By Alex Berg
From the second Lisa Ortega discovered a proposal for a new jail in her Hunts Point neighborhood three years ago she has been fighting it. Now that Bloomberg has appointed a new corrections’ commissioner, she is eager to find out what’s next.
But information about the status of the proposal has become even more difficult to obtain since September.
“It’s not going away. It’s not going to disappear,” said Ortega. “Whenever there is no news that means that things are brewing behind closed doors.”
The new jail was proposed for Halleck Street in the parking lot of the Vernon C. Bain Center, an 800-bed men’s jail on a barge adjacent to the New Fulton Fish Market. It would have 1,200 beds and cost $650 million, said Jaime Stein, an Environmental Policy Analyst at Sustainable South Bronx.
“We’re the poorest congressional district,” Ortega, the head of Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities, said. “We’re lacking in so many things that it’s actually ridiculous to put in a jail.”
The proposal for the jail is currently undergoing an environmental review to assess the impact a new jail would have on the surrounding area. The assessment will result in a document for the Department of Corrections and will pre-empt a public hearing about the jail. However, the time frame for the environmental review, and subsequent hearing, is unknown, said Craig Chin, a spokesman for the Department of Buildings and Construction. The Department of Corrections could not be reached for comment.
This is worrisome for Ortega, who espouses the maxim “No jails here. Not nowhere,” and was once incarcerated herself. Her organization is part of Community in Unity, a coalition of organizations opposed to building the new jail, including the Bronx Defenders, Critical Resistance, Sustainable South Bronx and about 15 others. Since 2006, Community in Unity has resisted the construction of the jail through meetings and rallies, and continues to meet every month.
However, the coalition has been unable to meet with the new corrections commissioner, Dora Schriro, who replaced former commissioner Martin Horn in September. Though the coalition has met with Horn in the past, Schriro has refused to meet with them, Ortega said.
Today Ortega said she believes that the proposal, which was initially for a 2,000 bed-jail on privately owned land in Oak Point, is moving forward behind closed doors and that Schriro may be meeting with Bronx politicians.
“I think this is bullshit. The community doesn’t know,” she said.
In the past, Maria del Carmen Arroyo, Hunts Point councilwoman, and Jose Serrano, 16th District Representative, have vehemently opposed a jail in Hunts Point, which is also home to the Bridges Juvenile Center. A spokesperson from Senator Jose Serrano’s office said she had not heard about the jail proposal. Last summer YourNabe.com reported Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. opposed the jail when he was an assemblyman. Now borough president, he could not be reached for comment.
Stein said she was concerned a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a process that publicizes plans for the city’s land, would be approved over the holidays. The procedure calls for public hearings and many advocacy organizations would not have a presence due to the holidays.
“They know that we’re keeping our ear to the ground. You sort of hear that they try to do these things,” Stein said.
Community in Unity opposes placing the jail in Hunts Point because it will not effectively confront the cause of crime and perpetuates a cycle of incarceration. The money could be better spent on other needs in the South Bronx, like childcare centers, housing and job training programs, Ortega said.
“Our ideology is just this: we don’t really believe that jails are productive,” Ortega said. “The Bronx is heavy in people who are recovering. Jail just doesn’t cut it. I’m a recovering addict, 19 years sober. The system didn’t do anything.”
The proposed site in the jail barge’s parking lot was originally swampland, which may not be suitable for a building. The lot is currently blocked in with fences and barbed wire, in the shadow of the impending light-blue barge and surrounded by empty lots, auto shops and industrial plants.
“We need a better use for the land and there are so many good uses you could put waterfront property to,” John Robert, Community Board 2 district manager, said.
Those in favor of the jail have said it will generate jobs and think that the Bronx should provide a jail for its own inmates who account for 22 percent of Rikers inmates while the population of the Bronx accounts for only 15 percent of New York City, Robert said.
The proposal, which has evolved over the last three years, was initially part of a plan conceived by Horn to construct jails in every borough to shorten the commute to jail for families and lawyers, and for inmates going to and from borough courts. The new jail would also replace some units at Rikers Island, the city’s main jail with less than favorable conditions.
Community in Unity first learned about the initial Oak Point proposal in 2006. Over the next two years, the coalition staged protests, rallies and meetings to fight the proposal and in 2008 the original proposal was withdrawn.
In a 2008 statement to the New York City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services, Horn said that a new proposal was downsized at the behest of Bronx elected officials and community members. In the statement, he said that Corrections would additionally consider removing the jail barge altogether.
Ortega said she is concerned Community in Unity will not be able to repeat this success because the new land is city property.
Instead of building new facilities altogether, some organizations believe Rikers should be rehabbed and transportation to get to and around the island should be boosted, said Maggie Williams, who worked at the Bronx Defenders Voter Enfranchisement program.
“Instead you would invest into busses that would go from the boroughs to Rikers. Busses on Rikers do not come frequently,” Williams said. “The conditions on Rikers are abysmal. We need new structures.”
Still for Ortega, jails don’t solve anything.
“We’re saying ‘look there’s a lot of things we want,’” she said. “Give us due process and we can have a community meeting to figure it out.”