Chinatown Furious at New Jail Plan

NYS Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou (holding mic), who represents Chinatown, held an emergency meeting about the city’s decision to build a new detention center downtown. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

On Aug. 15, the city unveiled a plan for four community-based jails to replace the detention facilities on Rikers Island as they are being shut down by 2027. Each borough except for Staten Island will have a new jail, each of which will accommodate about 1,500 beds. While the other three facilities will all be expansions of current detention centers, the Manhattan one will be newly built at 80 Centre St. near the current detention center known as “The Tombs.”

City officials said the reason that the city decided to build a new jail rather than expanding the current detention center in Manhattan is that the location on Centre Street is closer to the courts and further from the busy Chinatown. In addition, after it ceases as a detention center, the North Tower of “The Tombs” will be given back to the community.

But people in Chinatown were outraged by the plan, in particular because they were not informed of it until the last minute and were not given opportunities to speak. Sing Tao Daily reports:

Community leaders and activists vented their fury at an urgent meeting organized by Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou on the afternoon of Aug. 15, a few hours after the city announced its plan of the new borough-based jails. They lambasted Mayor de Blasio for keeping the plan of placing a jail near Chinatown a secret from the Chinese community until the last minute, and for having made the decision on the location without requesting feedback from the residents and businesses in the neighborhood. Margaret Chin, the council member representing Chinatown who apparently had been communicating with the city on this matter, also became a target at the meeting, although her office insisted that they learned about the city’s intention basically at the same time as community members.

 The city announced its plan of expanding four borough-based detention centers in February. But the plan of building a new jail in Manhattan only emerged in a closed-door meeting the city convened for some community leaders and elected officials on Aug. 2. But not until Aug. 14, during a second private meeting, did elected officials and community leaders learn that the new jail and its location were not being proposed for discussion but had been decided.

Niou, who attended the Aug. 2 meeting, said she asked the city to hand out a copy of the PowerPoint presentation of the plan to elected officials, but the request was declined. Niou said this was not the first time the city ignored the voices of the community. A slew of similar incidents – from the lifting of a deed restriction that led to the sale of the Rivington House property, to the controversy surrounding the Elizabeth Street Garden to the Extell Towers and the Two Bridges developments – have established a pattern.

“Time and time again, we have seen the mayor completely ignore the voices of our community. A whole new site was selected without any prior notice to our community,” said Niou. “The draft scoping released today locks down the site and the use with no community engagement. As the plan to close Rikers Island proceeds, I am enraged by the fact that once again we are left in the dark as critical decisions are made behind closed doors.”

“We are a hundred percent against the plan,” said Eric Ng, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. He said that densely-packed Chinatown has been pleading with the city in vain for more parking lots for more than a decade. Now the 1,500-bed jail will bring more traffic that will further overwhelm the neighborhood. “In the closed-door meeting, the city was talking about a humane living environment for detainees. Don’t we Chinese people need a humane living environment too?”

Antonio Chuy, commander of the American Legion Lt. B. R. Kimlau Chinese Memorial Post, who had been working for the Department of Correction for decades until his recent retirement, said the current detention center in Chinatown has 872 beds and about 1,000 staff members. Considering special needs such as women and maternity needs, the new jail with twice the number of beds will need at least triple the number of staff members. “It will bring huge traffic pressures to Chinatown,” Chuy said.

Don Lee, who grew up in Chinatown, witnessed the building of the headquarters of the police department and “The Tombs” in Chinatown. “They promised us parking lots and a public plaza. None of their promises were fulfilled,” said Lee. He said even if Chinatown was given the choice between expanding the current detention center and building a new jail nearby, the neighborhood might not have chosen either. “There are better places in Manhattan to build a jail than Chinatown.”

Some community leaders called for the CCBA president to organize a protest around City Hall in size comparable to the one in the 1980s to fight construction of “The Tombs.” (That time, it was said that more than 30,000 participated in the protest.) “This way, the city will hear us,” said Ho Kew Lee, chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

Margaret Chin, who is on vacation, commended the city’s effort of building borough-based jails as part of the criminal justice reform in a press release the city sent out on Aug. 15.

“This announcement presents an opportunity for neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan to be part of this critical criminal justice conversation, while addressing longstanding needs regarding safety, quality of life, traffic and parking,” Chin said.

Ian Chan, Chinese community liaison for Chin who attended the meeting, became a target of the rants. He said the city did tell the office about the two possible plans of expanding the detention center and building a new jail. But the office didn’t know that there was indeed no choice before the community did. He said the office is working with CCBA to organize a large-scale and open community meeting. “The most important thing for the council member is to make sure the community’s voices are heard in the process,” Chan said.

Justin Yu, executive director of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, recommended trying to stop the new jail by working to stop its funding, and suggested suing the city. He also reminded the attendees to not waste their energy fighting among themselves. “Margaret Chin is not our enemy. Our enemies are Mayor de Blasio and City Hall,” he said. “In this battle, we need all elected officials to stand together with us.”

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: – Anger Boils Over at Town Hall on Chinatown Jail Plan

  2. Pingback: – City Drops Chinatown Jail Plan But Distrust Lingers

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