A controversial October vote by the New York City Council to shutter the Rikers Island jail complex has stirred up serious concerns for residents of Kew Gardens Hills and the surrounding areas.
On October 17, state legislators voted to close the embattled facility by 2026 and replace it with four smaller borough-based jails. The plan, championed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, is projected to cost city taxpayers at least $8.7 billion – and is largely very unpopular among residents of the proposed jail sites.
The new jails would be built on the site of the NYPD Bronx Tow Pound, at the recently closed Queens Detention Center in Kew Gardens, and at the current sites of the Manhattan Detention Complex in Lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn Detention Complex in Boerum Hill. The new facilities would slash the capacity of the city’s overall criminal detention capacity (by more than half), forcibly reducing incarceration rates by simply releasing half of the current inmate population and declining to hold individuals who await trial on serious crimes like vandalism, robbery, burglary, and smuggling. Many of those 7,000 inmates to be released under the new plan would include repeat offenders with long rap sheets.
Proponents and supporters of the plan cite Rikers Island’s history of chronic civil rights abuses and inhumane conditions, and call it “a stain on New York City.” They argue that Rikers is completely ill-equipped to treat inmates with mental health and substance abuse issues, and that facilities should be established to shift the focus from punishment to rehabilitation.
Queens Councilmember Danny Dromm, of District 25, voted in favor of the closing, “in honor of those who died while in custody, including detainees who were never convicted of a crime.”
Queens Councilmember Karen Koslowitz, of District 29, who voted in favor of building the new jail in her own constituents’ backyards, echoed these humanitarian concerns when explaining her decision. She supported the plan because closing Rikers “is the humane thing to do” and enables her “to sleep very well” at night, she told the New York Post.
But many of her own constituents will not be sleeping as well as she is.
Security concerns were the foremost complaints raised by many residents in the Kew Gardens Hills and Flushing neighborhoods in the aftermath of the vote. And Kew Gardens community members voiced fears about housing inmates within their own residential streets.
According to Queens District 30’s Councilmember Robert Holden, who voted against closure, “The plan does not take into consideration the risk that these jails will present in the event of an emergency, nor does it consider the possibility of future spikes in crime.”
Many area residents were concerned about the logistical challenges of building a large city complex in the middle of a small, residential neighborhood.
“I live four blocks from where the new [Kew Gardens] jail was just approved,” shared Rifka Wein Harris. “In theory, I agree with the idea that Rikers Island should be closed. And in theory I agree that every borough should bear its share. But we in Kew Gardens are the only neighborhood that is getting a jail that is truly inside a fully residential neighborhood – steps from an elementary school.
“Kew Gardens, which was built as a lakeside vacation community of summer houses,” she continued, “does not have the infrastructure (power grid, water pressure, parking) nor the zoning to support a giant new jail. And so I remain deeply opposed to the current plan.”
Like Wein Harris, Kew Gardens Hills resident Shraga Teichman supports jail reform efforts and hopes to see conditions improve for inmates, but feels that the current plan is misguided.
“One thing I don’t understand is the conflating of the conditions at Rikers Island with all the other crime issues. Everything got lumped together into one big plan, and if anyone questions one part, all the other issues get brought in,” Teichman explained. “I think everyone can agree that the conditions at Rikers are awful and something needed to be done to correct that; but I don’t know how that led to the current plan.”
Eli of Flushing agreed. “They need to fix it up, not close it down.”
Kew Gardens resident Samuel Berger also opposes the closure of Rikers Island. “I have read up on the Rikers incidents referenced by the ‘Close Rikers’ crowd. Nearly all of [these incidents arose from] neglect and/or lack of appropriate medical/mental-health care. All of this can be fixed at Rikers as well as anywhere. Instead of spending $11 billion on ‘new jails,’ spend some money on providing good mental health services at Rikers.”
Community members are most concerned about the plans to reduce the capacity of New York City jails, which will force a mass de-incarceration of the New York detention centers. Many fear that by releasing thousands of current inmates back into the general population and declining to hold people awaiting trial, the city will see a rise in crime.
Reflecting on the largescale release of criminals to accommodate reduced capacity in the proposed new jails, Berger predicted serious consequences. “The problem is that ‘the plan’ does not have enough space for the [number] of criminals we have. [Its] proponents have admitted that the borough-based plan means releasing thousands of burglars, robbers, muggers, vandals, and the like onto the streets,” as well as failing to jail individuals awaiting trial for new crimes.” These offenders, said Berger, “will now be free to roam up and down our streets, prowling our backyards, breaking into our cars, and beating up our children – I’d say it is a pretty bad thing. And this Leftist insanity actually causes the most suffering and misery in poor and minority communities.”
Berger continued, citing a recent example of the risks of de-incarceration. “Six-year-old Avraham Portnoy of Kew Gardens had his face bashed into the concrete by one of the first beneficiaries of your ‘jail reform,’ career criminal Larry Gendreau, who was spared the ‘horrors’ of Rikers Island by similar misplaced compassion.”
A Flushing resident shared Berger’s worries. “Get ready for a lot of home burglaries; get ready for home prices to go to [pot].”
“We[‘re] going back to pre-Giuliani times,” predicted a Rego Park resident who wished to remain anonymous.
Only a handful of Kew Gardens Hills-area residents have voiced support for the plan to close Rikers Island and replace it with four new, borough-based facilities.
One is Perel (Stephanie) Saklad, a state-certified and board-licensed art therapist who previously worked at a 200-bed homeless shelter in East New York treating mentally ill and chemically-addicted men. She lives within walking distance of the proposed jail site.
“I’m excited that Rikers Island will be broken up into smaller community-based jails. It will lower the high costs of daily transport, make it easier for loved ones to visit, which can better the lives of those being held, and will bring more jobs with an easier commute for those who work in the jail system,” said Saklad. “It is my belief and hope that as Rikers is broken down into smaller jails, the healthcare will become one of higher quality, as there will be more providers per inmate. Smaller jails will equal better oversight…and the costs of the upkeep of the island will go down tremendously. The city [will no longer] have to worry about repairs to the single bridge, plowing the island, etc.”
But Mrs. Saklad is unique in her optimism over the controversial jail closure.
The majority of Queens residents are left to fret over what will become of their communities, and they will not soon forget that it was their own elected representatives, including Councilmember Koslowitz, who thrust them into the middle of this highly contested, highly unpopular plan.
David, a longtime resident of Kew Gardens, offered up a partial solution. “The politicians who approved this should commit to living next door to the jail,” he quipped.
Rifka Wein Harris agreed. “Karen Koslowitz, there’s a house on my block for sale. You are welcome to share the burden you just placed on me.”