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New Yorkers fight back against plans for tallest jail in the world in Chinatown

A 2019 plan to replace Riker’s Island with a network of smaller, borough-based jails in New York City has received backlash from Chinatown residents. The jails will be built in each borough in New York, with the exception of Staten Island, according to Insider. The jail built in Chinatown is proposed to stand at around 300ft or higher, making it the tallest jail in the world — which protestors have come to dub as “mega jail.”

On April 13, protestors formed a human chain to stop construction trucks. As AsAmNews reported, 10 were arrested, including Evelyn Yang, wife of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Yang in particular criticized New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who has not stopped the 2019 plan despite his support against the jails during his campaign, according to Insider.

“Hearing Mayor Adams in his own words calling [the] jail institutionalized hate against Chinatown and making the promise last year with his campaigning to the people of Chinatown that he would not allow this jail to go up if he were mayor … and then going back on his word … how dare you make this promise to people who have suffered so much and then turn their back on them,” Yang said.

Protestors have denounced the “mega jail” in Chinatown, especially as the community continues to suffer negative impacts from the pandemic, according to The Villager. Another concern cited is the environmental impact on the elderly Chinatown population, in particular effects on air quality.

Vic Lee, co-founder of nonprofit Welcome to Chinatown, was also arrested on April 13. Lee, like many advocates, believes that the money used to construct the jails should instead be invested into social programs, such as mental health and affordable housing.

“We’re really furthering money into mass incarceration, all while doing this destroying community,” Lee said. “In spending $2 billion right now, which a lot of it is going into the development of these buildings, you have to wonder who’s really profiting from this.” 

Supporters of the plan cite that the borough-based jails will ease overcrowding and provide more humane rehabilitation facilities, according to Insider. The jails, in being dispersed near courthouses in the different boroughs, will allow those detained to be closer to their families and other necessary resources. An issue with Riker’s Island is the traveling time for many families, according to The Villager.

Currently, demolition work is proceeding in Chinatown. Still, activists like Karlin Chan remain hopeful. Chan says the mayor and City Council have not been receptive to discussing the plan.

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