Proposed jail closures present headache for city leaders

As the City Council considers the de Blasio administration’s plan to open a new jail in the Bronx, questions about how and when to close the borough’s existing jail facility are presenting challenges for one of the Council’s most influential members.

Though much of the debate about jail closures has centered around the Rikers Island complex, Bronx politicians and prison reform activists have yet to come to a consensus on how to proceed with closing the Vernon C. Bain Center, which has been moored on a barge off of the East River in Hunts Point since the 1990s.

Also known as “the Boat,” the Bain Center is an 870-bed floating jail which was originally designed as a temporary overflow facility for Rikers Island and is one of the only fully air-conditioned jail facilities in the city.

Local prison reform activists argue that because the facility houses heat-sensitive inmates from around the city, a hasty closure of this facility could mean these inmates would have to suffer in dangerously hot cells during summer months.

“They would be taking the most vulnerable people being held within the (Department of Corrections) facilities who desperately need air conditioning and re-exposing them to inhumane conditions,” said Ramona Ferreyra, a prison reform advocate from Mott Haven who has worked closely on the mayor’s borough-based jails initiative.

Some city leaders remain unconvinced, however, and have demanded the immediate closure of the Bain Center. City Councilman Rafael Salamanca, chair of the Committee on Land Use, has vowed that construction on a new jail would not begin until existing facilities were closed. 

“Until the city acts on its long overdue promise to close the barge, the South Bronx cannot and will not accept a new jail,” Salamanca said at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Sitings and Maritime Use in September.

Some reform groups closely associated with the borough-based jail project agree with Salamanca, calling to immediately close the Bain Center even without a new facility.

“Due to the sweeping pre-trial reforms won this year, the jail population should drop enough after January 2020 to enable the closure of the Boat and at least one or two more jails on Rikers Island while also ensuring that people with the most acute medical needs for air conditioning are provided that,” prison reform advocacy group JustLeadershipUSA said in a statement.

The mayor’s initiative calls for closing Rikers within a decade and opening smaller, more humane facilities in all of the boroughs except Staten Island. The city has proposed building a new Bronx facility on Concord Ave and E. 141st St. in Mott Haven but that proposal has fueled public opposition because of its distance from the Bronx County Courthouse on E. 161st Street. In addition, the Diego Beekman Mutual Housing Association has had plans in place to build affordable housing and commercial space at the city-owned site, arguing that those are the uses would best serve the community.

As part of the broader reform initiative, new jail locations are supposed to have been chosen specifically to locate them closer to their respective borough’s courthouse. At nearly 1.5 miles away from the Bronx County Courthouse, the Mott Haven facility would be the farthest away of any of the four new jails.

The City Council’s vote on the jail plan will follow a 9-3 vote favoring the project by the City Planning Commission, although the Bronx’s lone representative on the 12-member commission, Orlando Marin, voted against it. Previously, Community Board 1 and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. voted down the plan on the grounds it would be too distant from the courthouse, could negatively impact the surrounding neighborhood, and because the plan had met widespread disapproval from residents.

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