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Why Rikers Island Must Be Closed Without Building New Jails

On October 17, all eyes are on the New York City Council as it votes on a proposal to build four new skyscraper jails and up to eight jailing satellites that would burn an $11 billion hole through the city’s wallet. The greatest cost of this plan, however, is that it would undoubtedly ensure that our future generations will inherit our system of mass incarceration.

Communities have long demanded the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex for its horrendous conditions. Mayor Bill de Blasio has hijacked this demand by pursuing new jails as the cost of closing it.

According to the mayor, Rikers Island will supposedly shutter its doors by 2026 under his scheme. Yet, as advocates with the anti-imprisonment group No New Jails NYC have pointed out, there is no binding guarantee for its closure.

In response, the City Council’s Land Use Committee approved a measure last week that would change the zoning map to designate Rikers Island as a “public place.” De Blasio commented that the zoning change makes the commitment to closing Rikers “iron clad” and ostensibly bars future administrations from using it to house jails.

Curiously enough, the mayor’s proposal to build new jails itself contains a plan to rezone two blocks of Queens that are currently designated as “public place.” If this administration can turn “public place” designations to ones that will host jails, then nothing ensures future lawmakers will actually close Rikers. Not so “iron clad.”

This raises an overlooked fact about the massive growth of the imprisonment system in this country. Go back to Folsom State Prison, when it was built in 1880 as a replacement for San Quentin. New prisons and jails have long been built to take the place of old jails with failing conditions. Except, when the new ones are built, the old ones stay open. Folsom and San Quentin prisons remain open 139 years later.

Despite this ongoing legacy, those who support the new jails construction point to their supposed need given jail population numbers. But the problem with the numbers game is that it is based on an assumption that population trends will more or less remain the same.

A recent editorial by the New York Times states that because of criminal justice reforms implemented in 2018, “New York City officials project that by 2026 the city’s jails will be tasked with housing no more than 3,300 people,” down from the current 7,100. However, two years ago when the jail plan was first announced, the jail population was at 9,100, and the city projected a need of 5,000 beds by 2026.

If we can reduce the jail population by nearly 2,000 in two years, we can certainly implement more comprehensive reforms that would allow that number to continue to drop. It is also safe to say that widespread opposition from No New Jails NYC and communities across the city have played no small part in the jail proposal’s steady shrinkage.

Bail reform is a great start, and we can do so much more in expanding diversion such as pre-trial, mental health support, and drug and substance abuse programs.

We can re-categorize felonies to misdemeanors and pass sentencing reforms to reduce prison and jail terms. On the front end, we can institute alternative practices that would mean people experiencing homelessness, mental health crises, or drug abuse are met with services–rather than policing, which leads to jailing.

These proposals are not unprecedented or far-fetched; on the contrary, they are being implemented in different communities.

As much as we’d like to think so, New York City is not unique. Major cities and counties across the country have considered new jail construction, and those proposals have faced similar opposition.

Last August, Los Angeles County, which is home to the largest jail system in the country, voted down a proposal to build a new jail meant to replace the notoriously decrepit Men’s Central. Instead, the county is exploring what it can look like to build a network of community-based care to reduce the jail population and provide people coming home with mental health support.

San Francisco’s central jail in its Hall of Justice has been marked for demolition since 1996 because it is seismically unsound. Yet, the city unanimously rejected a new jail to replace it in 2015 and will now consider legislation that will close the old jail.

In de Blasio’s words, “The era of mass incarceration didn’t begin in New York City—but it will end here.” Closing Rikers without new jails is the only path that leads to his words ringing true.

Pilar Maschi and Marlene Nava Ramos

Pilar Maschi and Marlene Nava Ramos

Pilar Maschi and Marlene Nava Ramos are organizers with No New Jails NYC and Critical Resistance NYC