By Bill Parry
Nearly a dozen Queens City Council members want the city to use an old jail facility in Kew Gardens as part of its plan to close down Rikers Island.
City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale), the chairwoman of the Council’s Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services, and City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), the chairwoman of the Queens Delegation, spearheaded the “unprecedented” move in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio Monday.
“We must return to the original jail model in which detainees are housed at the Queens Detention Complex while they await trial,” Crowley said. “Busing inmates to and from Rikers Island to get to their court appearances is fiscally irresponsible, illogical and dangerous. Reverting back to the original model will save our taxpayers millions of dollars and help create a criminal justice system that better reflects our values as New Yorkers.”
Crowley and Koslowitz joined City Councilman Barry Grodenchik (D-Oakland Gardens) in tourirng the complex with city Department of Correction officials. Grodenchik signed onto the letter, along with eight other Council members, saying the facility would meet the criteria outlined in a report by the Lippman Commission calling for centrally located, court-adjacent community jails to replace scandal-scarred Rikers.
“Rikers Island is a detriment to our city and an embarrassment to our criminal justice system,” Koslowitz said. “Last week, I toured the Queens Detention Complex and there needs to be work done, either through expansion or a complete reconstruction, to be able to house an inmate population. The site would be convenient because of its proximity to the Criminal Court and would reduce the cost and traffic associated with transporting prisoners. However, we need to ensure if a plan like this moves forward, that there is a long public discussion centered on the community’s concerns.”
The site, which is connected to the Queens County Court, currently has sat unoccupied since its closure in 2002 after 40 years in operation. The building currently houses office space and has been the location for various film and TV productions, including the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.”
“It is a moral imperative that we close the nightmare that is Rikers Island,” City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest), another signee, said. “As the Lippman Commission report makes clear, an important component of shutting down Rikers is constructing new borough-based jail facilities. Utilizing the site of the Queens Detention Complex would greatly improve accessibility for all, save taxpayer funds, and make our justice system more efficient.”
City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) agreed, adding his signature to the letter.
“The fact that Karen Koslowitz stood up and bravely said she would take a community-based jail in her own district is very commendable,” Dromm said. “The mayor should speed up the closing of Rikers Island and he should certainly take her up on her offer.”
Mayor de Blasio was receptive to the idea, according to a spokeswoman who said there is a need for courageous elected officials for the plan to work.
“We thank these Queens officials for their role in this process,” City Hall spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas said. “Expanding and reopening the Queens Detention Center would be an ideal first step, and we have already started to take a hard look at this site to determine its feasibility.”
Crowley was pleased with the response from City Hall.
“I’m encouraged the mayor was receptive to our proposal,” she said. “It’s time our criminal justice system reflect New York City values, and the Queens Detention Complex provides us that option.”
Robert Holden, Crowley’s challenger in next month’s city election, blasted the proposal. Holden, a longtime civic leader and registered Democrat for the last 44 years, was placed on the Republican Party line by the Queens GOP in a unanimous vote last week.
“It doesn’t take a genius to know that dangerous, violent criminals belong on an island and should not be moved into residential neighborhoods,” Holden said. “It’s irresponsible to come out in favor of a plan to close Rikers without knowing all the details, and if transportation cost is the main issue, it would make more sense to build a courthouse on Rikers than to spread the jail population out to the boroughs.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr