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Stop the Mega Jail in Chinatown: How we can help

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at New School chapter.

In the corner between Baxter and Bayard Streets were a large group of people chanting “NO NEW JAILS”; cameras, hand-held overhead microphones, people with their phones out taking pictures and recording this historic moment. In the forefront of the chants was a man in a blue suit, Councilman Christopher Marte shouting through the megaphone “they’re going to spend billions [of dollars] to demolish and turn this building into a jail!”, with disdained booing from the crowd. 

The protests were held last Sunday Mar. 20 around the blocks surrounding Columbus Park – starting from the corner where the Manhattan Detention Complexes (also known as “the Tombs”) stand on White Street. Former New York City Mayor DeBlasio approved for an $8.3 billion construction of a “borough-based jail program” in place of Riker’s jail which they plan to close due to mistreatment of inmates and poor conditions. According to the City of New York website, the borough-based jail programs are designed “to foster safety and wellbeing for both those incarcerated and for staff, providing space for quality education, health, and therapeutic programming.” 

When I went to the protest to observe, people were holding signs that were painted with “SAVE CHINATOWN” and “FUND COMMUNITIES NOT NEW JAILS”. There was one sign that stood out to me that said “My Family does not need a jail in our backyard”. Chinatown is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods that has a population of over 171,000 people, along with a congregation of small businesses, senior housing, and green spaces as mentioned in Welcome to Chinatown’s (one of the organizations who organized the march) initiative. I spoke with one of the volunteers who handed me a card that explained what they were fighting for. 

“They didn’t open up to the community about a meeting […] this is against the constitution,” Feng told me, looking directly into my eyes. “These [jails] will house criminals with mental disorders.” Christina Yuna Lee’s apartment where she was brutally murdered is not too far from Columbus Park and is right next to the homeless shelter on Chrystie Street. 

Amongst the crowd of protesters, I managed to catch a brief conversation with two young people holding signs “PROTECT OUR COMMUNITY, NO MEGAJAIL IN CHINATOWN” on a bold red card. “We’re from Chinatown in Brooklyn, but we came here to support [the cause].” And there are ways that you, too, can show your support if you want to fight for the cause. Welcome to Chinatown has a resource guide that comes with a template message to send to Mayor Eric Adams, along with a list of contacts from his administration. 

Many people are in support of the jail’s construction, citing that it’s a modernized facility that will provide a “safer condition for inmates”, especially after Riker’s first death in 2022 that followed the highest rate of deaths in Rikers of any year since 2013, according to the Gothamist. However, people also believe that these jails are unnecessary and will push out families and residences that have been living there for decades, lower property values in the area, and put small businesses at risk. 

“Manhattan’s Chinatown is one of the last authentic Chinatowns left in the U.S.,” Victoria Lee, the founder of Neighbors United Below Canal (NUBC), another non-profit who organized the protest, said. “There are multi-generational families that still reside here. It’s still home for so many people. New York City is cashing out on these cultural capital benefits from Chinatown, but then when it comes to preservation, they’re not willing to stand by that.” 

Nicole Abriam

New School '22

Nicole is a NYC-based Freelance Writer and Journalism + Design major at The New School. Born in the Philippines, raised in the United Kingdom, and having lived in Florida before moving to New York City, Nicole explores her experiences through writing. Her work has also appeared on Adolescent.net and LUNA Collective and you can find more at nicoleabriam.com