The Oct. 17 vote by the City Council to fund the construction of at least four new jails in New York City brought to a head a long-simmering division within the criminal-justice-reform community. On the one side, the Close Rikers campaign advocated for closing the Rikers Island jail complex as a moral imperative driven by the experiences of the people incarcerated there. It was supported by foundations and service providers looking to shrink the size of the jail system and improve conditions. On the other side, is the No New Jails movement that is skeptical of the deal to build new jails first in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens, and close Rikers 10 years later. It rejects the premise that new jails can be “more humane” than old ones, and argued that the focus should be on reducing the number of people incarcerated low enough to close Rikers without building new jails.
There is no such thing as a humane jail.
In the end, the Council voted overwhelmingly to build the new jails, at a cost of close to $10 billion, with only minimal new investment in community-based initiatives and an easily reversible zoning change that in theory will prohibit Rikers Island from hosting a jail beginning in 2027. The current borough jails will be closed, and prisoners housed there will be moved to Rikers. As the new jails open, prisoners will be moved out of Rikers and the island will eventually be developed for other purposes.
There are currently about 7,000 people being held at Rikers, down from as many as 20,000 in the 1990s. The Department of Corrections has a budget of close to $1 billion a year and it’s estimated that each bed at Rikers costs over $200,000 a year to operate. The new jails are expected to hold up to about 3,300 people as opposed to the current non-Rikers capacity of 2,600.
In addition to new “better designed” jails in the four largest boroughs, the plan also calls for the creation of new “hospital” and youth and women jails. The city Department of Corrections will continue to be in charge of running these facilities, despite the protests of the Close Rikers campaign about its long history of abuse and corruption.
Advocates and service providers such as The Fortune Society, Osborne Association, and Brooklyn Defender Services have insisted that new jails are necessary to make the conditions of incarceration consistent with basic human rights standards and that improvements in conditions and services are key demands of their incarcerated clients. These include ending the use of solitary confinement, access to better medical services, and increased rehabilitation programing. Placing people in jails in the borough-based facilities also means they will be closer to their homes, which should make visitation easier.
Some former members of the Close Rikers movement such as the Bronx Defenders and VOCAL-NY pulled out because they felt that the plan lacked any real investment in new community-based services such as affordable housing and community-based mental health programs. They also objected to spending money on building institutions that they view as fundamentally harmful.
Both coalitions are philosophically opposed to the use of jails and police to solve what they believe are at root community problems, and support community investments outside of those institutions. Their disagreement rested largely on the strategic question of whether building new jails would undermine efforts to invest in community-based strategies or even fail to result in closing the Rikers jail complex.
Both have issued powerful policy statements about the need to invest in communities and individuals instead of the criminal justice system. Close Rikers undertook a major initiative to consult with nonprofit organizations and community members about the kinds of investments that would create healthier and safer communities. The result was their “Build Communities” document, which lays out specific programmatic interventions in the areas of public health, housing, employment, education, and building non-carceral community infrastructures that could be paid for by ending our reliance on police and jails.
No New Jails’ “Close Rikers Now, We Keep Us Safe” plan makes similar proposals but also points to non-police public-safety programs to address interpersonal conflict such as Sista to Sista’s “Liberated Ground” and the Audre Lorde Project’s “Safe Outside the System” initiative. Both of these rely on community-based strategies of public education, conflict mediation, and mutual support. The plan also calls for ending “broken windows” policing, getting police out of schools, and removing police from mental-health crisis calls.
Now that the deal to approve new jails has been approved, both campaigns have indicated their intention to mobilize in favor of their respective community-investment initiatives and to hold the city to its pledge to close Rikers. One hopes the two sides can be drawn together on a unified platform, given how similar their proposals are. Close Rikers could bring its extensive coalition-building capacity to bear, while No New Jails could expand on its focus on grassroots mobilization and community-building efforts. But will major funders like the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations, along with established institutional players like the Vera Institute, the Fortune Society and the Osborne Association, which are tied to providing services within the jails, remain committed to supporting such a movement with the same enthusiasm they showed for the new jails plan?
Alex Vitale is Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing (Verso Press).
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