Opening new jails may not sound like prison reform. But plans to reopen the dormant Brooklyn House of Detention and to build a new jail in the Bronx is sparking a debate involving whether jailing people closer to home can improve the lives of those behind bars – and how the facilities would impact surrounding neighborhoods.

The city Department of Correction (DOC), which plans to demolish temporary facilities at Rikers Island containing 4,800 beds and replace them with about half as many in the Bronx and Brooklyn, says the change will be an improvement for prisoners. But the plan has gotten a mixed reaction from legal players – partly because they object to proposed new standards for the jails put forward recently by the Board of Correction (which oversees DOC). Since a location has not yet been secured for the Bronx jail, the Brooklyn House of Detention has emerged as the flashpoint for debate over corrections goals and policies.

Department of Correction Commissioner Martin F. Horn says there are several reasons for wanting the new facilities. Rikers Island is falling apart, and it’s easier for families to visit borough jails than journey to Rikers, situated in the East River between La Guardia Airport and Hunts Point. Also, since both jails would be for “detainees”– people being held pre-trial or while their cases are being processed – the new locations would increase access to courts and legal services. The Brooklyn House of Detention would hold Brooklyn men and the Bronx jail would hold Bronx men and women, as well as infants.

Some public defenders, such as Brooklyn Defender Services executive director Lisa Schreibersdorf, support the plan for new jails. “We’re really in favor of using Brooklyn House of Detention for prisoners,” she said, noting that people on Rikers often have to leave the jail at 4:00 a.m. for court appearances and don’t return until late in the evening. The House of Detention, by comparison, at 275 Atlantic Avenue, takes up a full block bound by Boerum Place, State and Smith streets, and has a tunnel connecting it to the nearby criminal court. It was built in 1957 and closed in 2003 as the result of budget cuts, but the DOC had always planned to re-open it.

But at the same time Horn is calling for the new jails, he is also behind a proposal to reduce the amount of space in group cells called dormitories, from 60 square feet to 50 square feet per person under the new minimum standards being considered. That’s a deal-breaker for the Legal Aid Society. John Boston, director of Legal Aid’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, agrees that borough-based jails are advantageous, and that detaining defendants at Rikers is “just another way of wasting poor people’s time.” But Legal Aid won’t support the new facilities if they come with less space for prisoners – and that leads Horn to say he may be open to a compromise on cell size.

He’s not surprised that advocacy groups would call him to task about the seeming inconsistency between the department’s pledge to improve prisoners’ conditions by taking them off Rikers Island on the one hand, while reducing prisoners’ allotted space on the other. But Horn defends his position by insisting that New York state requires only 50 square feet and that the city has tried using smaller spaces and did not experience increased violence as a result. “We anticipated there was going to be a lot of opposition to it,” Horn said of the new minimum standards, while maintaining that the need to get people off Rikers is paramount. In the 1980s the city added 5,900 beds in temporary facilities on Rikers to accommodate peak populations. Those facilities have deteriorated and the need for such a large capacity has diminished.

The change in space requirements, according to Horn, is necessary to get the maximum number of people off Rikers and is one of the recommendations that DOC made to the board when it was developing the new proposed minimum standards. The “minimum standards” update is the first since 1978, and Horn said that he urged a review of the old standards because they “do not address the realities we live in, in 2007.”

But opposition to the proposed new standards comes in many stripes. The Correctional Association, a prisoner advocacy group, opposes the space reduction as well as other minimum standards. It is one of about two dozen groups that have joined the Coalition to Raise the Minimum Standards at New York City Jails. They oppose what they call increased “crowding” as well as other proposals including the elimination of contact visits – which are visits without a glass partition – within a prisoner’s first 24 hours of detention; conducting warrantless surveillance of inmates’ communication with the outside; expanding 23-hour cell lock-ins to inmates seeking protective custody; and a change in translation requirements for staff. Clothing pre-trial detainees – who may very well be innocent – in prison garb is another one of the new proposals. The Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association, the union representing prison guards, also has filed comments opposing both the cell space proposals and alterations to translation services. (The current standards say “Each institution shall have a sufficient number of employees and volunteers fluent in the Spanish language to assist Hispanic prisoners,” while the proposed language states “Procedures shall be employed to ensure that non-English speaking prisoners understand all written and oral communications from facility staff members.”)

But the Correctional Association still supports re-opening the Brooklyn facility. It’s “virtually a no-brainer,” said Robert Gangi, the association’s executive director, even though the organization has not taken a position on the Bronx facility.

Although Gangi is not withholding support for the new facilities, he’s upset that advocates didn’t have a larger role in creating the proposed new standards. The Board of Correction, he says, has a “too close and cozy relationship with the agency it is supposed to monitor,” and consulted solely with DOC when preparing the initial proposals. Horn said that the board had gone out of its way to be fair and had followed all of the rules set forth in the city charter. Because of the strong opposition voiced at a spring hearing, the board postponed voting on the new minimum standards until October, and Gangi said he hopes that change reflects a willingness to consider other points of view.

While some groups’ opposition to the new jails hinges on revisions to the new minimum standards, other prisoners’ advocates oppose new jails on the principle that any new jails at all are problematic. Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities (RIPPD) and Community in Unity contend that building prisons diverts attention away from reforming criminal justice policy, and that the goal should be to reduce the number of people imprisoned, not just the number of beds in the system.

Last month RIPPD organizer Lisa Ortega sat on a panel at a public meeting held by a stakeholders’ group made up of Brooklyn community members. The meeting was meant to provide a community forum for Horn to present the DOC’s plans and was held just blocks from the 10-story jail in the increasingly upscale downtown Brooklyn neighborhood. Ortega came from the Bronx, she said, to show that the new jails were not just a “not in my back yard” issue, but rather, “not in anybody’s backyard.”

Commissioner Horn attended the meeting and heard a range of community concerns over the re-opening of the Brooklyn House of Detention, much of which centered around whether the jail could be a good neighbor and whether the community would support a zoning change that would allow for retail, residential, hotel or commercial office space as part of the re-opening. (Zoning and other approvals are not needed to re-open and expand the jail.)

But the question being posed to the community was not whether to re-open the jail. Horn needs no public approval for that – but he admits that Legal Aid’s decision to hold the issue of new jails “hostage” is significant and could influence city approval of the rezoning. Horn said he would consider a compromise on the issue of dormitory size, but he’s not yet giving up his goal of getting the maximum number of people off Rikers Island – even if that means packing people in to smaller spaces.

“If the jails don’t get built in the Bronx and expanded in Brooklyn, the net effect will be to condemn people to Rikers,” he said.

– Kate Pastor