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Brooklyn Residents Protest ‘Miniature Rikers’ As City Unveils Plans To Expand Borough Jail

Brooklyn residents let New York City officials and their corporate partners know on Thursday that, rather than the expansion of the Brooklyn Detention Complex proposed as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to shut down Rikers Island, they want “no new jails.”

The public hearing inside PS 133’s auditorium on September 20 was supposed “to provide the public with an opportunity to comment on the scope of work that outlines how [the] environmental impact statement, or EIS, for [the new jail] will be prepared” according to city officials at the beginning of the hearing. But local activists and residents were not there to just talk about the environmental impact statement.

Even before the town hall began, activists with the #NoNewJails campaign were at the entrance of the auditorium handing out literature stating that they “support the closure of Rikers” and “oppose new jail construction.” Instead of investing in jails and the criminal justice system, activists demand that NYC “invest in community resources” and “close jails by investing in alternatives to criminalization and imprisonment.”

The city gave out two small booklets that explained the mayor’s plan “towards a borough-based jail system,” which is supposed to cost an estimated $10.6 billion over 10 years, and attempted to present the idea of new jails in a seemingly progressive way. One booklet described how the new jail in Brooklyn would look, stating that “there would be retail and community space” on the ground floor and even included a rendering of the street level view. The rendering showed a colorful and ultra-gentrified street with civilians nonchalantly walking past the aesthetically-pleasing glass front doors of the jail.

Dana Kaplan of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice gave a presentation at the beginning of the hearing. She said the Rikers Island jail complex could not simply be reformed and listed reasons, such as how its geographic location makes it inefficient and expensive, and how it affected local traffic.

But Kaplan never mentioned the culture of violence, torture, and sexual abuse by corrections officers or the fact that 89% of the people locked up on Rikers (itself named after a slave catcher) are Black or Brown.

In October 2016, a federal monitor found that jail guards habitually hit incarcerated people in the head simply for not following orders. In April 2017, the same federal monitor found that corrections officers used violence against incarcerated people, particularly young people, at “an alarming rate.” And in April of this year, the same federal monitor found that even with new leadership, more resources, and a smaller jail population, violence by corrections officers had increased.

Unlike Rikers, this new Brooklyn jail, according to Kaplan, would look nice from the outside, include recreational space for people locked up there, and involve the surrounding community in its design.

“We are committed to working with the community to help influence and shape what the exterior design can be,” she said. “It does not have to look like some of the fortress-like correctional institutions we have seen.”

After Kaplan, Eric Fang from the architecture firm Perkins Eastman gave the sales pitch for this new jail.

Perkins Eastman is allegedly known for its (faux-)progressive approach to jail design and previously helped build at least three courthouses in NYC. In January, they were awarded a $7.5 million contract just to lead a study of potential sites for the proposed new jails.

Fang presented a rendering of the jail’s “welcoming lobby.” He sat next to city officials when he wasn’t speaking, which gave the appearance that Perkins Eastman was just another part of the city government.

Others were allowed to speak after the presentations. Politicians and their flacks were given a platform first.

Rather than opposing new jails outright, elected officials mainly complained about the process’ lack of community engagement. Councilmember Stephen Levin, who supported building the new “modern, humane” jail, couldn’t even finish his statement before being shouted down by the audience.

When the public was finally allowed to speak, there seemed to be near-consensus that Rikers Island needed to be shut down. The main division amongst the public seemed to be between people who opposed the new jail and a smaller group of people who thought the new jails were necessary in order to close Rikers.

Many of those who supported (or at least were willing to tolerate) the new jails were associated with Just Leadership USA’s #CloseRikers campaign (with the exception of activist Darren Mack who usually sounds much more abolitionist than the rest of the #CloseRikers campaign).

Even Tyler Nims from the Lippman Commission, the City Council-created commission that suggested to Mayor de Blasio that Rikers be closed, indicated support for new jails. Nims confessed he was gladly surprised to see that everyone agreed Rikers should be closed but stated that doing so was impossible without opening up these new jails. He argued, while not ideal, they would be an improvement of conditions.

“If we really want to close Rikers as soon as possible, you will need to have a smaller system of jails,” Nims said. “I sympathize with people who want to have nobody in jail, but if you realistically want to close Rikers as fast as possible, […] I think that’s the way to go.”

Some of those who opposed the new jail did so because of its size and how it would affect the surrounding community. But a larger chunk of the people opposing the new jail were #NoNewJailsNYC activists.

#NoNewJailsNYC activists insisted there was no such thing as a “humane jail.” They listed ways to close Rikers without having to open up new jails, such as ending Broken Windows policing and cash bail. They demanded that resources be invested in communities instead of incarceration and expressed concern that the brutal conditions that prevail on Rikers would simply continue in these proposed facilities.

“What is the guarantee that we will not end up with four new jails that are simply just miniature Rikers?” asked Kei Williams, a #NoNewJailsNYC activists and former member of the now-defunct BlackLivesMatter NYC chapter.

Lawyer and activist MJ Williams went even further. She questioned whether Rikers would be closed at all once these new jails are built since the city says it will close the complex only if the jail population decreases.

“If the city approves the construction of new jails based on its wrong-headed plan,” Williams said, “New York will end up with Rikers and four new jails.”

Albert St. Jean, an activist with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and #NoNewJailsNYC, argued money would be better spent on providing mental healthcare, housing, education, and other resources to affected communities.

“The city must understand that Rikers is a microcosm of all the areas in which this society has failed the working class and poor Black and Brown New Yorkers,” he said to applause. “There is no need to invest resources into funneling more of us into the prison-industrial complex.”

Toward the end of the hearing, after many people had already spoken and left, Akeem Browder spoke in opposition to the new jail.

Akeem’s brother Kalief Browder was locked up on Rikers Island for three years, two of which were in solitary confinement, for allegedly stealing a backpack. The Browder family couldn’t afford Kalief’s $3000 bail so he remained incarcerated and subject to the violence of corrections officers. His charges were later dismissed. Kalief died by suicide shortly after being released, and his death became a rallying cry for closing Rikers.

“What we really want is to say that there are better options for our communities than to put us in cages, abuse us, and keep us there for years against our will because we are poor,” Akeem said. He contended these new jails would only lead to more people being tortured and neglected like his brother.

When the three-hour hearing was finally adjourned, activists chanted “No new jails!” from the back of the auditorium.

There are three more hearings scheduled for the other boroughs where new jails are being built. The Queens hearing is set for September 26, followed by the Manhattan hearing on September 27 and ending with the Bronx hearing on October 3. The public can submit a written comment on the project until October 15.

Ashoka Jegroo

Ashoka Jegroo

Ashoka Jegroo is a journalist born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He has bylines in The Santiago Times and the New York Times' The Local blog. He has covered protests in Santiago, Chile and New York City. When he's not causing trouble for the establishment, he's live-tweeting protests at @AshAgony.