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Spg. Gardens jail expansion sparks protest

By Craig Giammona

Wearing signs deriding the facility's operator, Florida-based Geo Group Inc., about 65 residents of Rosedale, Springfield Gardens and surrounding neighborhoods braved the sub-freezing temperatures to urge the company to shutter the detention facility and leave Springfield Gardens.The route of the march, which kicked off at Springfield Park on 147th Avenue and snaked its way a few blocks to the jail, was meant to illustrate the proximity of the detention center to residential neighborhoods and schools.”I wish it was longer,” Councilman James Sanders (D-Laurelton) said, addressing the crowd. “The longer it is, the father away it is from your homes.”The concerns expressed by those in attendance Monday essentially echoed what was stated at a packed Town Hall meeting last week in Rosedale. That night, Geo executives, including President George Zoley, were on hand, ostensibly to assuage community concerns about the facility and explain how it had been retrofitted to accommodate federal prisoners.The Geo presentation did little to calm community concerns as residents expressed consternation that they were not made aware of the expansion plans and accused of Zoley of attempting to slip the facility past the neighborhood. At the same time Sanders said it would take an escapee about two minutes to reach a residential home and maybe a minute to reach a school.”It doesn't belong there,” said Barbara Brown, president of the Springfield-Rosedale Community Action Association. “It belongs at the airport.”The Geo Detention Center, located 182-22 150th Ave., currently houses about 200 inmates awaiting trial or sentencing. Geo operates the facility through contract with the U.S. Marshals Service that was signed in June 2005 and expires at the end of May, according to Walter McCaffrey, a spokesman for the company. Local politicians have vowed in recent weeks to examine the contract closely and formulate a legal strategy to fight the prison's expansion plans and perhaps force it to relocate.The community, however, was under the impression that the facility had closed at the end of June, when Geo's previous contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement expired. Geo had operated a detention space for illegal immigrants awaiting deportation at the site for the previous 11 years, after relocating from 226th street in Rosedale five years before that amid community pressure.Geo, however, was able to sign a new contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, which, according to McCaffrey, was eager to ease overcrowding at its two other New York City facilities.”The marshals were looking around aggressively for alternate space,” McCaffrey said.Not only does the Geo facility remain open, but it has plans to nearly double its capacity within the year. The company, Zoley said, recently acquired an adjacent building and plans to increase its capacity to “just under 400.”The inmates housed at the facility were described last week as “low and medium-risk,” 65 percent of whom are being detained because of drug-related offenses. Zoley, who emphasized that the prison had been a “quiet neighbor,” told the crowd that the facility had been retrofitted to allay the concerns of the marshals. Walls were reinforced, he said, and doors had been changed “in order to make it an ever safer facility.”Zoley also said the prison provides jobs for residents of southeast Queens, whom he said comprise 43 percent of the jail's staff. The starting salary of guards, Zoley said, is $34,000, a fact that is not lost on Geo employee Samuel Surles, who is also a resident of the community.”Absolutely,” Surles said, when asked if he felt the community was ignoring the benefits created by the jobs provided by Geo.Geo is a global prison company that operates facilities in South Africa, Europe, Australia and the United States. It also operates an immigration center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which has been in business for two years. McCaffrey, however, stressed that Geo deals only with Cubans who are involved in immigration cases, such as those picked up trying to leave the island.”It's not accurate in anyway to say they operate Guantanamo Bay,” he said.

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