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Reopen Kew Gardens Jail Under Plan to Close Rikers, Politicians Urge Mayor

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | October 3, 2017 9:39am
 The Queens House of Detention at 126-02 82nd Ave. closed 15 years ago.
The Queens House of Detention at 126-02 82nd Ave. closed 15 years ago.
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DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

QUEENS — A host of Queens City Council members want the city to use a former Kew Gardens jail to house detainees from the borough as part of the plan to close Rikers Island.

The 11 elected officials, including local Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday urging him “to locate a new community-based jail at the site of the former Queens Detention Complex in Kew Gardens as part of a citywide alternative to the Rikers Island jail complex.”

Earlier this year, an independent commission led by judge Jonathan Lippman looking at alternatives to Rikers released a report recommending its closure and the opening of smaller jails in each borough.

The Queens Detention Complex at 126-02 82nd Ave. closed 15 years ago, about four decades after first opening behind the Queens Criminal Court building.

The complex, which once housed more than 450 prisoners, is now used as office space and for television and film shoots, including the popular Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," officials said.

"It is centrally located in a civic center, it is connected to the courts, and with the proper capital investment it can be functional for this use," the politicians wrote in their letter. "The center was originally built for this purpose and for many years operated with little incident to the surrounding community." 

Koslowitz, who was among several elected officials to tour the shuttered facility last week, said the complex would have to be expanded or entirely reconstructed in order to house inmates again, noting that “the site would be convenient because of its proximity to the Criminal Court and would reduce the cost and traffic associated with transporting prisoners.”

“Rikers Island is a detriment to our city and an embarrassment to our criminal justice system,” she noted. 

While Koslowitz supports the plan, she also wants Kew Gardens residents to be able to express their concerns, as some locals already said that reopening the center would “ruin the neighborhood.”

"We need to ensure if a plan like this moves forward, that there is a long public discussion centered on the community’s concerns," she said.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who chairs the council's criminal justice committee and also toured the facility last week, noted in a statement that “busing inmates to and from Rikers Island to get to their court appearances is fiscally irresponsible, illogical and dangerous.”

“We must return to the original jail model in which detainees are housed at the Queens Detention Complex while they await trial,” she added.

Other council members who signed the letter include Jimmy Van Bramer, Costa Constantinides, Daniel Dromm, Donovan Richards, Barry Grodenchik, Peter Koo, Rory Lancman, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and Antonio Reynoso. 

Natalie Grybauskas, a spokeswoman for the mayor, thanked the elected officials "for their role in this process," adding that "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."