Hunts Point jail proposal left in limbo

Members of Community in Unity, a neighborhood coalition opposed to the construction of a new jail in Hunts Point, met to strategize on Wednesday, June 24. Lisa Ortega (holding baby) led the discussion. Photo by Josh Blank

Lisa Ortega has battled Department of Correction Commissioner Martin Horn since 2006, when Horn asked Mayor Michael Bloomberg to build a new jail in Hunts Point. Ortega helped beat Horn back at the outset; in 2008, the DOC commissioner gave up on a parcel known as Oak Point. Now Horn is set to resign and Ortega is ready to strike. On Wednesday, June 24, she led a Community in Unity meeting at The Point EDC in Hunts Point. Ortega is a Hunts Point resident; CIU is a neighborhood coalition hostile to the jail plan.

“It’s time to take a step back and look at Rikers Island and the system,” Ortega said. “It’s a disaster.”

Ortega heads Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities, a non-profit opposed to incarceration. She and other CIU members want the city to spend money on mental health counseling and drug abuse treatment rather than a new jail. Some Hunts Point residents consider the 1,500-bed plan a “Not In My Backyard” issue. Hunts Point belongs to the nation’s poorest congressional district. It’s already home to a juvenile detention barge, a sewage treatment plant and an enormous industrial park.

“I don’t think [Horn] expected us to fight,” Ortega said.

Horn will resign on July 31 to join the John Jay College faculty. Bloomberg has yet to appoint a successor, Deputy Commissioner Stephen Morello said.

In 2006, Horn targeted Oak Point, but landowner Steven Smith filed for bankruptcy. In 2008, the DOC commissioner shifted to a city-owned parking lot on Halleck Street, across from the New Fulton Fish Market. The proposed Hunts Point jail is part of a grand scheme. Horn has suggested that the DOC abandon obsolete parts of Rikers Island for the Bronx and Brooklyn. If a jail opens on Halleck Street, Bronx inmates will enjoy better access to family and counsel. The DOC will save on gas; it buses 1,500 inmates to and from isolated Rikers Island every day. The DOC will shed 4,500 beds, Morello said.

In December, the estimated cost of the proposed Hunts Point jail rose to $500 million. It rose again recently, to $600 million plus, Morello said. In October, the DOC engaged Urbahn Associates to perform an environmental assessment at the Halleck Street site. That assessment is ongoing, Department of Design and Construction spokesman Matt Monahan said. When it’s complete, the Hunts Point jail plan will enter public review. Unless, that is, the new DOC commissioner decides to scuttle Horn’s scheme. Bloomberg still supports the plan, spokeswoman Dawn Walker said.

According to Hunts Point Economic Development president Josephine Infante, the juvenile detention barge hasn’t generated jobs in Hunts Point. Infante thinks the neighborhood would benefit if Halleck Street were targeted for industrial development. Ortega has challenged criminal justice committee chair Councilman James Vacca to take a stand. The councilman will wait and see, he said.

“I do expect the new [DOC] commissioner to look at the reality that the Bronx has been oversaturated with these types of facilities for many years,” said Vacca.

Hunts Point Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Congressman Jose Serrano have condemned the new jail plan. Ruben Diaz Jr. opposed it as a Hunts Point Assemblyman; now borough president, he didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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