The federal Department of Justice awarded Florida-based Geo Group Inc. a new two-year contract for the Queens Private Correctional Facility on Dec. 31. The renewal for the prison, located at 182-22 150th Ave., did not sit well with southeast Queens residents and leaders such as City Councilman James Sanders Jr. (D-Laurelton), whose office did not learn about the development until three weeks ago."We took the initiative to call them [DOJ], because we knew the decision was going to be made in December," said Michael Duncan, Sanders' chief of staff. "In the beginning of January they said they did not know, but on Jan. 18 they sent us a letter."The DOJ's approval also allows Geo to apply for four two-year option periods after this contract ends. The federal government would have to evaluate the circumstances of the application at the end of the contract's term in order for the 200-bed facility to get the additional periods, a spokeswoman for the DOJ wrote in a letter to Sanders's office.On Saturday, the councilman hosted a meeting with 20 community leaders to go over the renewal and discuss plans on what to do next. Edward Duzant, a Springfield Gardens resident of 42 years, said he and his neighbors were disturbed that the prison, which houses inmates awaiting sentencing, continues to have a presence in a densely populated residential community."If you have a jail É what does it say about the community? If there is a breakout, with the caliber of the people in there, someone could be hurt," he said.A spokesman from Geo's main office in Florida declined comment on the renewal but referred the TimesLedger to another spokesman who could not be reached.The prison has been a source of controversy in southeast Queens since it opened in 1996, when it was operated by the Wackenhut Corp., a precursor of Geo. Originally a facility for illegal immigrants who were held pending asylum hearings or deportation, the former warehouse was converted in 2005 by the U.S. Marshals Service into a federal prison.Residents were shocked and angered by the change because they said they had no notice or consent."When the government transferred the immigrants to another facility, [Geo] went to the federal marshals and asked if they had people to house. No one in the neighborhood was aware of that," Duzant said.In 2006, Geo bought a warehouse next to the prison with the intention of expanding the facility to 350 beds. Residents and leaders, including U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans), took to the streets for several protests against the move.After a protest in November, Sanders' aide Duncan said, Geo officials contacted him, promised they would not expand the prison and stopped construction. Despite the reassurance, Duncan and residents hope the new contract doesn't spark a new interest in expanding."My office doesn't believe this prison should be there. They must take it elsewhere," he said.In a letter responding to the renewal, Meeks urged the federal government to work with the community to resolve the issues in a mutually beneficial manner."As a representative of the community, it infuriates me to see communities already struggling with security concerns, beset by unnecessary security issues. For this reason I plan to work with state, city, and local leaders to properly remedy this important community issue," he wrote.Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@t
©2008 Community News Group
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