New York is building the world’s tallest jail in Chinatown. Can anyone stop it?

For nearly two centuries, New York City’s Chinatown has been home to a quintessentially American story: immigrant workers and their families living shoulder-to-shoulder in low-slung tenements. Workers like Dennis Chung, the owner of Pasteur Grill and Noodles, a Vietnamese pho joint he’s run at the neighborhood’s western edge for 27 years – weathering disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and Covid.

Now another symbol of the American condition is taking shape, directly across from Chung’s shop: a vast new jail. At about 300ft, the new structure is expected to be the tallest correctional facility in the world. And Chung says it could be the thing that finally sinks his business. “With the jail on top of the pandemic, it might be over,” he tells me in Cantonese.

City officials and justice reform advocates say the new jail is a necessary project if they’re going to close Rikers Island, the notoriously grim jail that New York’s city council voted to shut down in 2019. That vote ordered the facility replaced by 2027 with four smaller jails throughout the city, including the one in Chinatown – which planners say will be a more humane institution conveniently located steps from downtown courthouses.

street scene in chinatown

The tower will replace a much shorter jail that’s been on the site since the 1980s. But construction is well behind schedule, partially due to years of resistance from a diverse coalition that includes everyone from prison abolitionists to local landlords to, at one point, Eric Adams, who pledged to oppose the new jail when campaigning for mayor. They argue it will be an eyesore that could harm some of New York’s most vulnerable immigrants, and that its multibillion-dollar price could be far better spent elsewhere.

Adams reversed course after taking office, and now the building crews have finally arrived. Today, lunchtime conversations at Pasteur Grill and Noodles are shattered by the crashing of demolition – the overture to a process that might well last a decade. “So I’ll just need to put up with this,” says Chung, “or retire early.”

How did New York City end up moving forward with such a controversial carceral structure in the heart of its downtown? Is it, as opponents say, an ugly symbol of mass incarceration – or, as planners believe, a sign of a city slowly but surely righting its criminal justice ills? And could there still be a better way?

The saga begins at Rikers Island: 413 acres in the East River, a stone’s throw from the runways at LaGuardia airport, and the site of one of the most hellish penal facilities in the country. Though 85% of Rikers inmates have not been convicted and are simply waiting for a trial, the average detainee is held in the facility for nearly four months – four times the national average – and a disturbing number of people languish there for years, or have ended up dead.

In 2023, seven inmates have died, bringing the total death count since Adams took office to 26 – a toll that federal prosecutors have called “a collective failure with deep roots”. Investigators have found crumbling buildings, unsanitary conditions and Rikers guards systemically abusing inmates, and a federal judge has threatened to place the jail under federal control if the city can’t end the chaos.

people hold signs that say ‘close rikers now’ and feature names

There’s no serious debate, even in Chinatown, about whether Rikers needs to be shut down. The real controversy has always been over what to do afterward.

One of the proponents of “borough-based jails” – the plan for four new structures, in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan – is Dana Kaplan, a prison reform advocate who in 2018 became deputy director of the then mayor Bill de Blasio’s office of criminal justice, where she helped conceptualize the proposal. Now she’s a senior adviser on the city’s independent commission for criminal justice reform. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to try and transform the city’s criminal justice system into something that is more humane,” she says.

Kaplan says the goal isn’t just to shuffle detainees around, but to redesign the system so that they can spend less time waiting behind bars: “It serves no one for individuals to sit on Rikers Island for literally years pre-trial.” A big part of that, she says, involves relocating jails closer to the courts – like the criminal courthouse that’s next to Chinatown – “rather than what is current practice on Rikers Island, which is waking individuals up at 3am, loading them on to buses, dealing with traffic and often missing court hearings.”

In Chinatown, the jail tower will replace a brutalist-style, 15-floor, 900-bed detention center called “the Tombs”, also known for its grim conditions. The revamped facility is expected to have roughly the same bed count, but with new quality-of-life features like recreation centers, health clinics and visitation areas with children’s playrooms – all things that residents, family members and staff requested during “hundreds of hours” of focus groups, Kaplan says. “It would be a fundamentally different experience for people who are incarcerated, but also for staff.”

That, Kaplan says, explains why the new jail must be taller. “Just being frank, it was impossible to achieve those elements in the square footage provided by the existing department of corrections facilities,” she says.

view of building from bottom

New York City had considered a concept from the non-profit design group Van Alen which suggested Rikers could be replaced with a network of “justice hubs”, which would place new amenities for detainees in street-level buildings, shared with neighborhood residents to reduce “the fear and stigma surrounding jails”. But the city ultimately rejected that idea. “It’s logistically challenging, and perhaps might not be something the neighborhood would want,” says Kaplan. “There is a real value to [the services] being on-site.”

But the residents of Chinatown aren’t sold. A big source of discomfort is that even today, no one – not even city officials, Kaplan or Eric Adams – actually knows what the new jail will look like. That’s because it’s being constructed through a “design-build” process, in which the city will commission a single firm to both design and build the jail. Though the demolition for the old jail is under way, the city hasn’t selected a developer for the new one.

“It’s kind of like building a bridge as you’re crossing over it,” says Jan Lee, a local landlord and founder of Neighbors United Below Canal Street, a group that opposes the new jail.

Based on the new jail’s approved zoning permit, Lee anticipates a “massive building, extending two to three blocks in every direction, that rises as tall as the Statue of Liberty” – which stands at 305ft. “This is going to be the beacon of Chinatown,” he says. “No matter where you look downtown, you will see this jail.” When it’s coupled with the city’s criminal court, and another federal prison a few blocks down, “Chinatown will be known as Jail Town,” he says.

Kerri Culhane, an architectural historian and expert on Chinatown’s buildings, predicts that the new jail will be “grossly out of scale” – with its shadow potentially reaching the Manhattan Bridge – and will become the ominous “defining architectural feature of the area”.

Chinatown residents aren’t only worried about optics. They say the jail’s prolonged construction could spell disaster for a neighborhood already in dire straits. Chinatown was hit earlier and harder than its wealthier Manhattan neighbors by the pandemic, which – along with a rise in anti-Asian violence – has accelerated an exodus of Asian residents that has been under way since 9/11. Thousands had to leave after the attacks on the nearby Twin Towers shut down Chinatown for months, obliterating the neighborhoods’ garment industry. More left after Hurricane Sandy shut off Chinatown’s power for weeks. And in the wake of each disaster, residents say authorities have provided far too little aid.

long, low buildings on an island

Now, the area’s surviving businesses see far fewer visitors than before – “by 6 or 7pm, there’s almost no one,” says Pasteur’s Chung – and as the jail construction ramps up, the restaurateur fears his business might crumble.

That isn’t just a metaphor. Many of the buildings facing the jail, including Chung’s storefront, are century-old tenements made of brick, mortar and wood. “These are buildings that were built cheaply, not steel reinforced, and sitting on very shallow foundations,” says Lee. And buried underneath the jail site is a former pond and toxic waste dump, which would need to be dewatered before the new tower could be built. Lee believes that could compromise the tenement buildings’ foundations. “We’re talking about hundreds of families that could possibly have to be evacuated overnight.”

There’s also intense worry for the residents of a senior center directly next to the jail site, many of them older than 90. Since the demolition began, “they’re having respiratory issues, their eyes are tearing, and obviously the noise is debilitating,” says Lee, adding that the building hasn’t even started yet.

Last April, Lee was among 10 Chinatown residents arrested after sitting in the street and linking arms, in a desperate attempt to block the first construction vehicles from entering. Also arrested was Victoria Lee (no relation), a local Democratic party district leader, who says it felt “heartbreaking to see the cranes arrive”.

For Victoria Lee, the protest was a last resort against a city that’s been “literally bulldozing their way through the community”. She says the Adams administration ignored pleas from her and other local representatives to consider “adaptive reuse” – that is, to renovate the existing jail rather than build an entirely new one, which would be quicker, cheaper and just as effective, the district leader says.

But the city says it’s determined to proceed with the new tower. “The administration has engaged deeply and extensively with community members and elected officials over the last 17 months … even pausing work for two months in early 2022 and again partially in 2023 to evaluate alternative proposals,” a spokesperson for Adams told the Guardian in an email. “Based on a thorough analysis, the administration’s team of experts and engineers determined that our plan would be faster, save millions of taxpayer dollars and limit disruption to the community.”

close ups of faces

Christopher Marte, a local progressive city councilman who also joined the protest, says the delays are an opportunity. He thinks there’s a good chance that by the time the city is ready to break ground on Chinatown’s new jail – currently estimated to cost more than $2bn – it won’t have enough money to pull it off. “They’re going to get to a point where they can’t build the tallest jail. And they might have to take what we’ve been pitching, which is adaptive reuse of the space,” he says. “So this is not a done deal.”

For some activists, there’s an even better alternative: take that money and put it into communities, so that fewer people end up in jail to begin with. “Why is it that people need to go to jail to get access to services that should be resourced well in their community, to prevent them from going to jail the first place?” asks Woods Ervin, an organizer with the prison abolitionist group Critical Resistance. What most Rikers inmates really need is mental health care, Ervin argues, and if more communities had those services in place then more prisoners could be released.

By putting those services inside jails, New York City seems to have “given up” on its people, says Jan Lee. “The message is: we’re going to put things in to help you, but we’re going to put them in the place where we know you’re going to end up, which is jail,” he says.

The residents of Chinatown also appear to have given up. Last week, at a long-awaited town hall in the neighborhood with Adams, Jan Lee was the sole resident who questioned the mayor about the jail. Lee didn’t demand the jail be stopped – but only asked Adams for “a seat at the design table to make sure that this is right size, right scale and right for our community with the least amount of impact”.

Adams agreed. He also reminded the audience that the jail wasn’t his idea: “I would have done it differently. But that’s the reality, that I inherited a broken city that we have to now fix.” Then he issued a dark warning of what could happen if the new jail didn’t get built. “We’re going to have to take [Rikers residents] who may have done violent crimes, and because we don’t have any room, we’re going to put them back on the streets? I have a problem with that.”

Nobody in the room challenged him. The opposition was tired. The world’s tallest jail inched closer to reality.

What else could one do? “We already tried opposing it, protesting it, and it didn’t work,” says Chung, the noodle shop owner. “I just hope they build it faster, so things can hopefully get back to normal.”


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