If you’re arrested in New York City, and can’t afford bail—like nearly three-quarters of pretrial detainees—you’ll await trial in custody, most likely at Rikers Island, the city’s largest and most notorious jail. But if you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll end up in the Brooklyn House of Detention, a shadowy complex that looms over the leafy districts of Boerum and Cobble Hill. Your family will only have to travel a few subway stops to visit you.
Currently, the ‘D-House’ as it is known, lies half-empty. Only around 400 of its 759 beds are ever occupied. But if Mayor de Blasio goes through with his plan to close down Rikers, then the island’s 10,000 inmates will need somewhere to go. Every cell in the city will count, and all eyes will turn once more to the correction complex in the heart of Brownstone Brooklyn.
The jail has had a mixed reception over the years. It closed for a nearly a decade between 2003 and 2012, during which time the surrounding neighborhood changed dramatically, becoming one of the most affluent in New York City. It was nearly turned into a shopping mall in 2006, but those plans were eventually scrapped. When the jail re-opened to ease pressure on Rikers, residents worried their substantial property investments would suffer. Now that the jail faces expansion, local Cobble Hill-ites—who are three-quarters white and earn an average income of $127,145—find themselves in a different position than five years ago. A number of residents personally supported the ‘close Rikers’ movement, and some are even enthusiastic about the consequences: namely, an influx of new neighbors.
This might be because the ominous, grey 1950s building appears to have had no effect on property prices of the surrounding brownstones. A townhouse spitting distance from the jail just went on the market for $8.25million. Black netting is draped across the jail’s windows to conceal prisoners from their well-to-do neighbors—installed after a mother complained that her child could see inmates working out in the gym from his nursery window. The main entrance is always deserted: instead, inmates enter through a secure entrance; “a secret door in the back”—as Julie Robblee, a local resident, put it. The American flag hangs limply over the bail window, half-tangled in a tree.
At the moment, the Brooklyn complex relies heavily on Rikers for resources. “We cannot keep half of the supplies we need here,” a detention centre employee said as she was coming home from her shift. She explained that most of the jail’s resources had to be ferried down from Rikers, and that currently, the infrastructure that would be needed to house more inmates simply doesn’t exist. The island acts as a central storehouse—both of people and supplies, it seems. According to Reda Woodcock, a Criminal Defense Attorney at Kings County Criminal Court, the Brooklyn House is used only as an overflow unit; a last resort. “They’ll only move people down to Brooklyn if there’s been some kind of issue with taking them to Rikers.” he said. The Correction Department racks up more than 3,000 miles transporting inmates across the city on any given weekday – the distance between New York and Los Angeles. “Bizarrely, they don’t house people based on their place of residence. It’s ridiculous.” Woodcock said. “It’s so expensive, you may as well throw them in the Waldorf Astoria.”
Half-filled and unlovely, the D-House is hardly the Waldorf-Astoria. Still, most residents don’t seem to mind it. George Baumberger, 53, lives an apartment just opposite. “Sometimes you’ll see prisoner’s shadows move in the windows,” he shrugged as he walked his two Maltese terriers around the block. But Baumberger also worries about the noise issues involved in bringing more inmates to the area. “They have to respect the fact that people live here as well,” he said.
According to a July 2017 report by Justice In Design – a movement founded to rethink the place of jails in society – the very contrast of the Brooklyn House of Detention creates a stigma within its surroundings. The ominous structure of the building pre-judges its occupants: “the public is given the perception that the detainees are guilty, just from the alienating feeling of the building,” the report noted.
David Chapin, an architect and professor who is part of the team at Justice in Design, hopes locals will be receptive to inmates coming back to Brooklyn from Rikers – and accept that they’re innocent until proven guilty. “We need more transparency for neighbors – people shouldn’t think they are going to be attacked by vicious criminals.”
If the much-anticipated plan to close Rikers Island goes through, the D-House may find itself at the centre of things once more. Residents will be put the test as to whether they want a larger influx of inmates coming through Cobble Hill. “They’re part of the population, part of our human existence,” said Julie Robble, who has lived here two decades. “It can’t always just be puppy daycares and Whole Foods around here.” For now, the jail, inmates, employees and residents wait for de Blasio’s next move.