Published on The Brooklyn Ink on September 11, 2016
The Brooklyn office of the New York parole system at 15 Second Ave. in Gowanus sits at the dead end of the street where the road stops at the famously polluted canal. On an August afternoon, Janine Clark walked out of the white and tan building into the hot sun. She had taken time off work, hired a babysitter for her daughter, and commuted an hour and a half – all to spend about 15 minutes checking in with her parole officer.
“I’ve seen people coming from Bed-Stuy get locked up because they didn’t make it on time,” said Clark. “They don’t care,” she said of the parole officers. “I had to skip my programs. They don’t have the services for us here.”
A survey of parolees leaving the office reveal Clark’s experience is not unique. One man, who said he is currently living in a shelter in lower Manhattan was required to report to Brooklyn, even though the Manhattan parole office down on Broadway is much closer to him. Cedric Roseboro said the Gowanus office handles his case even though he lives in Queens. “We have to go where they are,” Roseboro said as he exited the office. “Tomorrow I have to be back here at 10 a.m., so that means I have to leave my house at 8.”
The goal of the first few days of a person being out of prison and on parole is to help them get identification, access to any welfare services they may need and help them look for a job, said Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. These services are vital as parole is the community supervision of inmates who have been released early for good behavior, not to be confused with probation, which is an alternative to incarceration. While some parolees have family members to help them with the transition, there are others who will rely heavily on the parole office and services in the area. Jacobs said the parole system should provide these services or have a link to agencies that can help.
“It’s more about ‘do I know where you are and are you reporting as required,’” said Jacobs. “People come out and they’re part of families and communities, and that’s where life gets complex.”
For a parole office that is supposed to serve all of Brooklyn, replacing three smaller offices around the borough, a location on the far west side of the borough in Gowanus known for its light manufacturing economy seems far from ideal. And it turns out both parolees and business owners in the area are experiencing problems with the office location.
The parole office opened in early 2015, with almost no notice to residents and local businesses, according to people who live and work nearby. At the intersection of Second Ave. and Fifth St., those in the area say they began seeing construction on a multi-story building, covered by scaffolding but with no signs to show what it would be used for. Local business owner Stephen Guimenta heard rumors at the time that the building would be a homeless shelter.
When the building’s neighbors finally learned the purpose of the building, it wasn’t through a letter or courtesy notification, said Kathryn Krase, a Gowanus resident active in a block association and the Brooklyn Preservation Council. Rather the property owner sent a simple legal announcement to district manager Craig Hammerman, and then Hammerman spread the word to others in the community through an email listserv.
Krase, along with several other community organizations in the area, who were upset about the lack of notice or communication, formed a group called Gowanus United, which sued the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, accusing it of having illegally waived zoning laws, among other allegations. They dropped the lawsuit after negotiations with the department landed on a solution: four off-site reporting locations would be added throughout Brooklyn to reduce the number of parolees visiting the Gowanus office from 6,000 to 2,000 per month. The department also agreed to meet with Gowanus United monthly for the first four months, and then quarterly for two years, to give updates on the number of parolees reporting each month and to hear any concerns from the community.
“Our concern was that they were taking what was existing in multiple locations and sticking it in one very different location,” Krase said of the parole office. “We worked with them quite well to address all of our concerns and we’ve been working very well with them ever since.”
Krase says Gowanus United has worked with DOCCS to solve several problems, such as parole office employees parking in front of businesses or on residential streets on street sweeping days. Krase proposed that the department work with the nearby Home Depot store, which agreed to reserve a portion of the parking lot for the office employees.
But one issue that remains – one that affects parolees much more than neighborhood residents or businesses – is that parolees have trouble finding the office. Gowanus, an industrial neighborhood with a population of about 6,800, is in the northwest portion of Brooklyn between Park Slope to the east and Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill to the west. Parolees reporting to the Gowanus office for the first time are directed to get off the F train at the Smith-9th St. stop. According to Google Maps, the station is a 9-minute walk away, as is the next stop at Fourth Ave. Nearby stations Union and Carroll are a 15-minute and 18-minute walk to the office, respectively.
New parolees visiting the office for the first time go on Fridays. One parolee, who declined to give his name, said he traveled an hour and half from Flatbush and had trouble finding the parole office.
That parolees often get lost is not a surprise to Giumenta, the owner of Architectural Grille, a manufacturing company down the street from the parole facility. Second Ave. can be difficult to navigate because of lack of signs and portions of the street that don’t have sidewalks, Giumenta said. He even volunteered to make an address sign that would make the location more noticeable. But the building’s management company, Fifteen Avenue LLC, refused the sign, he says. Instead, “New York City Department of Corrections and Community Supervision” was posted in white lettering on the front door, but it is only visible to people who are standing directly in front of the parole office. Chaim Simkowitz, the manager of Fifteen Avenue LLC, did not respond to email or phone requests for comment.
Another side effect of the increased foot traffic to the office has been trash on the streets, say some local business owners. They also say they are sometimes left to solve problems like this on their own. Giumenta said a neighboring business owner may volunteer to place trash cans along the street and take responsibility for emptying them.
But perhaps the worst side effect has been instances of public urination. Giumenta says he has installed $35,000 in cameras and additional lighting outside the building to deal with the security. Krase thinks that since parolees must take urine drug tests when they report to the office, the public urination may stem from family and friends who accompany the parolees but are then not allowed into the office.
“We don’t have a place like McDonald’s close by, so I don’t see a solution to that one anytime soon unfortunately,” Krase said. “That’s the one remaining issue on the table that we talk about.”
Despite the four additional reporting sites that DOCCS has added throughout Brooklyn, some parolees must still travel to Gowanus from neighborhoods on the opposite side of Brooklyn, or even from other boroughs. Rachel Heath of the DOCCS Office of Public Information said in an email statement that parolees’ reporting assignments are based on their level of risk and need. The department did not respond to requests for further explanation of how parolees are assigned to offices.
Long travel times put a strain on parolees, said Ann Jacobs. Good parole reporting locations are ones that are simply close to the person’s residence to reduce time away from work and childcare needs. Parole should ideally provide or connect people with services such as food stamps or job assistance in the area.
Across the street from the Gowanus parole office is a Sunset International Foods warehouse. Directly to the right of the office is a recycling center. On the next block at Third Ave. and Third St. is a Whole Foods. There are no adult education classes or other related programs nearby that parolees could attend.
The parolee who said he is living in a shelter in lower Manhattan, and had to take multiple subway lines to get to the F train to Gowanus, said many parolees also struggle with the commute. “Ask everyone; they’ll tell you the same thing,” he said. “They need to burn this place down and put it somewhere else.”