Cell Block

City suddenly whips out plans for a new Bronx jail. Not in our wasteland, say opponents.

In the bad old days when the Bronx was burning, some of the ashes apparently found their way to a slab of land between the Bruckner Expressway and the East River called Oak Point. Over the next two decades, other debris from construction and demolition projects was illegally dumped at the same site, but that wasn't Oak Point's only baggage. There were also multiple bankruptcies, back taxes, dueling lawsuits, a factory that never was, power plants that never came, a felonious businessman, and links to the Gotti family.

But on April 25 of this year, the city offered to give Oak Point a new lease on life—as the site of a $375 million, 2,000-bed jail. In testimony to the City Council Committee of Fire and Criminal Justice Services, a top Department of Corrections official said that an Oak Point jail, along with the proposed reopening of the Brooklyn House of Detention, would shift a significant chunk of population off of Rikers Island—with its decaying infrastructure and unwieldy size—and into the boroughs, where inmates' families and lawyers could visit them more easily.

It's a fairly momentous shift for corrections policy in the city, where jails handled more than 100,000 admissions last year. But the D.O.C. didn't exactly shout this big news from the rooftops.

Wrong side of the tracks: City eyes Oak Point for a new 2,000-bed pokey.
photo: Willie Davis/Veras
Wrong side of the tracks: City eyes Oak Point for a new 2,000-bed pokey.

Corrections commissioner Martin Horn tells the Voice he had been thinking about the project for at least two years. Norman Seabrook, the head of the corrections officers' union, says he heard about it 18 months ago. But local councilmembers were briefed about the plan only a few days before the hearing. And community activists, for the most part, didn't know about it at all.

A few activists happened to be at the hearing, and when it ended, they began spreading the word. Now a host of groups from Hunts Point is ramping up opposition. But on the other side of the fence are some of their traditional allies, like Legal Aid, the Women's Prison Association, and the Fortune Society. John Boston from Legal Aid told the council that "getting as many detainees as practical away from Rikers Island is an excellent idea," arguing that the huge size of Rikers, its physical deterioration, and its remote location make it a bad place for inmates and people who visit them. Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of the Osborne Association, a social-service agency for prisoners, puts it this way: "Rikers Island is a nightmare."

It's not just that it's a bad commute. Rikers Island, which holds 10 jails and about 15,000 inmates, is in a flood zone, so it's vulnerable to hurricanes, and near fuelfarms that can blow up. In 1957, a DC-6 taking off from LaGuardia crashed there. The island is 80 percent landfill, and as that fill settles it can break water mains. There's lone bridge connecting the island to Queens. What if a criminal group knocked the bridge out? The whole justice system would grind to a halt, corrections officials say.

"I don't think we'll ever totally abandon Rikers Island, but I think the city needs to spread its risk," says Horn. He wants to move thousands of prisoners out of their decaying, temporary modules on Rikers and into either newly refurbished facilities on the island or new jails in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Each borough jail would hold people awaiting trial there. Women and the Rikers nursery will probably be moved off the island, as well. Horn vows that citywide jail capacity will not increase, and actually will shrink, under the plan.

That promise is key to the support the city is getting from advocates for the imprisoned, who always fear an "if we build it, we fill it" mentality when it comes to jails. "If any site that is chosen," says Gaynes, "is replacing cells and not adding to them and if it is going to improve the ability of people to stay connected to their families and the community that they're from, I think it's OK."

But it's not clear exactly how big the Brooklyn jail would be or just where the women and babies would go. Horn says he doesn't know whether the Oak Point site will need 11 acres or 16. The corrections union wants an academy for its officers on the site. What's more, eminent domain mightbe needed to obtain the site; Horn says talks with the landowner are at an impasse.

If the city moves to take the land, it won't be the first time Oak Point ended up in a legal dispute. After the city stopped dumping at Oak Point, a company named Britestarr bought the land for a modular-home factory but used it as an illegal dumping ground instead and racked up heavy state fines. The Dinkins administration considered putting a jail there, but that was scotched when a Gotti associate was found to be connected to Britestarr. Britestarr president David Norkin pled guilty to federal fraud and racketeering charges in 1996, and the company went bankrupt in 2002. The court appointed Steve Smith, an energy executive, as the new president of the troubled firm. Amid continued legal battles with Norkin and others, Smith teamed up with KeySpan to propose a power plant for Oak Point. But their application for state approval has stalled, probably because a jail is the city's priority there.

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