BP doubles down on opposition to jail at State of the Borough

If Mayor Bill de Blasio intends to follow through with plans to build a jail in Mott Haven, it appears he’ll have to move forward without the support of the Bronx borough president’s office. 

At his State of the Borough address on Feb. 21, Bronx BP Ruben Diaz Jr. doubled down on his public opposition to the city’s plan to build a new facility on the site of an NYPD tow pound next to the Bruckner Expressway. Early in 2018 de Blasio announced that the city will close down Rikers Island within a few years and replace it with smaller, more humane jails in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.

Addressing a packed auditorium at a school building on Wales Avenue, Diaz took swipes at the mayor, criticizing de Blasio’s recent failed efforts to lure Amazon to Queens.

“What kind of elected leadership are we under when a jail is being imposed upon a residential community working hard to strengthen itself and where they sweeten the pot for Amazon without a firm labor peace agreement,” said Diaz, who appears primed to run for mayor in 2021.

The city, Diaz continued, is eager to “spend millions of dollars to build a new jail in this neighborhood when the schools in this building do not have the resources they need to succeed.” The building where Diaz delivered his address houses H.E.R.O. High School, the Mott Haven Community High School and New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II. 

Reminiscing about his teen years when he delivered Meals on Wheels to local seniors while growing up in Mott Haven, Diaz lauded the Diego Beekman Mutual Housing Association, “and a plan by its residents to improve the neighborhood.” Beekman’s board and members have worked for years with nonprofit developers to draw up a plan for affordable housing and small businesses on the site, which is surrounded by buildings run by the organization. 

An empty lot “adjacent to the Bronx Hall of Justice at the family court building,” on E. 161st Street is a more sensible location for a jail, he said, adding that criminal justice reform experts have advocated for placing jails next to courthouses as a means of easing travel to and from jails for detainees’ families, and saving taxpayer money spent on constant coming and going between Rikers Island and Bronx courts.

The borough president sprinkled feel-good messages with his antagonism to the jail project, such as the creation of a new summer camp north of the city for Bronx youth, increased city funding for minority women, and the fact that homicide rates remain low in the borough. 

But Diaz’s stand on the jail had its detractors. After the address, City Councilwoman Diana Ayala, who attended the address, argued that opponents to the jail plan are reaching their negative conclusion unfairly. She has met with of members of Community Board 1 in recent months to discuss potential benefits for the neighborhood that could arise from the plan. 

“Having smaller meetings has allowed us to do that,” she said, adding that the city does not have enough programming in place for young people.

“There aren’t any such programs, but there should be,” said Ayala. “You can’t bring a detention facility and not take a comprehensive look at services.”

At a January meeting of Community Board 1, board members and other area residents denounced Ayala’s efforts to create what they argue are secretive neighborhood advisory groups to discuss ways to sneak the jail project in and ignore criticism. Ayala said that she has tried to include local groups in the discussion, not exclude opponents. 

One Community Board 1 member who attended the State of the Borough and has been to some of the meetings with Ayala and others to discuss the jail plan, Clarisa Alayeto, said that though the NYPD site plan isn’t a perfect solution, it is preferable to keeping Rikers Island open. Alayeto, a housing advocate and longtime Patterson Houses resident, objected to opponents’ contention that a new jail would have the unintended effect of worsening violent crime in the neighborhood. 

“I don’t see where this will bring crime and be detrimental to the community,” said Alayeto, whose brother was interred at Rikers years ago. She rarely visited because of the hassles of traveling to the jail from Mott Haven by bus. 

Though “in a perfect world,” the jail would be built next to the E. 161st Street courthouse, said Alayeto, placing a new jail near Beekman Houses could work if the city keeps its promise to ensure the new jail is more humane than the old jail. 

“It doesn’t have to be a Rikers Island,” she said. “If our people are going to be incarcerated, this is what we want incarceration to look like.” 

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. delivers his State of the Borough address at Samuel J. Gompers HS in Mott Haven on Feb. 21. Photo: SOTBX19