Bronx Residents Remain Divided Over Location of New Jail

Skye Robinson steps off the BX32 bus on school mornings and takes a quick two-block walk to the crisp, red brick building that houses the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice.

On her way, she passes the shiny, floor-to-ceiling windows of the Bronx courthouse; and next to that, an abandoned lot, cordoned off by a chain-link fence, covered with a torn green tarp.

What becomes of this disparate block that sits across the street from her school is fueling a heated debate over what comes after the Rikers Island jail is closed.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in February that the city would phase out the sprawling jail complex in East Elmhurst, Queens, which has been plagued by reports of abuse and violent incidents. He said that Rikers would be replaced with smaller and safer facilities in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan, a decision that has been met with both praise and protest.

Despite overwhelming support for the citywide plan, Bronx residents and local officials are feuding over where a jail in their borough should be located.

The divide has unveiled deep-seated reservations about what the presence of a jail would mean for a community that has long struggled with poverty and disinvestment. At a time in which the entire country is grappling with how to deal with a bloated inmate population, the fight in the Bronx raises questions of the role that jails play in society.

“It doesn’t have to be a jail in the way we traditionally think of it,” said Brandon Holmes, the New York campaign coordinator for the #CLOSERikers campaign of Just Leadership USA, an organization that advocates for decarceration. “We should start thinking about it as a place where people get a second chance, where we keep them close to their communities, and where we help them get on the right track.”

Although the city has announced one potential location for a Bronx-based jail, a city-owned tow pound in Mott Haven, local elected officials have asked the city to consider alternative locations, like the empty lot near Skye’s school. There are four other schools and a public library within a few blocks of the location.

The possibility of a jail in an area with thousands of students has drawn ire from residents, parents and others in the community.

“I don’t think it makes sense,” said Skye, a 16-year-old sophomore.

Natalie Grybauskas, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the city intended to move ahead with the Mott Haven location, but declined to say whether it was also considering the courthouse location.

“We believe we’ve found the best site in the Bronx that meets our criteria,” Ms. Grybauskas wrote in an email.

The factors that the city said it was considering include the size of the space and its proximity to public transportation and courthouses.

The Department of Correction spends $31 million annually transporting defendants between courthouses and Rikers, according to a report by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. To cut costs the commission recommended that borough-based facilities be situated near courthouses and civic centers.

“It’s a common-sense location,” said Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., who has advocated for the location by the courthouse.

In a borough already saturated with services for the poor, opponents of the courthouse location have instead advocated for housing or commercial development to help move away from the Bronx’s negative stereotypes.

“That’s always been our history,” said Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, who represents the 16th District, which includes the lot.

Councilwoman Diana Ayala, who represents Mott Haven, has publicly acknowledged the hesitation of Bronx residents to welcome a jail, but said she believed the jail would come with access to other social service programs that would benefit residents.

But Josephine Ofili, a parent and leader of a community-based Parent Action Committee in the Bronx does not believe the same applies to the proposed location near the courthouse. Instead of being a positive presence, Ms. Ofili said she believes the jail would loom negatively over the schools.  

“Our focus is to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “We don’t want to feel the threat of it every day.”

Skye said she saw another potential danger in having the jail near her school. As a black woman, she said she was worried that there would be a greater likelihood of unwanted encounters with law enforcement officials, whose presence might increase in the area.

“I wouldn’t want to go to school knowing that there are police officers looking at me like I’m a criminal myself,” she said.

The area has seen an influx of commercial sales and is a stone’s throw from Yankee Stadium, and several residents said that makes it ripe for different types of investments.

But where the jail belongs and why are not easy questions to answer.

Ms. Gibson said the courthouse area was already too busy for the increased traffic a jail would bring.

“Everything crosses across 161st Street,” Ms. Gibson said. “It’s a way of life and a reality my residents deal with everyday and I’m not going to put an additional burden on them.”

To Mr. Salamanca, whose district is near the Mott Haven tow pound, building a jail at the pound would oversaturate an area that is already close to two other jails — the Vernon C. Bain Center and the Horizon Juvenile Center.  

Despite Mr. de Blasio’s claim that the proposed facilities would be nothing like their predecessor in Queens and would be more humane, modern, safe and rehabilitative, residents remain fearful. The city has not even reformed Rikers, so why should residents believe that these new jails would be any better, Ms. Gibson said. She has been trying to address those concerns, she said, “but people don’t feel confident that we are able to achieve it.”

For some residents, it doesn’t matter what the jail looks like. It is simply not welcome in the Bronx.

“This could have been a school or a college or something other than a jailhouse,” said Yadira Johnson, a Bronx resident who has lived in the borough for almost 50 years, pointing to the empty lot. “We have enough jails, but we could always use another school.”
This article has been updated to correct the last name and title of an advocate for decarceration. He is Brandon Holmes, not Hughes, and he is New York campaign coordinator for the #CLOSERikers campaign of JustLeadershipUSA, not coordinator.