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What happened with the jail plan this year?

2019: Year in Review

December 30, 2019 Noah Goldberg
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A lot happened in Brooklyn this year — from environmental policies to infrastructure changes to housing reform. We’ve wrapped up the key pieces for you in “2019: Year in Review.” 

New York reimagined what its system of pre-trial jailing will look like in 2019, as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s borough-based jail plan wound its way through the land use process from April to October of this year, eventually passing a full City Council vote.

The $9 billion plan will see new detention facilities constructed in Boerum Hill, Chinatown, Kew Gardens and Mott Haven. Rikers Island is set to close by 2026, and a different land use proposal is being considered to ensure the island cannot be used as a jail in the future.

The mayor’s plan was widely expected to pass once it entered the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP. But there were many moments along the way that revealed key details about how New York City’s land use battles play out, both in public and behind closed doors.

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The initial plan for the city’s Brooklyn jail

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

Originally, the city planned to build a massive, sky-scraping jail in Boerum Hill that would rise 430 feet, a good two and a half times taller than the current 11-story facility.

The city brought together Neighborhood Action Committees in each borough where a new jail was planned, though some of those meetings were closed to press.

A rowdy first public hearing

Brittany Williams (left), a member of No New Jails NYC, stands behind a member of Just Leadership USA. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane.
Brittany Williams (left), a member of No New Jails NYC, stands behind a member of Just Leadership USA. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

The first public hearing on the proposed new Brooklyn Detention Complex immediately framed the narrative that would persist up to the final vote. The hearing pitted reform-minded formerly incarcerated individuals with the group JustLeadershipUSA, which supported the mayor’s jail plan, against prison abolitionists with the group No New Jails NYC.

Members of JustLeadershipUSA argued that the jail complex at Rikers Island must be closed as soon as possible and that more humane, borough-based jails were a better option for the city.

A little-known group in New York at the beginning of the jail ULURP,  No New Jails NYC was, by October, the loudest anti-jail plan group — even getting backing from Queens DA candidate Tiffany Caban and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.

Advisory votes cast against the plan

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Neither Community Board 2 nor the Brooklyn borough president lent their support to the city’s plan for the new Brooklyn jail. Both argued that the proposed Boerum Hill lockup was far too large.

At the time both the board and the Borough President Eric Adams made their announcements, the city was planning on housing 1,150 people in each of the four borough-based jails. “The Brooklyn site should be designed for a maximum capacity of 900 beds,” Adams said in his recommendation in July, calling for just 25 more beds than CB2’s recommendation of 875 in June.

In extremely on-brand fashion, the borough president also recommended that incarcerated individuals have access to yoga and plant-based diets.

All the other boroughs’ relevant community boards voted not to recommend the plan, and of the borough presidents, Gale Brewer of Manhattan was the only one to support it.

The jail plan gets rubber-stamped

Kei Williams, an organizer with No New Jails, stands in front of commissioners of the City Planning Commission during their vote. Photo: Noah Goldberg/Brooklyn Eagle

After local community boards and borough presidents shared their concerns, the jail plan then had to be voted on by the City Planning Commission. The CPC’s vote is the first binding vote in the ULURP process, causing some anti-jail pan advocates to hope that the commission would come out against the plan.

But statistics obtained by the Brooklyn Eagle revealed that not one city-backed land use plan has been voted down by the commission in at least 20 years — and the commission has only modified a handful of applications.

That’s 644 straight city land use proposals approved by the CPC.

The City Planning Commission voted 9-3 to approve the jail plan and said it to its final vote at the City Council — making minor alterations to the plan.

Meanwhile, NIMBYs opened their wallets

Screenshot of the landing page that shows their rendering of the proposed Brooklyn Detention Complex. Image:

At the same time that the jail plan was slowly but steadily making its way through the ULURP process, neighborhood opponents in Boerum Hill opened up their wallets to pay a lobbyist to fight against it.

They spent more than $30,000 on a “boutique government affairs” lobbyist to sway the city toward building a smaller Brooklyn lockup — or toward scrapping the plan altogether.

A controversial council precedent caught in an audio recording

Stephen Levin speaks at a community board hearing on the proposed renovation of the Brooklyn Detention Complex. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane.
Stephen Levin speaks at a community board hearing on the proposed renovation of the Brooklyn Detention Complex. Photo Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

As the jail headed to the final full council vote, Councilmember Stephen Levin — whose Brooklyn district encompasses the location of the proposed Boerum Hill jail — was caught on tape referring to a controversial council precedent called “member deference” during a closed door council meeting.

Under member deference, councilmembers are supposed to fall in line and vote along with the councilmember whose district is in question, in this case Levin’s district. Levin supported the jail plan.

Levin initially denied to the Eagle mentioning member deference at the closed door meeting with other Brooklyn councilmembers and staffers.

“It’s going to be starting to get pretty intense, and because, as you know, the way that with land use there’s some member deference,” he said in the recording.

The Eagle polls the council on the plan

The Rikers Island jail complex. Photo: Seth Wenig/AP

More than a month before the final jail plan vote, the Eagle polled councilmembers and spoke with City Hall and City Council sources about the jail plan’s likelihood of passing the final vote.

We found that the plan had ample support, would likely pass, and that the heights of the facilities would be reduced before the final vote. (We were correct on every front.)

The last minute ULURP haircut

The Brooklyn Detention Center. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese
The Brooklyn Detention Center. Photo: Rob Abruzzese/Brooklyn Eagle

Although Councilmember Stephen Levin still has not gotten his hair cut, the four borough-based jails each received a little off the top the week of the final council vote in October.

The proposed jail heights across the city plummeted by an average of 90 feet based on several factors, including a revised jail population estimate.

The changes decreased the number of beds in each facility from 1,150 to 885, with an even smaller population of detainees held inside: no more than 825.

The proposed jail in Boerum Hill had its height cut to 295 feet from 395 feet.

It — unsurprisingly — passed

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at a press conference the day of the borough-based jail plan vote. Photo: Brooklyn Eagle/Noah Goldberg

Thirteen of the 51 councilmembers voted against the plan. Thirty-six supported it. A few did not show up.

Sources reveal height reductions were done deal in the summer

Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson shake hands on the 2020 budget, announced ahead of schedule on Friday. Photo by Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson shake hands on the 2020 budget, announced ahead of schedule on Friday. Photo by Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

While the reduction in heights of the four proposed borough-based jails was announced just days before the jail plan vote by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, sources told the Eagle in December that the decision was made months in advance, and that the speaker told the Mayor’s Office not to announce it so the council could keep it as their own win. The sources said it was all part of Johnson’s mayoral ambitions and trying to take credit for as much as possible.

Johnson denied the sources’ account.

“The notion that we had this wrapped up months ahead of the vote and that it was all ‘political theater’ is completely untrue,” council spokesperson Jennifer Fermino told the Eagle. “This story ignores the very real challenge we faced in estimating the jail population. It was one of the most important calls we had to make, and it came down to the wire. We had to get this estimate right in order to responsibly approve height reductions. Whoever you’re talking to wasn’t part of these talks and doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

The current Brooklyn Detention Complex stops taking new admissions

The Brooklyn Detention Complex in Boerum Hill reflected in the window of a store. Photo: Brooklyn Eagle/ Paul Frangipane

The current Brooklyn Detention Complex, which houses about 400 people incarcerated mostly pre-trial, is halting its intake of detainees, with plans for the jail to be closed by the end of January.

Since 2015, use of force rates at the Boerum Hill jail have tripled, outpacing all other city jails. The jail has also struggled with heating issues. In the summer, a local councilmember visited and said it was “boiling hot.” At the start of the cold season this year, the jail was freezing cold.

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