Fenced up: Protesters rally in Chinatown as new jail construction prepares to begin 

Protesters held a rally to halt the creation of a new jail in Chinatown on April 11.
Photo by Adrian Childress

Shortly after sunrise on April 11 protesters rallied against the erection of construction fences around a portion of the Manhattan Detention Complex, also known as Tombs, along the intersection of Centre and White Streets in preparation for a new, larger jail in Chinatown. 

Neighbors United Below Canal (NUBC) and its co-founder Council Member Christopher Marte, along with fellow advocates, continued their ongoing battle against the borough-based jail plan. While Marte and others in attendance are in support of closing Rikers Island, they have decried the creation of a “mega jail” in a community they say continues to suffer from the negative social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Department of Design and Construction (DDC) was set to prepare for the destruction of the Tombs in order to create a bigger, new jail site starting with fencing that was set to be placed around a portion of the facility much to the ire of locals, business owners, and elected officials.

Locals decried the creation of a new jail. Photo by Adrian Childress

The Community has organized, testified, rallied, and marched. Together with experts in the field, we have presented alternative proposals. But on Monday, per City Hall, construction fences will go up anyway, around the Chinatown jail to prepare the site for demolition,” Marte said. 

In 2017, former Mayor Bill De Blasio unveiled his “Roadmap to Closing Rikers Island,” by creating four borough-based jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens. Supporters for this plan believe that these new jails would make it easier for families to visit their loved ones who are incarcerated while also providing a safer space. 

“During the 6 years of my son’s incarceration at Rikers Island, his defense attorney refused to visit him there and never had a meeting with my son to prepare for the case. Visiting him there was a strain for our family too, traveling for hours back and forth each week. The Tombs, unfortunately, is also a decrepit dungeon. It lacks natural light, program space, and suitable visiting areas. The only thing good about that jail is that it’s not on Rikers. It must be torn down and replaced with a facility that is designed with human beings in mind. Many people are and will be involved in the criminal legal system even as we make progress to reduce incarceration.  Building borough jails is a necessary step to protect human rights – along with accountability to make sure these jails are run differently – and we urge the mayor to move quickly on both,” Anna Pastoressa said, a member of Freedom Agenda.

Protesters called Mayor Eric Adams a hypocrite. Photo by Adrian Childress

Those at the protest strongly disagree and believe the Chinatown jail, which has been boasted as the tallest jail in the world—a 30-story high rise—will cause irreparable and economic damage to the community. 

“Construction of this fence marks the start of the demolition of two enormous jails that will cause irreparable environmental and economic damage to our communities. The lives of vulnerable seniors and children will be sacrificed for the $2.3B experiment called the ‘Tallest Jail in the World” in Chinatown. We stand in defiance of this construction, until Mayor Adams meets with the Chinatown community personally to tell us what he plans to do now that he is ‘the institution solely responsible for creating this mega-jail.’ The mayor needs to be the man he was when he was a candidate, and stop this cowardice of silence,” Jan Lee, co-founder of NUBC, said.

Protesters called out Mayor Eric Adams, recalling his promises he previously stated such as “Building a skyscraper of a jail at this location is…’institutionalized hate’” and “No building up a jail at this location.”  Instead, they want him to stop the fences from being built so that they can meet with him in-person to discuss their grievances and alternatives to incarceration.

The Tombs facility was assessed and found that renovations to the complex would not be feasible since it is not structurally sound to withstand such construction (a renovation was said to have the same environmental impact as a new construction.) 

A giant screen played recordings of Mayor Eric Adams advocating against a new jail in Chinatown in 2021. Photo by Adrian Childress

In response to Monday’s rally, the mayor’s office is still working full steam ahead in ensuring that Rikers Island closes by 2027 as required by laws passed by the City Council. 

“This administration will always follow the law, and the law says the jails on Rikers Island must close on time. To follow the law and protect the safety of the community and all involved in this project, this work is proceeding. We have engaged deeply with the community every step of the way, and we are committed to continuing to work with them to limit the disruption of this project,” a mayor’s office spokesperson told amNewYork Metro.

“No Mega Jail in Chinatown.” Photo by Adrian Childress