Chinatown residents booed and jeered as city officials tried unsuccessfully to lay out their plans for a new jail (Cindy Rodriguez / WNYC)
Chinatown residents shouted down city officials attempting to lay out plans for a new jail in lower Manhattan at a public meeting on Wednesday night.
Before the town hall style meeting at a city public school on Division Street even started, the raucous crowd chanted “No jails!” and waved signs with slogans such as, “Convicts will live better than Chinatown residents.”
The city wants to build four new jails in every borough except Staten Island to replace the notoriously violent and dysfunctional jail complex on Rikers Island. Closing Rikers is the centerpiece of a movement to reform the criminal justice system.
But new jails are a hard sell. Chinatown resident Mary Wu said her community needs senior housing, not a jail.
“They should reform the jail system. Not move it down to our community,” Wu said. “If they want to be close to their relatives to visit, move it to their community.”
The proposed jail in Manhattan would replace a government building that currently houses the city’s marriage bureau and offices for the Manhattan District Attorney. Both would be relocated, and the new jail would include ground floor retail space and reach as high as 40 stories.
The city tried to make the plan more appealing by giving the community back one of two jails that already exist in the neighborhood, the Manhattan Detention Complex—more commonly referred to as the Tombs—for housing, a community center, and other purposes. (The other jail is the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal complex.)
Jeff Thamkittikasem, Senior Adviser to First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan, tried to tell the angry crowd the jail would allow inmates to be closer to the courts and more integrated into the community.
“People who are in these facilities [will] have closer access to programming, reentry, mental health programs and education,” he said before being drowned out by protests.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Councilmember Margaret Chin were also present at the meeting.
The jail population must shrink to 5,000 inmates for the smaller jails to be sufficient. Just under 9,000 inmates are currently incarcerated in city jails. Residents at Wednesday’s meeting expressed skepticism about those numbers and questioned what would happen if the jail population began to increase.
The community complained that they were left out of the planning process and said a study that examines the impact on the neighborhood includes too small of an area.
“It’s very limited and it’s flawed. It only asks to look at a quarter of a mile,” said Nancy Kong, who is on the board of Chatham Towers, a residential building near the planned jail. “It doesn’t include the children, the schools, our seniors, our businesses or anything like that.”
The meeting is one of several that will take place across the city in the coming months. The process for closing Rikers and opening smaller jails is expected to take a decade to complete, and the City is hoping to certify their plans by the end of 2018, so that the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure can begin in mid-2019.