One day after the city confined inmates overnight in the Brooklyn House of Detention for the first time in five years, a coalition of jail opponents sued to block the city’s plan to reopen and expand the 11-story prison.
The Department of Correction surprised elected officials in Brooklyn when it notified them on Friday that about 35 inmates would be incarcerated in the Atlantic Avenue facility on Sunday. New York’s Boldest are gearing up for a $440-million project to double the size of its Brooklyn lockup to hold about 1,500 prisoners, but many neighbors in and around Boerum Hill have objected to an active jail in their increasingly posh area.
The lawsuit was filed on Monday in state Supreme Court. It argues that it’s illegal for the Bloomberg Administration to reactivate the clink without securing approval from other branches of city and state government.
“The city is clearly violating the law here and denying the community the public process to which it’s entitled,” said attorney Randy Mastro, a former deputy mayor for Rudy Giuliani. “Clearly, the city realizes how outraged taxpayers will be by the half-billion-dollar price tag.”
Mastro represents neighborhood groups from Boerum Hill and Downtown Brooklyn and is joined in the case by city Comptroller Bill Thompson and Councilman David Yassky (D–Brooklyn Heights). They rallied outside the jail on Tuesday.
But on Monday, an official from the Department of Correction told The Brooklyn Paper that the jail expansion plan would go through the rigors of an environmental impact statement, which studies the effects of a proposed project on everything from air quality to traffic patterns.
“There will be an EIS on this,” said Steve Morello, an agency deputy commissioner.
Morello says that his agency needs a bigger detention center in order to implement a new corrections policy that calls for community jails, which put the inmates closer to their families, lawyers and social service organizations than at the remote Rikers Island complex.
To help blend the Brooklyn jail into the neighborhood, the current plan calls for renting first-floor space to retailers. Previous failed ideas included developing residential housing and a school on the premises, too.
The burst of activity comes after months of back-and-forth bickering between the Department of Correction and the critics of its plan during which Thompson said the city should demolish the jail and sell the property.
Since the city stopped confining inmates in the jail, located between Boerum Place and Smith Street, in 2003, the House of D has existed in a netherworld — not completely shuttered, yet far from being in full use. During the day, some prisoners have been locked in its cells while they await appearances in nearby courts, some connected to the jail by tunnels; at night, the detainees were back on Rikers.
As a result, community residents told The Brooklyn Paper that the reopened facility is unseemly and makes them uncomfortable.
“I’ll have to change my walking habits,” said Tad Hills of Boerum Hill. “A few years ago, when the jail was still open, I walked in front of the jail with my family and some prisoners [on a corrections bus] started yelling at us.”
Of course, there’s always a bright side to having a jail in your community. A nearby restaurant manager said he expects to get a bounce in business when the jail is in full swing again — though that won’t happen for years.
“We used to do breakfast, but we had to stop when the jail closed,” said a manager, who asked for anonymity because many neighbors oppose the city plan. “It’s good for business, because the officers come in for lunch.— with Evan Gardner