Boerum Hill

Brooklyn councilmember questions city officials on jail plan

September 5, 2019 Noah Goldberg
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Brooklyn Councilmember Stephen Levin asked Department of Corrections officials about parking, building density and an alternative to demolishing the current Boerum Hill jail during the City Council’s only public hearing on the mayor’s borough-based jail plan Thursday. The meeting marked the final opportunity to explore changes to the city-led proposal, part of the effort to Rikers Island by 2026.

As of publication, the hearing was still ongoing.

While Manhattan and Queens councilmembers denounced the size of the planned jails and Bronx councilmembers took issue with the siting, Levin did not ask about the size of the Brooklyn facility, except for asking why it was a higher density than the other boroughs’ jails. He did not suggest that the facility be made smaller, though he told the Brooklyn Eagle in July that he “fully expects” reductions in height.

DOC officials said the higher density, which allows for a taller, thicker building, was necessary, as the property on which it will be built is smaller than those in other boroughs.

There is already a jail at the Boerum Hill location where the new facility would rise, which would be torn down to make space for the larger proposed jail.

Levin spent a significant chunk of his allotted time pressing DOC officials about parking placard abuse by correction officers that has persisted at the existing Brooklyn Detention Complex.

Dana Kaplan, with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, answered that the new jail would have “below-grade parking” for 292 cars. The specifications of the building, including the parking, are in the ULURP application and have been widely reported.

No one interrupted Levin during his speaking time, but audience members with prison abolition group No New Jails, who oppose the mayor’s plan, donned masks of the councilmember’s face.

People in the balcony made cut outs of Councilmember Stephen Levin’s face. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg

On Tuesday, at a closed-door meeting on the jail plan, Levin brought up a controversial precedent called “member deference, a longstanding practice that, on land-use matters, councilmembers vote in line with the lawmaker in whose district the land in question falls.

Levin, who supports the mayor’s plan to close Rikers and open the new borough-based facilities, asked DOC whether or not the current Brooklyn Detention Complex could be “rehabable.”

“Do you see that as a possibility, to fix the existing Brooklyn House of Detention. Is it rehabable? Why is it insufficient for next century going forward?”

“Our answer is a resounding no,” said Brenda Cooke, chief of staff at DOC. She said that the current facility has “insufficient sightlines” and “many blindspots,” as well as insufficiently sized common spaces and inadequate programming space. Cooke said the Brooklyn Detention Complex “looks like something from a very dated movie.”

The hearing — which is the final public hearing before the City Council votes on the proposal to build the four new jails — comes toward the end of the land-use process.

Members of the group No New Jails, which vocally opposes the mayor’s borough-based jail plan, were mostly stuck outside City Hall waiting to be let in, or in an overflow room outside City Council chambers.

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