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Brooklyn House of Detention Could Expand to Aid Rikers Closure: Official

By Amy Zimmer | June 29, 2017 3:37pm
 The House of Detention on Atlantic Avenue.
The House of Detention on Atlantic Avenue.
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BROOKLYN — At least one City Councilman has put out the welcome mat following Mayor Bill de Blasio’s call for help on his 10-year plan to shutter the problem-ridden Rikers Island and move inmates to local jails in the boroughs.

Stephen Levin, who represents Boerum Hill, said he’s open to exploring an expansion of the neighborhood’s 800-bed House of Detention that looms over Atlantic Avenue and Smith Street down the street from his district office.

“We’re open to the conversation,” Levin said Thursday. “I think we should be out of Rikers. Everyone agrees that Rikers is an inhumane system. Ultimately, those additional cells need to go someplace else.”

When it comes to his district, he noted: “It probably makes more sense for it to be Downtown than in Williamsburg or Greenpoint, from a logistical point of view.”

Since the House of Detention is close to the courts, it would cut down on transportation costs, which is a big point of having a decentralized system.

“When you think about the amount of money we waste transporting prisoners between Rikers and the courts in Brooklyn, that is truly wasteful spending,” Levin said.

He’s also in favor of criminal justice reform that reduces the number of incarcerated individuals in the city, particularly for low-level violations.

The Lippman Commission’s report, which served as the basis for the administration’s plan, recommended upgrading or expanding Brooklyn’s House of Detention. Though no proposal has been made on such a project — and may not be made for quite some time — Levin pre-emptively expressed support, as first reported in the Brooklyn Paper.

He also said he’d like to see a new building replace the existing “60s-era jail that shows a lot of wear and tear.”

“It’s not really the type of facility that our society should be housing people in detention,” Levin said. “At some point it has to be rebuilt. It probably makes sense for it to be part of the overall effort to close Rikers.”

It’s unclear whether Levin’s constituents would support such a plan, he admitted.

Between the time the facility closed in 2003 and re-opened in 2012, the area around it transformed dramatically with new luxury townhouses and apartments, a boutique hotel and a wave of high-end retail, such as Barney’s Co-op.

Residents worried about the re-opening — and fought a plan that would have enlarged the facility to 1,500 beds in a new tower.

A successful lawsuit challenging the environmental impact of that project ultimately defeated it, and Levin — who was elected after that expansion proposal had been made — said any new plan would have to take the lawsuit into account.

Levin noted that the detention center’s return to the community has not negatively affected the area’s booming development, nor has it stopped new retail from moving in across the street, such as the crafts store Michael’s or the Planet Fitness gym.

In the five years since re-opening, he received one complaint, which was related to inmates on the facility’s rooftop gym being able to see into a child’s bedroom in a nearby apartment building, Levin said.

So, the jail put up opaque netting to block the inmates’ view.

“I can understand there being neighborhood concerns,” Levin said, noting that it would especially be important to address parking issues and ensuring there are “adequate places” for visitors. “What has been the experience over the last five years: it hasn’t been egregious.”

The jail now, however, holds just 466 inmates, the Brooklyn Paper noted.

An expansion of the facility would require a rezoning — and Levin’s support would play a big role in that since the City Council often looks to the local elected official for guidance.

Levin’s comments stand out from other reactions from other council members, including City Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who in April said he did not want a satellite jail in his district.

At that time, which was before the administration’s plan was officially announced, Reynoso voiced opposition to building a facility at 287 Maspeth Ave. on a vacant lot owned by National Grid in East Williamsburg.

Besides the National Grid parcel, the city said it wants other new facilities to be built on the footprints of existing, outdated jails in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, as well as on city-owned land in The Bronx and Staten Island. An 18-acre industrial strip known as Teleport B-1 and a tract of land in Rossville along the Arthur Kill in Staten Island is being eyed. Other Brooklyn sites include a Sanitation Department garage in East New York.

The plan also sets a goal to get the Rikers populate down to 5,000, and if that happens, the report noted, a second Brooklyn site may not be needed.

De Blasio last week said he needed council members “to step forward in an appropriate location and say, 'I'm ready to get this process going.'"

Levin noted that more concrete steps may be far off in the future.

“This is all hypothetical because there hasn’t been anything presented yet,” he said, “and I’m not sure when that will happen.”

Mayoral spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas lauded Levin’s support.

"We appreciate Councilman Levin’s support and his willingness to start this important conversation,” she said. “We look forward to working on his idea — and to working with other council members crucial to the future of Rikers and its closure."