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Opinion: It’s not a ‘megajail’ — but it’s sorely needed

BY ANNA PASTORESSA | I respectfully ask all of you to stop calling the proposed Manhattan borough detention center a “megajail.” It seems that that term has been created to spread a sense of discomfort and fear among neighborhood residents.

It’s a term that locals use to slander the project and distract residents in Lower Manhattan from the real megatowers being erected by developers in favor of billionaires. The proposed borough jail is a replacement of the current “eyesore” and infamous jail, which for a good reason is called “The Tombs.” The new jail would have essentially the same detention capacity as the current Tombs — a little less than 900 beds — plus, it would look much nicer than the current building.

Have any of you ever visited Rikers Island or the Tombs? Have any of you ever dealt with the criminal courts? I have. My son was detained on Rikers Island for six years waiting for trial. I became and continue to be a leader in the movement to close Rikers and implement the borough detention plan. I live in City Council District 1, and I testified at multiple community board, Borough President and City Council hearings, and spoke at many rallies over the course of years in support of this plan. Many others joined me. It is demonstrably false to say that no one in Lower Manhattan supports the borough-based jails plan.

It seems to me that the article on borough jails that The Village Sun published on Feb. 20 (“Is it possible to close Rikers without building a new jail in Chinatown?” by Dashiell Allen) and most of the reader comments on it are written by people who oppose the borough jails without a valid reason.

The only reason people oppose the plan is that they don’t like the idea of a jail in the neighborhood, while forgetting that one infamous jail has already been existing near the courts for many decades. It seems that nobody is bothered by the conditions of the current decrepit jail, which not only is an “eyesore” but has been a place of human misery for decades. It means to me that most of you don’t mind decrepit buildings, infamous dungeons and human-rights violations in your backyard. You seem to be bothered by a new building just because it will be a jail, but you are not bothered by the current Tombs at all.

People will continue to be arrested and sent to jail in future years and we need to provide a humane space for them. In fact, the replacement facility is a bit larger precisely because its design will be so different from a typical jail — more like a residential building, with spaces to provide support to humans in our community while they await their day in court. Instead of accommodating developers, corrupt politicians and billionaires, why not build something to address a human-rights crisis?

If you don’t like the idea of a jail, or if you are a NIMBY person, please let me know how detained people will be handled in the future without a jail near the courts. Are you actively advocating to end all arrests in New York City, or release everyone within the next five years?

I would love to see a free New York City with no arrests, no incarcerated people, no cells, no criminal courts, no crime… . Unfortunately, that does not yet exist anywhere on the planet. If you know how to resolve these issues, people, let’s discuss your plan. And please stop the “megajail” nonsense without providing a real solution.

Pastoressa is a founding member and leader of Freedom Agenda, a member-led project of the Urban Justice Center dedicated to organizing with people and communities directly impacted by incarceration to achieve decarceration and system transformation.

20 Comments

  1. LES3025 LES3025 March 8, 2022

    Thank you for this op-ed. I also hope that we can work toward decarceration, but as we do, it seems like this is the way we have to make our jails more humane.

  2. Henry Scott Henry Scott March 8, 2022

    Very well said! Our incarceration system is a system of cruel and unusual punishment, and this would be a step (albeit a small one) toward changing that.

  3. Akhnaten Akhnaten March 8, 2022

    Ms. Pastoressa’s hypocrisy is blatant.

    She dares call Chinatown residents NIMBYs, as if community activists fighting for the betterment of their neighborhood are to be vilified.

    However, she is the one to be vilified. She is a YIYBY = Yes In YOUR Back Yard.

    A quick check of pubic records shows that she resides on the Lower East Side well over a mile from the megajail. Of course it’s easy for this East Sider to deride the good people of Chinatown.

    Secondly, she tries to portray her son as a victim of injustice after being “detained” in Rikers for six years. Detained?

    What this hypocrite doesn’t tell us is that Junior was there for stabbing a love rival to death. Six years is a pretty light sentence for manslaughter. He got off easy for taking someone’s life. Too bad she doesn’t share the same sympathy for the person her little darling butchered.

    Thirdly, FYI, The Tombs derived its name because the original building was built in the Egyptian Revival style of architecture, not because, as she would fool us into believing, because of “good reason.”

    • Sarita Daftary Sarita Daftary March 8, 2022

      The cowardice of making such a hateful — and factually inaccurate — comment anonymously is striking. Your comment is a good indication of the intimidation tactics people have tried to use to silence people who are leading this human-rights effort, and those who stand in support, but they have not worked.

      • Brendan Sexton Brendan Sexton March 17, 2022

        Thank you for saying this. I was appalled reading Akhnaten’s post but didn’t act quickly enough — you beat me to responding.

    • Koyaanisqatsi Koyaanisqatsi March 8, 2022

      This comment is nasty, mean-spirited, and dishonest. You know nothing about Anna, her son, or the situation that caused him to be detained at Rikers for 6 years. Yes, DETAINED. He never had a trial, he accepted a plea after being tortured for 6 years.

      If you knew anything past something you read, you’d know that her son was defending himself with a kitchen knife against someone who had broken into his building after telling her son he was coming over with guns.

      Your comment is inaccurate on other points, too, but not worth detailing for someone willing to make untruthful accusations based on nothing but your own spite.

      • Akhnaten Akhnaten March 8, 2022

        The victim didn’t break into the building. The son invited his victim over to the squat to “settle this (their romantic rivalry) like men.”

        He then sliced the victim in the neck and stabbed him in the back, repeat, back, killing him. Sounds like the victim was fleeing when he got stabbed in the back. The victim was unarmed.

        It takes a certain mentality to shiv someone — especially an unarmed person — to death.

        5-1/2 years is pretty light for murdering someone.

        I wish you would display as much sympathy for the deceased as for the killer. I do.

        • Mark Moore Mark Moore March 10, 2022

          Do you understand that he didn’t serve a 5-and-a-1/2-year sentence — he waited that long for his case to be resolved while in custody and not convicted of the crime? Do you understand that most people held at Rikers have not been convicted of the crime they’re accused of, they’re awaiting trial? The people on Rikers who’ve been convicted are only those with sentences of one year or less. The rest go Upstate. And obviously you can’t dispute that the site long had a jail.

          • Akhnaten Akhnaten March 13, 2022

            Did he not invite his victim over to “settle this like men”?
            Did he not exit the safety of his apartment to physically confront his love rival in the hallway?
            Did he call EMT to summon aid for this victim?
            Did he not stab an unarmed man to death?
            Is 5-1/2 years not a short time for butchering someone?

        • Akuna Matata Akuna Matata March 12, 2022

          Instead of playing judge by reading gossip and basing your judgement on erroneous information, deranged people like Akhenaten should be diverted to mental health. YES to the “megajail”!

    • LES3025 LES3025 March 8, 2022

      This comment is good insight into the mindset of many of the people opposing the Chinatown jail, including their leaders. They understand that defeating the jails means that Rikers and its human-rights abuses will continue. And they are OK with that because they believe that people accused of crimes deserve to be locked up and tortured. I hope any left-leaning people who are opposed to new jails on principle will understand that these Chinatown NIMBYs are not their allies and do not share their goals or values.

    • Carl Rosenstein Carl Rosenstein March 9, 2022

      It’s actually a great piece of stylized Art Deco

      • Akhnaten Akhnaten March 10, 2022

        The current building is indeed Art Deco.

        However, as I wrote, the “original” building was built in the Egyptian Revival style, in 1838, and one account on the etymology said it resembled an Egyptian tomb. Hence the name. The name has to do with the style, not its use as the author of the op-ed would have us believe.

        • Peter Doe Peter Doe March 13, 2022

          Hey Akhnaten, are you a criminal judge? And an architectural expert too? Please stop spreading your toxic and shameful ignorance. Educate yourself.

  4. li li March 8, 2022

    There definitely needs to be criminal justice and jail reform with a focus of non-jail and offering community-based services.
    Also the Rikers physical facility is completely horrible and inhumane.
    That said 1) some accused of really violent crimes will need to be jailed pending trial and 2) many significant reasons against borough jails.

    Here are some issues, not in any order:
    People will be in borough jail where they are arrested, not where they live (SI offenders would be in Brooklyn) – so not necessarily easier for family.
    Only one facility for women – same as above.
    Borough facilities will be cramped and inadequate from Day 1 and no green space – cramped inmate space, recreation, medical etc.
    Building a jail is complicated and with these cramped facilities very hard to fix, repair etc (see federal Manhttan Correctional Center).
    Incredibly expensive to build in boroughs.
    Logistics and coverage problems relating to medical/health service – instead of one centralized service, would need 4.
    Would not solve issue of Correction Officer staff/CO treatment of inmates.
    Would make CO staffing/coverage logistics much harder.
    Community already impacted by gentrification, luxury overdevelopment and with more to come; more buildings also means traffic nightmare. Things are hard enough – residents deserve a livable community.

    The solution is to rebuild on Rikers:
    Build a new, excellent therapeutic facility on Rikers with good space for inmates; medical, mental health, rehab space; recreation and green space; vocational/educational space; family space.

    Free, frequent shuttle bus for families.
    Need to focus on CO staff issues.

    Also: build a therapeutic/rehab residence (individual housing) on Rikers – not a jail – for people who are released but no place to go and want residential rehab and/or mental health.

    Consider this – would you pick a college campus with good facilities and green space? Or a college crammed into the bottom of an urban high-rise?

    • Mark Moore Mark Moore March 10, 2022

      All of those bullet points are 100 percent false or just not things to be concerned about except for the one about capacity. At 883 beds times four jails, it’s not enough. And three of the four sites already have or had jails on them.

  5. John John March 9, 2022

    You cannot build anything therapeutic on a stinky, polluted land fill. If you have never been on Rikers Island you have no idea of the sewage problem in the area and the terrible stench.
    People cannot heal in a dungeon. Staff cannot work in hell. Rikers Island poses an environmental threat to the residents in the area. Not even the Parks Department wants that infamous island.
    It’s time to eradicate this NYC cancer island ASAP and turn it into a renewable energy Island, as planned. #CloseRikers

  6. Martin Martin March 13, 2022

    The reality is that we need a jail. Would you all rather have criminals lurking around your neighborhood following you to your apartment and making you scared and unsafe? That’s what’s happening now. The city is full of criminals. It’s better to lock them up than having them roaming our streets. Please build the jail quickly and keep us safe!

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