Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close the Rikers Island Prison Complex could mean another jail for the South Bronx after residents here fought for years to close others down.
The plan is to replace the jails on the 400-acre island with smaller jails in each borough. Rikers currently holds 10,000 inmates, but in order for the new plan to work, the system would need to be reduced to 5,000. That could potentially send 1,000 prison beds or more to the Bronx.
“It wouldn’t be something that we’re looking forward to,” said Maria Torres, president and chief operating officer at The Point. “We would always rather see changes in the correction system than just housing more people.”
Hunts Point already houses a 100-cell floating barge in the East River — the same barge that in 2010, the Bloomberg administration said would eventually be moved elsewhere. It was also home to Bridges Juvenile Detention Center, also known as Spofford, for 53 years before hard work by residents and activists helped get it shuttered in 2011. And 10 years ago, residents and leaders also successfully fought off plans for a 2000-bed jail in Hunts Point.
Just last year, community leaders and residents found themselves — once again – fighting a proposal by the mayor’s office to bring two new jails to Hunts Point as part of the solution for Rikers. The goal then was to reduce the population on the island or close the facility down.
Ryan Monell, legislative and communications director at Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr’s office, said that Salamanca has visited Rikers and understands the issues with the facility and the stigma that it creates for people who have spent time there. The councilman is in favor of closing down Rikers, Monell said.
“The fact that the South Bronx has historically had an oversaturation of corrections facilities needs to be taken into great consideration,” Monell said. “Yes, there needs to be a solution to Rikers, but there needs to be a process that is community driven and comes from the bottom up, not from the top down.”
For residents, it’s much more difficult to accept the fact that there could be another jail in their neighborhood, with some of them concerned about escapees and thoughts of what another jail would do to the borough’s already damaged reputation.
“I think there could be a better solution than just a jail,” said Sura Khan, 53, a Parkchester resident who works in Hunts Point.
The mayor has provided few specifics about his plan, but it is expected to include recommendations made by a prison commission created by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents Mott Haven, Highbridge, Concourse, Longwood, and Port Morris. According to the commission’s report, the size of the new jails would depend on the prison population from each borough.
Amanda Septimo, 26, the former district director for Congressman Jose E. Serrano, was about 15 years old when she protested the creation of a new jail in Hunts Point 10 years ago, rallying with fellow activists and staying out late on school nights to attend public hearings. Her concern now is that the mayor’s new plan will leave the Bronx with a disproportionate share of jail beds.
“Already, this plan is not really being talked about,” Septimo said. “I think for it to work, the administration needs to take a good hard look at itself and the communities that it’s going to be doing work in and the population that it’s going to be doing work with, and decide how to mound those all together in a way that works.”
The report suggests that the jails in each borough will be built near courthouses, an idea that is expected to reduce the travel time to court appearances and make it easier to visit friends and family at the facilities. And the mayor said in March that closing Rikers could take more than a decade if conditions in the court system did not improve, or if crime on the streets increased.
Community Board 2 members said that the community has a long history of dealing with the Department of Corrections and Spofford and that Hunts Point has already taken its fair share of the prison burden.
“We fought so hard to get rid of Spofford,” said Torres. “And we were very happy when it happened, and we’re excited to see the possibilities of what that space can become. We’re looking forward to a future where kids aren’t seeing correction trucks driving back and forth down their block, but seeing much more positive images and putting out hope for their own futures.”