Cell Block

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

Horn contends that the Oak Point jail proposal was born two years ago when Smith approached the city to see if it "was interested in building a power plant and jail." But Smith disputes that, saying the city contacted him about the jail, also in 2004. Smith also has told state regulators that the city has "expressed its desire to acquire the entire site" if KeySpan ends its power-plant proposal. KeySpan tells the Voice it hasn't "formally discussed" the city's proposal for a jail.

In the jail-versus-power-plant contest, locals pick "none of the above," but right now, the jail seems the more imminent threat. Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who represents Oak Point, says the area near the proposed jail site is already home to two juvenile lockups, a prison barge, several waste-transfer stations, multiple homeless shelters, and heavy truck traffic. "We're just tired of more of the stuff nobody else wants in their neighborhood," she says. She acknowledges that a borough jail might make sense. She just wants it somewhere else.

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.

Other opponents of the jail strenuously avoid the NIMBY line. Some argue that the site could be used for something better. Sustainable South Bronx is working on a feasibility study for a "recycling industrial park." While most jail opponents aren't signing on to that particular idea, local activists insist that they were talking about what to do with the Oak Point site long before the jail proposal came up.

There are also some practical doubts that Oak Point can deliver what the D.O.C. says it will. Bronx Defenders represents low-income people in the borough's courts and therefore would seem to be benefit from a closer jail. But it opposes the plan. Oak Point isn't that easy to reach, says organizer Maggie Williams. And getting to the jail is only part of the difficulty in visiting inmates: Passing through security and waiting in line for a brief visit also make it hard. Until the city knows exactly what it's doing in Brooklyn, there's no reason to touch a new site in the Bronx, Williams adds, especially given the environmental concerns about Oak Point after the years of dumping. "No one should have to live on that land," she says. "It's not appropriate for residential living. And a jail is residential."

Most importantly, the opponents simply don't want new prison space, even if it is replacing existing jails. From 2001 to 2005, the city crime rate dropped 17.5 percent, but the average population in the city's jails fell only 6 percent, probably because cops now have time to arrest people for low-level crimes, and they serve their sentences in the city rather than upstate. "The building of a jail in Riverdale wouldn't make us feel any better," says Kelly Terry-Sepulveda, executive managing director of the Point, a community-development corporation. "The fact is there doesn't need to be another jail built, end of story. The community doesn't feel we need more jail beds. That's not where we want to send our children."

Opponents of the Oak Point jail hate the process as much as the proposal. Since the April hearing, the D.O.C. has briefed only the chairman of Community Board 2—not the whole board or any other group. The agency promises it will reach out, but opponents are trying to derail Oak Point before it gets to that stage. "We believe as soon as the process starts it's going to be very difficult to stop them," says Carlos Alicea of For a Better Bronx.

The Bronx had its own jail for many years: the House of Detention at 151st Street and River Avenue—far closer to the courthouses than Oak Point. The aging 469-bed facility was put into reserve status in 2000, but any possibility for its reopening vanished when the city conveyed it to the Related Companies as part of the Bronx Terminal Market redevelopment, which Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión championed.

While other elected officials in the area have come out against the Oak Point plan, Carrión has not. A spokesman tells the Voice in a statement: "The Borough President feels it is premature to comment on any proposed land use for Oak Point. The Borough President is committed to working with local elected officials and the community to ensure that every possibility is considered . . . "

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