New York City will have four new jails in every borough except Staten Island within the next ten years. That is if all goes according to plan.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last year that the city would shutter Rikers Island — the infamous enclave containing nine jails, wedged between the Bronx and Queens on the East River, its deteriorating facade visible from the gleaming gates at LaGuardia Airport. To close Rikers means halving the population down to 5,000 inmates a day, spending billions of dollars on construction and coaxing support from the public. Although City Council members and the de Blasio administration overwhelmingly support the proposal, many New Yorkers blanched.
‘They’re trying to make it a nicer cage. We know that’s not the solution.’
The city may have promised a smaller inmate population and “smarter” jail designs, but opponents sprung to action. In September, they formed No New Jails (NNJ), a collective grounded in prison abolition, or the movement for the complete elimination of prison and incarceration. The odds of halting the new jails may not seem in their favor, but these are the same community organizers who 10 years ago killed a separate plan to build a new jail in the Bronx. In this case, the lessons they have gleaned from the past may be their asset.
“To me, it is the same exact proposal,” said Pilar Maschi, a member of NNJ who was involved with the campaign to prevent the construction of the Hunts Point jail a decade ago. “It’s just now they’re coming with guns blazing.”
The difference, Maschi says, is that the city is more strategic and organized than before. Whereas then-Corrections Commissioner Martin Horn proposed the construction of only one jail, what he reportedly also hoped would be the first step in moving out of Rikers, the city is now pushing for the simultaneous construction of four new jails. Locations for the new facilities have already been cherry-picked, and the city is expediting the process by combining all four proposed sites into a single Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), a mandatory process that will require approval from the City Planning Commission, borough presidents and the City Council.
“The [city] planning of the first one was a lot messier than this planning,” said Maschi. “There were holes and we managed to find them.”
When Horn proposed the construction of a Hunts Point jail in 2006, Bronx activists banded together to create Community in Unity (CIU) to oppose the plan. They organized community speak-outs, marches and panels. Some former CIU members are involved with the current campaign against Rikers.
The Hunts Point jail never materialized. After nearly four years of raucous community resistance and organized action, unanimous opposition from the neighborhood’s elected officials and, finally, Horn’s resignation as commissioner, the city deserted the plan in 2010.
“Because we had success, I definitely look at a lot of that history that we created,” she said. “It was no compromise. We didn’t want to see a jail. We didn’t want to see any jail anywhere.”
But, every silver lining has a cloud. Rikers Island has continued its operations under decrepit and archaic conditions, with thousands revolving in and out without ever having been convicted, a consequence of pre-trial detention. Now, three miles from 1 Halleck Street, where Horn formerly proposed the construction of the Hunts Point detention center, the city plans to replace an NYPD impound lot at 320 Concord Avenue in Mott Haven with a new Bronx jail.
“They’re trying to make it a nicer cage. We know that’s not the solution,” said Maschi, who was formerly incarcerated on Rikers Island during the ’90s. “We know that the solution is bringing our people home. The solution is not locking them up in the first place, but figuring out ways to create a whole community.”
On Rikers, the infrastructure is crumbling, violence is rampant and overcrowding is common. The city says the replacement jails will shift New York’s penal system into a new age, one that focuses on rehabilitation rather than punitiveness, community and compassion rather than isolation and idleness.
The project will cost $10.6 billion over 10 years, according to the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. However, the commission also projects that the city can save $1.6 billion annually for 30 years.
Experts from the commission and designers with the Van Alen Institute also recommended that the jails be built to allow greater freedom of movement for inmates, more natural light in living areas and comfortable working environments, amongst other suggestions. Their 2017 study, Justice in Design, also recommended that the jails be integrated into the communities where they are built. One way of doing so would be to create a community retail space on the bottom floor of the facility that can be used for an art gallery, community garden, local businesses or whatever the community deems necessary.
Jonathan Lippman, the commission’s chairman and the former chief judge of New York State, sees the borough-based jails as an opportunity to promote community welfare.
“What we tried to make clear is that we don’t expect the administration to create mini-Rikers in the boroughs,” he said. “You’re creating a kind of justice hub that creates a healthier more normative environment, that supports rehabilitation while simultaneously providing the neighborhoods with a couple of amenities.”
Even with the lure of more “humane” conditions, however, opponents are undeterred.
At a panel organized by NNJ in early December, Tanya Nguyen of Black and Pink, another prison abolitionist group focused on incarcerated LGBTQ+, calls the branding of these new jails as justice hubs “a really silly name.”
“They’re saying it will bring business to the communities with residential and retail space,” Nguyen said, “but obviously it’s only going to bring more policing and incarceration.”
For Jorky Badillo of Sisters and Brothers United, the jail system fails to fulfill its purpose. “We think of jails as a rehabilitation system, but is it really rehabilitating people?” he said during the panel. “We’re seeing this system portrayed like, ‘You should be a model citizen. You should do this and that to be better.’ But not everybody has access to that.”
De Blasio’s borough-based jail plan subverts funds that could be used for underserved communities into the city’s carceral system, according to opponents of the plan.
“Why don’t you give our communities some of that money to flourish and [for] preventative services?” she said. “Things that deal with the root causes of issues?”
Instead of new jails, she argues, the city should invest in affordable housing and eliminate pretrial detention and marijuana arrests. Additionally, in each neighborhood where the city plans to erect a new jail, No New Jails has offered an alternative. In Chinatown and Boerum Hill, the coalition wants affordable housing. In Mott Haven, they a demanding a hospital and resources that will prevent the displacement of residents affected by gentrification. In Kew Gardens, Queens, the coalition wants affordable housing, senior care services and the strengthening of immigrant services.
For now, however, NNJ is working on community outreach and mobilizing opposition against the mayor’s plan, as they once did 10 years ago.
“We’re still here,” Maschi said. “We’ll fight again. This is our community.”
Photo: Opponents of Rikers gathered at City Hall in April. Source: #CLOSErikers coalition.