News / Politics

Hunts Point arms for battle over jail

By Johanna Gustavsson

Pressed by a rising outcry against the city’s plans to build a 2,000-bed jail in Hunts Point, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr. has joined opponents of the proposal, making the opposition among the area’s elected officials unanimous.

“I was elected to ensure progress and positive development of the Bronx, and a jail would not be a positive development,” Carrion told Martin F. Horn, the city’s Commissioner of Corrections and more than 200 residents who turned out to voice their opposition to the jail at a meeting convened by Community Board 2 at the New South Bronx PAL Center on Nov. 21.

The meeting was a re-run of an Oct. 23 forum at The Point, when a standing-room-only crowd of residents jammed the community center to tell Commissioner Horn that they opposed the proposal to build the jail in a corner of the Oak Point rail yard on the East River near the Tiffany Street pier.

“We don’t want a jail in Hunts Point or anywhere in the Bronx,” declared Lisa Ortega, of Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities, at the earlier meeting. “This is a ‘Not in anyone’s backyard’ issue.”

Speakers from the advocacy organizations that have formed a coalition called Community in Unity challenged the need for jails, arguing that money spent on education, drug rehabilitation and mental health services would reduce crime.

They charged that the new jail cells targeted black and Latino residents.

And they complained that decisions were being made over their heads and demanded a pledge that the clock not be started on the city’s decision-making process until residents were fully informed and their voices heard.

Commissioner Horn sought to reassure them, saying of the proposal “It is a vision. It is a goal. It is not a done deal,” and adding, after much prodding, that he would “meet anyone, anywhere, any time.”

The commissioner insisted, however, that “there’s no place else that offers what Oak Point offers.” The 28-acre site, he continued, “is probably the only viable site that offers sufficient acreage and is appropriately zoned” anywhere in the borough.

He told the meeting at The Point that the city must replace outmoded structures on Rikers Island, where 15,000 inmates await trial or transfer to prisons, or serve short sentences.

“Rikers stigmatizes people. Rikers demonizes people,” he declared. Its cells should be replaced with cells in the community, where visiting will be easier, he argued, adding that 70 percent of Rikers inmates released to the Bronx live within three miles of Oak Point.

Plans call for tearing down Rikers cells built 25 years ago that were supposed to be temporary, building a jail in the Bronx and reopening and enlarging the Brooklyn House of Detention.

There is now a solid wall of opposition from the area’s elected officials: in addition to the borough president, Congressman Jose Serrano, City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, and Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. have all come out against the jail plan, which John Antonelli, senior deputy commissioner for the Department of Corrections, unveiled in April at a City Council hearing, surprising community leaders.

Community in Unity, the coalition opposing the jail, includes the Hunts-Point-based Sustainable South Bronx, Greenworkers Cooperative and The Point Community Development Corporation and several boroughwide or citywide prisoner’s rights organizations. While they share the goal of keeping the jail from being built, they have a variety of reasons for opposing it.

Some of the opponents point to the jail proposal as another example of dumping on the South Bronx. They say the area is always in the city’s gun sights when it looks for a place to locate a burdensome facility that will serve the entire borough or city.

“They believe that because it is poor people who live in this community no one will say anything,” said Arroyo, whose council district includes the rail yard, in a recent interview. The area is being unfairly targeted, she charged, saying the neighborhood “already has two juvenile detention centers, one that was supposed to be closed down 12 years ago, and one prison barge. The last thing this neighborhood needs is another prison.”

In a letter to all of the Bronx’s elected officials, Rep. Serrano charged that the jail was “yet another example of my district being unjustly targeted” for “projects so unpalatable that no other community would willingly accommodate them.”

The commissioner said plans call for reducing the city’s jail capacity by 2,000 citywide, but Maggie Williams of the Bronx Defenders, a legal defense organization, challenged his numbers. The organization fears that the call to replace the Rikers jails is a smokescreen for New York City to follow the national trend of increasing prison capacity.

In addition, Kate Rubin, coordinator of the organization’s Reentry Net, calls the Oak Point location a poor choice. Noting that the industrial area is not close to a subway or bus stop, she said visitors would have difficulty getting there.

The issue has divided some advocacy organizations from their usual allies, however, pitting legal aid and prisoners’ organizations against one another. Among those supporting the city are the Fortune Society and the Legal Aid Society.

JoAnne Page, president and CEO of the Fortune Society, an organization staffed chiefly by former prisoners and devoted to improving prison conditions, spoke in favor of the proposal at the city council hearing. “Many prisoners’ legal defense suffers because their lawyers cannot come and see them enough when they are at Rikers,” she said. “If the prisoners are kept in the boroughs, it will make them more accessible to their defense lawyers.”

John Boston, project director of the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, contends that it’s wrong to assume a new jail will burden Hunts Point. He lives a 10- minute walk from the Brooklyn House of Detention, which is to be reopened and expanded if Rikers cells are demolished, and he says the jail has never had a negative impact on the surrounding community.

For the last two years, Sustainable South Bronx and Greenworkers Cooperative have been pressing their own proposal for the Oak Point site, one they believe would enhance the community and create new jobs. They want the former rail yard to become an industrial park devoted to recycling.

Omar Freilla, director of Greenworkers Cooperative, explained that waste and byproducts from one industry would be reused as raw material for another. Reducing waste, Freilla said, would also reduce the heavy truck traffic in Hunts Point, where 12,000 trucks flood local streets daily.

In addition, Freilla believes, the industrial park would create new jobs. A study conducted by the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation backs him. Initiated by then-Borough President Fernando Ferrer and completed in April 2000, it concluded that the idea of an industrial park was feasible, identified 15 companies as likely tenants, and said the development would create jobs while counteracting the negative effects of waste hauling and transfer stations concentrated in the vicinity.

As a way of stalling the jail plan, Rep. Serrano has called for Oak Point to be protected as a historic landmark commemorating the largest disaster in the city’s history before the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001–the wreck of the excursion boat General Slocum near Oak Point on June 15, 1904 when more than 1,000 German immigrants and their children lost their lives.

The congressman has also secured $300,000 in federal funds for local groups in Hunts Point, Port Morris and Mott Haven to investigate other ways to use Oak Point and other polluted industrial sites.

“The important thing is that the community needs to be able to decide what is best for it,” said Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, executive director of The Point. “Funds made available by the congressman should be used to evaluate the alternatives,” she argues. “Decisions about the future of Hunts Point should not be made over the head of the people living there.”

As he closed the November meeting, Roberto Garcia, chair of Community Board 2, said, “We love this community. We live in thiscCommunity. And we know what is best for this community.” Then he continued, addressing Commissioner Horn directly, “This community has spoken and it has spoken loud.”

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