South Bronx Resists New Jail

David Ferris Nov 23, 2006

Plans for a new South Bronx prison to replace old facilities on Rikers Island has sparked resistance from a community that does not want a jail built in its backyard, or anywhere else in New York City.

Although the prison plans are still in the preliminary stages, community activists in Hunts Point, where the jail is to be built, are already mobilizing to dissuade the NYC Department of Corrections from the project. A boisterous Oct. 23 town hall meeting hinted at the potential heated conflict that may arise over the issue. Residents and local activists were unequivocal in their opposition to the new facility, ending the meeting with chants of “No more jails!”

The resistance is being headed by Community in Unity, a coalition of fifteen Bronx community organizations, that is demanding transparency and accountability in the planning process and alternatives to the proposed 2,000-bed facility. “From day one, the city has not been forthcoming,” said Leah Gitter of Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities (RIPPD). “The City wants to spend taxpayer money to build a jail in our own backyard, but they haven’t told us a thing about it.”

NYC Department of Corrections Commissioner Martin Horn insisted that the City and the Department have remained committed to public openness. “We have tried to be transparent,” Horn said. He added that he had previously met with elected officials and Bronx organizations, prompting murmurs of skepticism from some of those in attendance.

Many in attendance strongly questioned the societal value of building another jail. The Department of Corrections insisted that a new jail is needed to replace aging facilities on Rikers Island, and has preliminarily budgeted $375 million for a new facility to be constructed on a 28-acre Oak Point site in the Hunts Point neighborhood.

Horn argued that the Rikers Island buildings are severely outdated and, due to their two levels of security checkpoints and inconvenient location, make prisoners less accessible to visitors, attorneys, and community support providers. He added that the plan would ultimately reduce city jail capacity by 2,000 beds, a fact that Maggie Williams of the Bronx Defenders proved was misleading after she confronted him with a document publicly released by his own department. She noted that many of the existing beds in city jails have already been decommissioned and are unused.

Although Horn noted that the new prison represented a positive step for criminal justice in the city, as it would foster inmates’ contact with the community, the position found little support amongst residents who claim much less faith in the prison system. Some residents stated that resistance is not a “Not in my backyard” movement, but rather a “Not in anyone’s backyard movement.”

Hunts Point resident Rodrigo “Rodstarz” Venegas, a 25-year-old activist and hip-hop artist, said he is against any new prison. “I’m well aware that my age group – young Latino men – will be the target population to fill up that prison. We have to be aware that this is a prison industry that is close to modern-day slavery.”

A member of Critical Resistance, which organizes against the prison industrial complex, pushed alternatives to incarceration such as education, affordable housing, job training, and drug rehabilitation programs.

During the meeting Horn appeared frustrated by the persistent and vocal opposition expressed by the attendees. In a follow-up interview he stated, “If people’s minds are made up, then I’m wasting my time.” However, he added a promise to “Meet with anyone, anywhere, anytime.”

Despite the antagonism surrounding the issue, some feel there are shades of promise. “This is a real opportunity. They are going to bulldoze the facilities [on Rikers Island] and that’s great,” said Williams despite her opposition to the Oak Point prison.

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