Former Chief Judge Lippman says plans for renovated jail in Brooklyn are too big
Lippman: City needs to engage the community more
The plan to close Rikers Island has always relied on two contingencies: shrinking the current population of inmates in the city and spreading those inmates across the boroughs in five new and smaller jails.
In Brooklyn, that means the House of Detention located on Atlantic Avenue, which currently holds about 800 inmates, needs to be renovated and expanded. The plan proposed by the city calls for the current facility to be replaced by a 1.4 million square-foot building that would be 430 feet high and could fit approximately 1,500 inmates.
The former chief judge of New York state, Hon. Jonathan Lippman, who led the commission that initially called for the city to shut down Rikers Island, said that plan is too much and that the city needs to do a better job of listening to local communities.
“One of our criticisms of the city is that the jails are out of scale,” Lippman said while speaking at New York Law School on Friday during the CityLaw Breakfast Series. “They need to be smaller and can’t be out of character.”
Lippman explained that when he toured the Brooklyn House of Detention with District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, he found it nearly as despicable as Rikers Island itself and advocated for its replacement, as well. He argued that modern facilities can still serve the community without overshadowing the neighborhood with a massive building.
“One of the reasons they are so big is that the city is designing them with all different things into the building,” Lippman said. “They want to serve the community, but I think it’s overkill. If you look at the square footage at the jails proposed by the city, compared to other cities that have done it right, they’re way, way, way greater. The scale has to be down.”
Lippman added that part of the problem is that the city has not gotten much input from the communities themselves and said that he’s complained about the issue to the powers that be.
Some of the things he would like to see discussed further include the appropriate location for the Bronx prison, the size and scope of the Brooklyn prison and how to incorporate Staten Island into the plan.
“We have been in the city’s face about not engaging with the community,” Lippman said. “You need to go to those hearings. Communication is key to making this happen the way it should.”
So far, the few public hearings that have taken place have often been overtaken by advocates who do not want Rikers Island replaced with five community jails. Lippman said that he is worried that such advocates could derail the project entirely, adding that standing opposed to community jails is akin to being for Rikers Island.
“If you are against local jails, you are for Rikers Island — and Rikers Island is an abomination,” he said. “Local jails make sense. They’re smaller, more humane and don’t have this brutalizing effect on human beings.
Lippman is still optimistic that the city will eventually close Rikers, especially since the state Legislature has flipped from Republican to Democratic. The next step, he outlined, is to continue making criminal justice reform to bring the prison population in New York City down.
“This is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed,” Lippman said. “The composition of the legislature has changed. I would say that this is the moment. This is what we’ve been waiting for … Criminal justice reform is on the verge of a quantum leap in New York state. I urge them to seize the moment.”
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