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Community in Unity: Fighting Prison Construction in the South Bronx

Carlos Allicea and Lisa Ortega and Carlos Sabater
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

The South Bronx has been well known for fighting the powers that be. Elected officials, government figureheads, and even organizations within our community sell out our people for a price. From power plants that emit toxic pollutants to failing schools, police brutality, inadequate health care services, and limited access to environmental amenities—Bronx residents eat, breathe, and sleep struggle.

The most recent attempt to subdue and break us down has been the Department of Corrections’ proposal to build a 2,000-bed jail on top of a toxic brownfield in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. The City quietly unveiled its plans to build this new jail in May during a city council meeting. Had it not been for the presence of Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities (RIPPD) at the meeting, the Bronx community may have not found out about the jail until it was too late.

Immediately, RIPPD saw an opportunity for the South Bronx community to fight back. Leading this effort, RIPPD organized a meeting to inform the community of the plans of the City and the Department of Corrections. Coming out of the discussions at the meeting, over 15 organizations and many more individuals formed Community in Unity—a community-based and led coalition to oppose the jail construction and denounce the anti-democratic backroom strategies that have historically decided the fates of poor communities of color.

Community in Unity is using multiple strategies to face and defeat this proposed jail, involving everything from extensive educational and outreach materials based on the documentation of our work to a media campaign and a comprehensive political strategy with Bronx and citywide politicians. A long-term goal is to use the grassroots strategies and materials developed in working against the jail as organizing tools to deal with other social justice problems in the South Bronx.

Recently, we had a successful town hall meeting with the New York City Department of Corrections Commissioner Martin Horn, where we sent a clear message—through our presence, reading of statements, and chanting—that we would not accept a jail in the Bronx. We also forced the Bronx Borough President to meet with us after an action and rally in front of his office.

The commissioner argues that the new prison will alleviate overcrowding at Rikers Island, New York City’s largest jail facility, where plans are being made to bulldoze temporary beds. While Community in Unity approves of getting rid of temporary beds on Rikers, we question the need to replace those beds. Rather, the money budgeted for the project—$375 million—could go toward developing and implementing community-led alternatives to incarceration. Moreover, in light of the Department of Corrections’ track record, we doubt that building new jails will resolve the injustices of overcrowding.

Our opposition to the proposal goes beyond the jail being a burden on our community. Our opposition is about not accepting the proliferation of a racist, unjust prison system that targets poor communities of color and violates the basic human rights of those in its clutches.

For too long, the city of New York and its agencies have been making decisions that are supposed to be in the best interest of the community when instead they destroy it.
Money for the jail could also go toward developing better and smaller schools, creating community-based preventive health programs or a promotoras de salud (community-based peer health promoters) program, cooperative businesses, and other initiatives that confront the economic and health problems that our community faces.

It is imperative that the Department of Corrections, City Hall, and law enforcement agencies understand that as a community we will not tolerate such a state of injustice and that we are for real. Transparency, community empowerment, and participatory community visioning processes are critical elements to the development of the South Bronx. We deserve no less.