The borough jail plan is just too big: We don’t need that many detention beds
As the founder of the campaign to close Rikers Island, I cannot be more infuriated by Mayor de Blasio’s disingenuous “decarceration” plan to construct four new jails across NYC and what looks likely to be the City Council’s decision to bend to the mayor’s will.
Just two years ago, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said that in order to close Rikers, we’d need 7,000 beds by 2023. But we’re almost at that jail population today. So, the question is: Why capitulate to the mayor’s random $10 billion, 4,500-bed jail plan now?
Why not aim for 2,500 beds? Or 1,250?
In 2016, when there were more than 11,000 people in New York City jails, we launched a people-driven campaign demanding that New York City close the outdated and inhumane Rikers Island complex. In less than a year, the mayor went from publicly chastising us, referring to myself, advocates and other supporters of the “noble concept” of closing Rikers as “unrealistic,” to acquiescing to our call to shutter the complex.
However, though the mayor adopted the rhetoric of the campaign, he has never fully embraced its values or its vision.
The clearest sign of that is that he is pushing ahead with plans to put new jails in four boroughs that are capable of holding 5,000 people who are innocent until proven guilty. Though it’s true those jails are designed to be modern and humane, that’s simply too many beds. It entrenches pretrial detention rather than forcing it to be strictly limited.
The purpose of the campaign was never only to shutter “Torture Island.” More importantly, it was to move away from holding people pretrial and to strengthen communities. As someone who spent a year on Rikers in the 1990s and was stabbed there three times as a 16-year-old, I knew Rikers was the shared enemy that would bring New Yorkers together in the fight to end mass incarceration. But the journey is always as important as the destination.
We shouldn’t set our sights so low. New York is one of the safest big cities in the country. In fact, New York State’s crime rates have consistently dropped — and at the same time, over the last 20 years, we’ve closed more than 26 prisons and juvenile detention centers and the prison population has dropped by more than a third.
Advocates for closing Rikers and other jails across the state have successfully convinced the Legislature to pass bail, discovery and speedy trial reforms that will ensure pretrial detention rates plummet. There is tremendous opportunity to build on this momentum.
Yet these emerging realities and our campaign’s original goals are blatantly absent from the mayor’s plans.
Perhaps even more disappointing, the City Council has been largely complicit in de Blasio’s vague plans for shuttering Rikers. Instead of demanding a comprehensive closure plan with accountability measures that live beyond this mayor and the rest of the term-limited politicians currently in control, the Council seems content to abide by the mayor’s proposed closure date of 2026.
That’s a drawn-out timeline that offends most advocates.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has publicly supported efforts to close Rikers, has expressed an interest in approving de Blasio’s jail construction plan and has shepherded a fast-track ULURP process, minus any lengthy formal debate.
Rumor has it that the next big play is for City Hall to give the Council a “win” by agreeing to the further reduce bed numbers by a few hundred as part of the final vote. A valuable gift, if it wasn’t buried in the bowels of a jail expansion Trojan Horse.