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Say No to New Jails in New York City

The mayor claims that building new jails is the only safe way to close Rikers Island jail complex, but the City Council shouldn’t fall for this Faustian bargain.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

On Thursday, the New York City Council will vote on a proposal to construct four new city jails at a cost of $11 billion. It is the last step before Mayor Bill de Blasio’s official sign-off on the plan. The mayor, who said as recently as 2016 that closing the Rikers Island jail complex would be unrealistic, has framed the proposal as the only way to close Rikers safely.

The City Council should reject this proposal for four reasons: It sets an arbitrary floor for decarceration; it fails to address systemic abuses perpetrated by the city’s Department of Correction (DOC); it pours even more money into the city’s already-bloated carceral apparatus instead of investing in communities; and it’s unclear whether the proposal requires the city to close Rikers. 

Too many cages

One major shortcoming of the proposal for new jails is that it assumes further decarceration is either politically impossible or undesirable. 

When the mayor’s proposal was drafted in 2017, the average daily New York City jail population was about 9,400; the proposal aimed to reduce that to 5,000 by 2026. Currently, the average population is about 7,100, far ahead of the city’s estimates. 

On Monday, the mayor’s office adjusted its goal to an average daily jail population of 3,300 by 2026, based on the projected effects of New York state bail reform and city investments in diversion programs. According to the Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice, existing city jails outside of Rikers have a combined maximum capacity of 2,300 people; by 2026, this would leave a difference of about 1,000 people on a daily basis who could not be detained in existing non-Rikers jails. 

Given these estimates, why is the mayor insisting on building new jails? #CLOSERikers campaign founder Glenn E. Martin tackled this issue in a recent New York Daily News op-ed, asking, “Why not aim for 2,500 beds? Or 1,250?” It’s an excellent question, especially considering that New York City has seen significant declines in both serious crime and incarceration over the past decade.

As activist group No New Jails NYC recently detailed, there are several criminal legal reforms that could collectively reduce the average daily jail population to 2,300 or lower, without the need for new jails. One option: The city could fund $200 million worth of bail vouchers and pressure judges to grant bail and remand review hearings for all pretrial detainees. Using the group’s estimates, this could reduce the average daily jail population by at least 1,000, and would require no action from the state.

Additionally, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which supports the mayor’s proposed new jails, and other groups have called for probation and parole reforms at the state level, including an end to re-incarceration for technical violations. This is another good reason for the council to reject the jail construction proposal: If pending probation and parole reform legislation passes in the 2020 state legislative session, the commission estimates it would reduce the city jail population by at least 750. It seems that the mayor has already conceded this point, as the revised jail population target of 3,300 includes a projected reduction of about 500 people detained for state technical parole violations.

In any case, the insistence that jail construction must happen before jail demolition fails to recognize that closing jails can safely and effectively drive decarceration. As I documented in a previous Appeal column, the closure of a Cincinnati jail caused police to view arrest as “a limited commodity rather than a standard response,” coinciding with a more than 41 percent decline in felony arrests and an almost 33 percent decline in misdemeanor arrests. Jail demolition in New York could force a similar reduction in arrests and jail commitments. 

New jails, same DOC

Supporters of the mayor’s plan hope that the proposed facilities will improve conditions for incarcerated people. But because the facilities will still be run by the reform-resistant and increasingly violent Department of Correction, there is reason to be concerned that violence will persist in the new facilities. 

Despite reform efforts led by a federal monitor and a steadily declining average daily jail population, the DOC has so far failed to comply with the monitor’s many mandated changes, including disciplining abusive corrections officers. Use of force incidents against incarcerated people increased by 29 percent in fiscal year 2019, yet DOC failed to take accountability for the uptick, citing “a higher density of violent charges and gang affiliations” to justify its relentless violence. But just under half of violent charge cases were dismissed or led to acquittal in the city, as of 2017, and gang designations are notoriously racist and inaccurate.

According to current design plans for the proposed jails, the new facilities will include cells designated for solitary confinement, otherwise known as torture. In June, Layleen Polanco died after a week in solitary confinement at the Rosie M. Singer Center on Rikers Island. But the DOC union has protested limits on the use of solitary confinement. The commissioner of correction and the New York City Board of Correction are both able to restrict or eliminate the use of solitary confinement in city jails, but have not done so. 

Without accountability mechanisms to rein in DOC abuse, New Yorkers have no reason to believe that new facilities will be any less violent. Rikers was sold to constituents in 1886 as “the most perfect prison in the world.” Following decades of persistently abysmal conditions for people incarcerated on the island, however, it is apparent that even the most utopian carceral architecture is no match for DOC cruelty. 

Community investment creates safety

Instead of fast-tracking skyscraper jails, the city should be investing in communities and divesting from the carceral system. Community investments—like access to healthcare and drug treatment; affordable housing; reclaiming green space; community nonprofits; and non-carceral violence prevention—can reduce crime while providing material security and longer lifespans for communities of color, whose intergenerational marginalization is perpetuated by policing and incarceration. There is no downside to divesting from social control in favor of community support. 

While it’s true that the jail construction proposal does not discourage community investment, it is deeply troubling that the mayor’s plan explicitly ties safety to the construction of replacement jails. In a city experiencing a record-low crime rate—and spending more than $5 billion each year on policing alone—it is both wrongheaded and immoral to assume that further decarceration would be unsafe, or that jails are the best way to maintain safety. 

Uncertainty on Rikers closure

Perhaps most notably, a “yes” vote this week on the jail construction proposal does not constitute a vote to close Rikers—a fact that No New Jails activists and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out earlier this month.

The mayor has since attempted to course-correct. He announced that the City Council introduced a zoning resolution to prohibit the use of Rikers Island for incarceration by January 2027. But that resolution, also going to a vote on Thursday, initiates a separate, lengthy approval process that will play out in 2020—after the jail construction plan gets the green light. In short, the city could move ahead with new jail construction without a commitment to closing Rikers.

It is also unclear how this resolution would be enforced. Councilmember Stephen Levin suggested that it could be enforced via litigation, which is not only a costly and lengthy process but also a gamble: DOC and the city have a history of non-compliance with court orders and other regulations. Reached by email, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said that the Department of Buildings typically enforces the zoning code. But because that department is under the direction of the mayor, it’s possible that a future mayor could skirt the obligation by refusing enforcement. 

Why, then, is the council voting on an enormous jail construction plan before an “ironclad,” in the mayor’s words, commitment to closing Rikers has become law? De Blasio himself will finish his second and final term in 2021, years before his plan would actually begin demolition of jails on Rikers Island. Before the mayor and current councilmembers leave office, they must ensure that future administrations cannot turn back the clock on closing Rikers.

For these reasons, the council should reject this jail construction proposal and commit to closing Rikers—ideally much sooner than 2027. New York City owes its residents safety and material security, not more policing and incarceration. We live in a moment where criminal justice reform is increasingly resonant with the public—and the electorate. New York City officials should take note and stop pumping money into the carceral system.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem writes about politics and culture, focusing on policing, austerity, and the criminalization of poverty.