Opinion: Why Was a Community Meeting on the Chinatown Jail Closed to the Media?

The current Manhattan Detention Complex, which would be replaced by the planned jail. (Photo by Beyond my Ken, via Wikimedia)

When the last community meeting hosted by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office regarding its plans for a new and expanded Chinatown detention center was held on April 2 at the Chung Pak building in Chinatown, this reporter was stopped at the gate. Staff members of the Mayor’s office banned reporters from getting into the venue, saying this was a “private meeting.”

This is not the first time the media was not allowed to cover meetings related to this matter. The city’s borough-based jail plan [to replace the Rikers Island jail complex] triggered outcries in the neighborhoods in the four boroughs each slated to get a new jail. To appease the public and listen to their voices, the city formed Neighborhood Advisory Councils (NAC), consisting of representatives from various community organizations. But every time the city had a meeting with a NAC, reporters were shut out.

Marco Carrión, commissioner of New York City’s Community Affairs Unit, said that the meetings with the NACs were only for advice, and the purpose was to better prepare for public engagement. Members of the NACs, including formerly incarcerated people, would share their personal opinions. The city can get honest and candid comments only when all members are able to express themselves freely. And some members, especially those with criminal records, may not want to share their stories with the media.

Members of the NACs were selected by the Mayor’s office based on the recommendations of community organizations. The Chinatown NAC had 30-40 members in the beginning. After a few meetings, the number of participants has dropped to 20 or so. Are these people able to comprehensively represent the whole community in the discussion of a major project of a 450-foot jail that will sit on Baxter Street beside the Chung Pak building in the heart of Chinatown?

Do these by-invitation-only members of the NACs have a personal interest in the project? Do they have personal connections with the Mayor’s office? No one knows because there is no media coverage nor public scrutiny. It seems there is no criteria to measure whether the public is fully engaged in the process of criminal justice reform.

Freedom of the press, protected by the Constitution, is a pillar of the United States that helps hold up the land where freedom and human rights blossom. At some press events, if some participants do not want to interact with the media, they can always make it clear beforehand, and the media normally would respect this request and keep them out of the spotlight. The media outlets that violate the protocol would be ousted and scraped from the invitation list. This is how such meetings should be rolled out.

People in the know said only a small number of NAC members have criminal records. To ban the media from being present at the meeting seems to not only be unnecessary, but also to have incurred more criticism of the mayor. The Mayor’s office also asked participants not to make video or audio recordings. It is clear that the office adopted the closed-door tactic in order to reduce conflict between the public and government on this sensitive issue.

On the one hand, the mayor has been emphasizing the importance of making government transparent. On the other, his administration has been trying to shut the public out of community meetings. This hypocrisy is a violation of the mayor’s own promise to eliminate the “tale of two cities.”

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