails elsewhere in the city, Ortega added.

“We actually stopped a jail from being built in the poorest congressional district in the country,” she said. “We did it with no money.”

Over the years, Congressman Jose E. Serrano, City Councilwoman Maria Carmen del Arroyo and others have come out in support of residents, calling for the city to scrap its plans, on the grounds taxpayer money would be better spent on social programs and education. Advocates and officials have also argued that crime rates have fallen enough to justify closing old jails without opening new ones.

Now the city says, 50 run-down temporary structures used to house about 4,000 inmates on Riker’s are slated for the wrecking ball, to be replaced by a new, energy efficient facility with capacity for about 1,500 inmates.

In addition to abandoning the project in Hunts Point, the city announced it will reopen the Brooklyn House of Detention but would not pursue previous plans to double its capacity.

“To build the new jail in the Bronx and double capacity in Brooklyn would have cost $1.1 billion,” said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sharman Stein. “It’s a different economic climate now.”

Taxpayers would save $415 million from the city’s choice to renovate old jails rather than expand and build, according to the department’s calculations.

The city reached the decision gradually, Stein said, after Schriro took over from Horn as Commissioner late in 2009, and “after we started to do an assessment of our need for space, finances and capacity.” Steadily dropping incarceration rates also factored into the corrections department’s decison, she said.

“Putting all of these pieces together, we realized we needed to make a different plan,” she said.

Still, some advocates remained skeptical, saying the $660 million the city says it will need to renovate the old jails in Brooklyn and Queens, and to construct the new facility at Riker’s, are out of line.

“We won the battle, but we didn’t win the war,” said Lisa Ortega. “The commissioner thinks it’s an easier sell,” she said of city plans to rebuild on Riker’s, and added that “she’s avoiding confrontation with those who she knows will fight.”

A version of this story appeared in the August 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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