By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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 lifeas 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 Islandwith its decaying infrastructure and unwieldy sizeand 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.
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.
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.
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 2not 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 Avenuefar 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 . . . "