By Bill Parry
Less than a week after a Rikers Island prison guard was viciously attacked by six alleged gang members and hospitalized with a fractured spine and bleeding on the brain, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an agreement Wednesday to move forward with the closing of the notorious prison complex by creating a borough-based jail system.
City Council members from Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan, Speaker Corey Johnson and the Mayor agreed to a single public review process for four proposed sites that together will provide space for 5,000 detainees.
“This agreement marks a huge step forward on our path to closing Rikers Island,” de Blasio said. “In partnership with the City Council, we can now move ahead with creating a borough-based jail system that’s smaller, safer and fairer. I want to thank these representatives, who share our vision of a more rehabilitative and humane criminal justice system that brings staff and detainees closer to their communities.”
In Queens, the city identified the old Queens Detention Center in Kew Gardens after nearly a dozen Queens council members suggested the former jail in October. City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), the chairwoman of the Queens delegation, spearheaded the “unprecedented” move with former councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley.
“The reopening of the Queens Detention Center not only makes sense, but it’s the right thing to do,” Koslowitz said. “This proposal restores the Center back to its original purpose and ensures that Queens’ borough-based jail facility is located in our civic center, close to our courts. This smaller facility will bolster the safety for our Department of Correction staff, will create an environment that is more conducive to rehabilitation and will save taxpayer dollars in transportation costs.”
The safety of DOC personnel became a hot-button issue since Saturday’s attack on Correction Officer Jean Souffrant, 39, who was sucker punched by an inmate and then brutally kicked by five others. Four of the inmates pleaded not guilty in a Bronx courtroom Monday.
De Blasio spoke with Souffrant and members of his family in a phone call Sunday, and he called the officer a “noble man.” Elias Husamudeen, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, is criticizing the Mayor for banning solitary confinement for inmates 21 years old and younger in 2016, a move Correction officers contend takes away one of their most effective tools.
But de Blasio was adamant that the ban would not be rescinded and instead the administration announced Wednesday it will invest $4.5 million to fund a rapid increase of safety and security measures designed to immediately address violence against DOC officers. The enhancements, which will be completed by the end of June, include more Emergency Services Unity patrol groups, expanding the number of tasers for emergency personnel and select uniform staff, boosting cooperation and coordination with the NYPD on intelligence-sharing and gang intelligence training, and assigning NYPD gang intelligence staff to DOC facilities.
“With these high-visibility and comprehensive measures, we send a clear message to the gangs and violent inmates behind the recent attacks against our officers: We aren’t tolerating it,” DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said. “These steps will be taken immediately to boost safety to our staff, especially those working in our highest risk facilities. We want all our officers and staff that we have their backs, and they have the full support of the security apparatus at the department’s disposal. We are acting aggressively to make sure our jails are safe.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr