By David Brand
The debate over what to do with Rikers Island has roiled Queens and one community in particular stands to experience the biggest impact from the city’s plan to close the massive jail complex.
Kew Gardens, home to the now-vacant Queens House of Detention, would absorb more than 1,500 Rikers inmates, according to the city’s proposal — a notion that has encountered split reactions from residents.
Thus, with community members divided and uncertain about the plan, the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association will host a debate featuring two prominent voices on either side of the issue at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills on Sept. 5.
Council Member Rory Lancman, whose District 24 starts a few hundred feet from the vacant jail, will argue for the closure of Rikers and the renovation of the Queens House of Detention, located at 126-02 82nd Avenue. Assistant District Attorney James Quinn will argue for the continued operation of Rikers Island jails.
The debate begins at 7:45 p.m. and admission is free.
“Get the facts. Hear from both sides,” the KGHCA says on its event flyer.
Lancman is the current chair of the Committee on the Justice System and is reportedly considering a run for Queens County District Attorney in 2019.
In an announcement earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the Queens House of Detention would re-open and expand as one of four “borough-based” jails designed to house the inmates moved off Rikers.
“We’re taking a big step forward in the process of closing Rikers Island and creating a modern community-based jail system that is smaller, safer and fairer,” de Blasio said. “Now we can move full steam ahead on the engagement and planning for our new facilities so we can close Rikers as fast as possible.”
The project description posted on the city’s website states that each of the proposed facilities — including the Queens House of Detention — will host approximately 1,510 inmates in addition to “support space for correctional programming” and therapeutic services, community space and parking.
The plan also calls for renovating the Kew Gardens jail, redeveloping an existing parking lot and adding about 676 new public parking spaces. The public parking structure would be located on the northwestern portion of the project site with an entrance from the Union Turnpike service road, according to the proposal.
The plan depends on the city’s ability to reduce the overall jail population to about 5,000 detainees.
When de Blasio became mayor on Jan. 1, 2014, jails on Rikers held 11,009 people. The total population decreased to about 9,400 detainees in 2017. In May, the Rikers population had dropped to 8,485.
In July, Lancman told the Eagle he supports the plan to close Rikers and to re-open the Queens House of Detention as part of a larger vision to reduce the prison population through early intervention and alternative to incarceration programs, especially for people with opioid abuse issues.
“There are a number of ways to reduce the prison population consistent with alternatives to detention and incarceration, so hopefully we treat opioid addiction as the health issue it is and really confine use of the criminal justice system to serious opioid trafficking,” Lancman said. “That illustrates the enormous power that prosecutors have to impact and shape the criminal justice system.”
Crime remains at historic lows across the city and criminal justice reform advocates continue to promote ways to divert low-level offenders, especially substance abusers, away from incarceration.
Quinn, however, considers the plan to close Rikers and the statistics used to justify the closure “dishonest” and a “myth.”
In March, Quinn addressed a meeting of the Juniper Park Civic Association in Middle Village and called the plan to close Rikers and defer inmates to the Queens House of Detention “laughable” and “disingenuous,” the Queens Chronicle reported.
“I would love to have our defendants at the Queens House when they’re on trial,” Quinn said. “That would be great. But the Queens House only houses 475 people. You would have to at least double its size in order to accommodate the 1,800 [people from Queens] in Rikers right now.”
The Queens House of Detention remained in operation until 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the Department of Corrections to cuts its operating budget by $65 million. The agency determined that closing the jail, which once housed more than 500 people awaiting trial, would account for about half of that money.
Since then, the site has served as a film and TV set for shows like “Orange is the New Black.”
Council Member Karen Koslowitz, who supports the plan to close Rikers and reopen the Queens House of Detention said the jail will serve as an economic driver for her council district.
“Closing Rikers Island and opening community based facilities is not only beneficial for New York City’s corrections officers and incarcerated population, but also beneficial for the Kew Gardens community,” Koslowitz said in a statement earlier this month. “The new facility in Kew Gardens will bring significant economic development, and provide hundreds of new parking spaces for the community.”