Boerum Hill

Expanding Brooklyn’s city jail: Everything you need to know

Proposed '21st Century jail' with retail space is more than twice the size of current building, integral to closing Rikers

March 27, 2019 Rob Abruzzese and Noah Goldberg
The Brooklyn Detention Center. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese
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This post was original published on March 27. It was updated with the latest information on April 12. We will continue to update this article as the story develops.

New York City’s plan to shutter Rikers Island and replace it with four smaller borough-based jails could mean more than doubling the size of an existing city jail in Boerum Hill — the Brooklyn Detention Complex at 275 Atlantic Ave.

The city-run jail houses up to 815 prisoners, many of whom are awaiting trial and not yet convicted of a crime. It’s not currently large enough to fulfill the city’s vision, officials say, leading them to propose an expansion in height, bulk, services and beds to accommodate a growing headcount displaced by the planned closure of Rikers Island.

Related: Mayor’s plan to close Rikers Island will double the space in Brooklyn’s prison

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

The city already began outreach to solicit community input on what the prisons will look like. But the change in size means a change in zoning, and that seven-month Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) is now underway. Brooklynites weighed in at a public hearing hosted by Community Board 2 on April 11. 

Advocates with the group No New Jails NYC argued at the hearing that Rikers Island should be closed, but that money should be invested in communities instead of new prisons. “We don’t need a kinder, gentler version of mass incarceration. We need no incarceration,” said Justin Cohen.

Many formerly incarcerated people with the group JustLeadershipUSA spoke in support of the city’s borough-based jail plan, with the condition that the Department of Corrections (DOC) not have complete control over the new jails.

“I saw people getting killed by staff. Beaten to death and no one held accountable. They’ve proven unable to create a safe environment,” said Darren Mack, an activist with JLUSA who spent 19 months on Rikers Island in the 1990s.

More public hearings will follow, hosted by the borough president, the City Planning Committee and the City Council.

The Planning Commission will consider the feedback received from these meetings before it puts forth a plan for the City Council’s approval.

Here’s everything you need to know about the proposed expansion of the Brooklyn Detention Complex.

What’s the current plan?

The Brooklyn Detention Complex, located at 275 Atlantic Ave., was built in 1956. It’s currently an 11-story, 170-foot tall building, approximately 161,765 square feet with 815 beds.

The plan is to more than double the building’s height to a maximum of 395 feet, which is down 35 feet from the initial proposal. This increases the jail’s square footage to 1.075 million, filled with 1,437 beds.

The proposed facility will include 292 underground parking spaces. These would be exclusively reserved for DOC staff and other authorized vehicles, but residents and commuters along Atlantic Avenue have long complained that there are not enough parking spaces, and jail staffers take up much of what is available.

The parking lot would be accessible via State Street, and the visitors’ entrance will be on Boerum Place. The building will also have space for retail and community facility uses along Atlantic Avenue.

A rendering by the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) of the new Brooklyn Detention Complex. Rendering courtesy of MOCJ.
A rendering by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) of the new Brooklyn Detention Complex. Rendering courtesy of MOCJ.

“Our goals here are to build jails that are fair, that provide the kinds of rehabilitation facilities that permit for programming and appropriate healthcare and education, that are safer,” said Elizabeth Glazer, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “We will have an opportunity to build the kinds of facilities that are suitable to 21st century jails.”

There is a tunnel connecting the jail to Brooklyn Criminal Court (located at 121 Schermerhorn St.) that is used to transport incarcerated people. The proposed facility will incorporate the tunnel into its plan and has left open the possibility of renovating it.

Current plans designate the top three-quarters of the facility for housing detainees. The bottom quarter and basement will include a lobby with a community space, a visitors space, maintenance and building operations, a staff area, admissions, therapeutic detainee housing, parking and retail.

How have the plans changed?

The city has collected much of its public input through Neighborhood Advisory Committees (NACs), small groups of local leaders put together by the Mayor’s Office to discuss possibilities for the jail. There is one in each borough that is getting a new jail, and the groups have already met four times since November.

Critics have complained that the meetings with NACs were invitation-only, and reporters were consistently barred from covering them.

The Brooklyn NAC is made up of local leaders including Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon and Councilmember Stephen Levin. Representatives from the offices of State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Borough President Eric Adams were also involved, as were members of the Cobble Hill Association, the Brooklyn Heights Association, the Atlantic Avenue BID, advocacy groups and other local associations.

Topics and opinions varied wildly at these meetings, but at the final NAC meeting at Brooklyn Law School on Jan. 25, several members expressed concern that the entire process has felt rushed. One member suggested that they would push for a “no vote” during the ULURP process because they felt the plan wasn’t ready.

Some members expressed concern that the NAC didn’t properly reflect the population that will be affected by the criminal justice reforms.

Related: Three Brooklyn senators hesitate on bail reform bill. They rep 1,400 people who were stuck in city jails.

During one meeting, attendees discussed how to shrink the size of the planned expansion on Atlantic Avenue. One option presented was the removal of the community space. Another called for the removal of the mentally ill population or the technical parole violators.

Dana Kaplan of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice cautioned that many of these changes would have only a small impact on the building’s size and that its overall footprint would remain large — even with the proposed modifications.

City organizers do credit the NAC meetings for slightly shrinking the plans in the early stages. They removed 250 extra beds from the system that were planned for overflow. They also decided to create a dedicated women’s facility in Queens. Taken together, these alterations shrink the plans for the Atlantic Avenue jail from 1,510 beds to 1,437.

“As a result of the engagement that we’ve had so far, there have already been reductions in height and density,” said Glazer. “We will, of course, continue to explore other opportunities to reduce the height without affecting the program.”

Are other locations being considered?

In discussions with community leaders at NAC meetings, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was discussed as a potential alternative site. That plan was squashed after city officials explained a conflict with the intended industrial use of the site.

Another proposal was made to expand the federal jail in Sunset Park. However, there were concerns that involving the federal government could slow down or kill the process.

Leaders also discussed having more than one Brooklyn-based facility, but those failed to gain traction. Councilmember Stephen Levin, who represents Williamsburg, Vinegar Hill, Dumbo, Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, Boerum Hill and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant was open to the possibility of a second facility in his district.

The possibility of another site was ruled out by city officials in November.

A close-up rendering of the expansion. The square footage has since been decreased to 1.075 million square feet. Rendering via the Brooklyn Heights Association.
A close-up rendering of the expansion. The square footage has since been decreased to 1.075 million square feet. Rendering via the Brooklyn Heights Association.

What comes next?

As the jail enters the ULURP process, community engagement will ramp up. Community Board 2 will make a determination at their May 8 general meeting, and the proposal will move on to the borough president, the City Planning Committee and the City Council, which will each host public hearings.

Related: Everything you need to know about ULURP

The hearings will be an opportunity for criminal justice advocates to sound off on broader city policies.

“We believe it’s a step in the right direction that the maximum possible building height of new facilities has been reduced and the number of beds has gone down, and we know this number can continue to decrease,” said Campaign Coordinator Brandon Holmes of #CLOSErikers in a statement.

The Kings County Criminal Bar Association expressed concern over available resources. Its president Christopher Wright, a former Legal Aid attorney, said that one of his primary concerns is that there be adequate space for attorneys to meet with their clients.

“It’s important to remember that most of the inmates in DOC custody have not yet been convicted of any crimes,” Wright said. “Most inmates are awaiting resolution or trial and should be treated in accord with those who are presumed innocent. It is the hope of the defense bar that the city will consider the import of the attorney-client relationship and provide adequate space for counsel visits in any new jail proposals.”

Officials hoping to close Rikers Island and replace it with safer and more humane jails fear that if the ULURP process is not approved in some form, the momentum to close Rikers will be quashed.

“Now the city has a once-in-generations shot at actually shutting those awful jails forever. We have to make jail a place of last resort and make deep cuts in the number of people who are locked up, but without more capacity in the boroughs, Rikers stays open,” said Tyler Nims, executive director of the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. “The upcoming land use process is only one step towards closing Rikers, but it is pivotal. If that process fails, New York City will be stuck with Rikers for a long time to come.”

At the NAC meetings, some expressed that this view comes across as an ultimatum. They argued that the city came up with the plan without their input and is now merely looking for a rubber stamp.

There is also a fear that closing Rikers Island may not be possible. A big part of the plan to close it includes shrinking the size of the daily population inside.

While the city has already made strides to reduce the headcount, there’s still work to be done. When Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, there were 11,000 people at Rikers. Now, that number is approximately 7,800.

The number still needs to drop to, at most, 5,000.

Criminal justice reforms bundled up in the state’s budget have stoked hopes that the jail population can dwindle even lower than the necessary 5,000.

“Bail reform will make a huge difference across the state and especially in New York City. So that’s number one,” said State Senator Velmanette Montgomery at the April 10 hearing. “Discovery will make a difference, because hopefully people won’t have to go in and not know what they’re even being charged with, so that’s number two. Speedy trial, that means you don’t sit in jail for 3 years like Kalief Browder did without a trial. That won’t be happening.”

Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon urged the city – in light of the reforms – to lower the jailed population in the city to 3,500.

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