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Talk Of Jail Construction Creeping Into Debate Over Closing Rikers Island

In the weeks since New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito unveiled her plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex, talk of jail construction has crept into the debate.

Viverito announced the creation of a commission to explore comprehensive criminal justice reforms, to be headed by newly-retired New York state chief justice Jonathan Lippman.

Lippman’s job will be to oversee the commission’s work as it finds ways to reduce the inmate population to a size where Rikers can be closed. This would be accomplished through an expanded use of community courts and by dispersing what few inmates remained to existing borough jails, closer to their homes, where beds are not being used. The commission would also look for ways to reduce the number of people incarcerated before trial.

The potential benefits of such a plan are many and cannot be overstated. The average annual cost per inmate in New York City was over $167,000 in 2013, which news outlets have astutely noted is more than the cost of four years tuition at an Ivy League university. There are over 11,000 inmates in the city’s system, and the vast majority of them are on Rikers Island.

Aside from the untold savings in human life for communities that have been most impacted by Rikers existence,reducing pretrial incarceration rates and closing its largest jail complex, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars each year to operate could potentially save taxpayers a fortune. Tack onto those savings the incredible sums people pay in time and money just to make the journey to visit someone on the island. All of it is money that could be put to better use for communities by expanding access to education, healthcare, jobs and housing.

To ensure communities are given the maximum benefit from such a proposal, the priority should be to find a way New York City can accomplish all of this without building any new jails or expanding existing facilities. Fortunately, nowhere in the Speaker’s remarks (vague as they were) was there mention of new jail construction. But this hasn’t stopped Mayor De Blasio and other opponents from exploiting fears about new facilities and their associated costs to dismiss the idea.

De Blasio, who rode into office on a landslide victory off a campaign focused on tackling issues of racism, inequality and injustice, reacted to Viverito’s plan by telling reporters that those who want to close Rikers were “expressing a very honest idea that has a lot of merit,” but he believed it would cost taxpayers “many billions of dollars and I have to look out for what’s feasible and I have to look out for the tax payer, and it would require some kind of new facilities.”

New York Police Chief Bill Bratton mocked the idea on similar grounds, telling reporters, “It sounds good, doesn’t it, ‘let’s close Rikers Island.’ Do you want to put a jail beside your house in Staten Island or in Queens or in Manhattan? We’re already having a problem with homeless shelters that people are concerned with. So who wants to house 10,000 prisoners in their neighborhood?”

“Let’s get real,” Bratton said. “You’d have to spend billions of dollars to do it, to expand staff to accommodate smaller facilities. Rikers Island is big enough to accommodate redesign.”

Staten Island Councilman Joseph Borelli, who opposes the plan to close Rikers, has also stoked fears about the construction of a new “neighborhood jail” on land in his district owned by the Department of Correction. In a letter to Viverito reported in local news outlets, Borelli wrote, “The truth is that there is no real way we can guarantee, either through comparison or research, that siting a jail in one of our residential neighborhoods will not negatively impact the quality of life there.”

A few days later, Reverend Al Sharpton hosted a “town hall” in Harlem to discuss the proposal, which featured members of the city’s law enforcement establishment, Corrections Officer Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook and newly-elected Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, as its only panelists.

Sharpton opened the meeting not by discussing how a plan to close Rikers and reduce the city’s sky-high and racially disparate incarceration rate might be a victory for the city’s resident, but by saying, “When I heard the proposal to close Rikers Island as the solution, my fears were immediately, well, where are we going to put everyone?”

After his remarks, Sharpton yielded his platform to Seabrook, who said, “They could close Rikers Island tomorrow — I don’t have a problem with them closing Rikers Island. But where do you put that jail at? You’re not putting it on 65th Street and Park Avenue. You’re not putting it by Gracie Mansion.”

DA Clark, whose office has jurisdiction over crimes that take place on the island, told the crowd there was “no sugarcoating” the problems there, “but even if the powers that be were able to close Rikers Island right now, it’s going to take years to build a new facility.”

No outside community members or advocates appeared as panelists alongside Seabrook and DA Clark, however protesters did briefly interrupt the event. Sharpton and Seabrook reportedly ignored them as they were escorted from the room.

Various advocates have also indicated to this reporter that the idea of building additional, smaller jails throughout the boroughs has been floated as early as last summer by former NYC Correction Commissioner Martin Horn, who served under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In an op-ed at the Marshall Project, Horn advocated for building smaller jails in the boroughs as a way to keep inmates in contact with their communities and not isolate and vilify people in the criminal justice system by whisking them away to an island. Horn allegedly reiterated this position at an event in November titled “Rikers Island: Reform It — Or Shut It Down?”

While it’s being discussed in vague and cautious terms right now, this open musing about jail construction is normalizing its place in a debate where it does not belong. But amid heated negotiations between very powerful and entrenched groups in NYC, jail construction could become a popular compromise solution even though NYC already has other, rather large and already scandal-plagued jails in every other borough but Staten Island that it should deal with first.

Jail construction in any form would diminish the impact of this ambitious and overdue proposal. Taxpayers would be allowing money to build jail cells that could be used more constructively for their communities. These discussions miss the point of what NYC stands to gain by tackling its dependency on jails, taking the focus away from the potentially historic work of the commission and placing it on ideas that ultimately preserve powerful groups with an invested interest in the number of people the city incarcerates.

Yes, Rikers is very much the problem — but so is the dysfunction and incompetence of the Department of Correction. It has proven itself time and again as an abusive steward of those trapped in the city’s criminal justice system. After all, the department’s conduct sits at the center of the corrupt and  violent conditions that sparked these reforms and debates in the first place. Now is the time for residents to consider whether the DOC deserves much of a place in a post-Rikers city.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.