From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Closing Rikers: Competing Visions for the Future of New York City’s Jails
Date October 20, 2019 12:05 AM
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[The history of Rikers is a warning about putting the onus of
reform on infrastructure rather than the systems that lead to
incarceration. If new prisons are built to replace it, it wont be long
before they too will be judged inhumane.] [[link removed]]

CLOSING RIKERS: COMPETING VISIONS FOR THE FUTURE OF NEW YORK CITY’S
JAILS  
[[link removed]]


 

Anakwa Dwamena
October 4, 2019
New York Review of Books
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_ The history of Rikers is a warning about putting the onus of reform
on infrastructure rather than the systems that lead to incarceration.
If new prisons are built to replace it, it won't be long before they
too will be judged inhumane. _

Plans for Rikers Island as “a city in itself,” projected five
separate institutions for men, women, and adolescents, with a total
capacity of 6,780 people. , New York City Department of
Correction/Urban Omnibus

 

On September 5, a New York City Council hearing on the building of
four borough-based jails tied to the closure of the Rikers Island Jail
complex ran for ten hours of passionate and combative testimony from
members of the public. Usually a subdued process, this particular
Uniform Land Use Review Procedure—an arcane process for analyzing
proposals that require changes to zoning regulations, and that
generally sticks to matters like floor area ratio, environmental
impact, and shadows cast by tall buildings—involved debates about
hot-button criminal justice issues such as supervised release, bail
reform, and alternatives to incarceration. The normal policy against
raucous applause or jeering was overrun by passionate activists, some
of whom were ejected for yelling at speakers. More than two hundred
people stood in a line that snaked around City Hall Park, hoping for
access to the meeting. 

One speaker, to audible gasps from the audience, chided the chair of
the council for inattention and urged the council members to risk
their “tidy meaningless careers” to vote against the plan for
borough jails—or they would “have blood on their hands.” The
main target, however, of speaker after speaker—from those giving
testimony to some elected representatives on the council itself—was
the New York City mayor’s office, which was reprimanded for a lack
of transparency and community engagement while developing its plan to
replace Rikers, notorious for its brutal conditions, with the four
local jails. 

Three years ago, the speaker of City Council, Melissa Mark Viverito,
announced the formation of an independent commission to investigate
the closure of Rikers. New York City had seen a consistently downward
trend in major crime—a reduction by 78 percent since 1993—and the
city’s average daily jail population had fallen by 91 percent since
1991. A few months after the speaker’s address, the City Council
also passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act, diverting a number of
offenses—such as drinking alcohol from open containers, littering,
and public urination—from criminal to civil court. These new
measures alone led to a 90 percent drop in criminal court summonses. 

At the same time, increasing use of pretrial supervised release began
to direct thousands of people away from the jails, and alternatives to
custodial sentencing programs and bail reform—including online
payments and access to bail funds—chipped away at the numbers even
more. Amid this wave of reform, and thanks to the efforts of formerly
incarcerated activists and criminal justice movements, the independent
commission met to assess the state of Rikers and examine ways it could
be closed. 

A former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, Jonathan
Lippman, was appointed to lead the commission, which selected
twenty-seven commissioners to the task. One was from the Vera
Institute, which works for criminal justice reform. Insha Rahman, also
from the Vera Institute and a member of the supporting staff for the
commission, told me that, at first, the closure of Rikers was not a
foregone conclusion. But after a year of research and consultations,
the commission concluded that there was still significant potential to
reduce the number of people in jail and that closing Rikers would be
in the city’s best interest. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio, perhaps eager to regain his progressive bona
fides after declaring the idea of closing Rikers “unrealistic,”
announced on March 31, 2017, that the city aimed to close the complex,
working broadly from the commission’s recommendations, and would
build four new borough-based jails in its place. The mayor’s office
then began the ULURP process—the September 5 hearing represented the
last stage of that, following advisory reviews with the community
boards, borough presidents, and the city planning commission. 

Only a few at the hearing contested the need to close Rikers, though
many hoped to avoid jail construction in their neighborhoods. Although
some activists highlighted the urgency to support the plan now, and
others opposed any plan that required the building of new jails, they
shared a frustration that the land use review process represented the
first truly open opportunity for public comment on the plan. Worse,
the narrow remit of the hearing limited discussion to land use issues
and stymied debate on criminal justice concerns. The activists argued
that communities should have been consulted earlier about the plan
that City Council will vote on later this month. “You do understand
community input is [supposed to come] before you make the decision,”
Council member Rafael Salamanca, said to the delegation from the
mayor’s office. 

With the future of New York City’s correctional system at stake, the
overwhelming feeling among activists and community members—amid the
kaleidoscope of arguments and the city’s unyielding responses at the
early September hearing, and in previous borough meetings—is
disappointment and frustration. At this moment in the country’s
history, an unusual alignment has taken shape—of investment in and
activism around criminal justice reform; widespread recognition of the
failure of systems currently in place; political will from all levels
of government; and an abundance of successful programs for change
backed by policy research. Yet the de Blasio administration is still
hiding behind logistics and bureaucracy, repeating past mistakes and
reluctant to do more to address its part in the perpetuation of an
unjust system. The debates about the closure of Rikers have revealed
how the city, circumscribed by what it feels it can get away with
politically, is unwilling to look beyond what seems acceptable to what
might be possible.

*

Though out of sight and out of mind for most New Yorkers, the Rikers
Island complex has long been criticized for a history of brutality and
violence disproportionally affecting the city’s black and brown
communities—a fact highlighted most recently by the death while in
solitary confinement of a transgender woman, Layleen Polanco, because
of medical neglect. As of two weeks ago, by the city’s count, there
were approximately 7,000 people held across all of New York City’s
jails, the majority of whom were at Rikers, at the cost of two billion
a year, or around $300,000 per inmate. About 55 percent of the
city’s incarcerated are black and 33 percent Latinx, even though
only 24 percent of the city is black and 29 percent Latinx. Nearly
half of the inmates have some form of mental health issue. 

The history of Rikers itself is a warning about putting the onus of
reform on infrastructure rather than the systems that lead to
incarceration in the first place. Rikers was built in the early
1900s, using the forced labor of largely black and immigrant
prisoners, as the modern alternative to the city’s overcrowded and
dilapidated facilities on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island.
A September 1886 report
[[link removed]] in _The_ _New
York Times_ mentioned the city’s purchase of the island to allow
for “an enormous model penitentiary, ample in size to serve for many
years to come and which in all its plans and parts should be the most
perfect prison in the world.”

In the mid 1950s, a former judge and criminal justice reformer
named Anna M. Kross
[[link removed]] became the
commissioner of the city’s Department of Correction and spearheaded
the building of more facilities on Rikers, bringing in social workers
and clinicians for rehabilitation of inmates and establishing Rikers
as the central facility in the department’s citywide operation. This
expansion and consolidation would make Rikers the largest jail complex
in the country: by the 1970s, the average daily population began
ballooning, eventually reaching a peak of about 21,000 in 1991. At the
same time, overcrowding and deteriorating conditions in the jail led
to increasing clashes among inmates and between inmates and guards.
The nine jails of the complex have become notorious for their
brutality despite numerous attempts to address its culture of
violence. 

In the last decade, a sustained assault from writers and academics
like Michelle Alexander (_The New Jim Crow, _2010) and James Forman
(_Locking Up Our Own_, 2017) and filmmakers like Ava DuVernay
(_13__th_, 2016 and _When They See Us_, 2019) have brought renewed
scrutiny to the racialized and unjust nature of mass incarceration.
This has complemented the turn, on the part of lawmakers across the
country, toward jail and prison reform on all levels—so much so that
even Donald Trump can claim the badge of a reformer after championing
the reduction of mandatory minimums and crack sentences in the federal
First Step Act. 

In July of 2014, a _New York Times_ investigation detailed the scale
of the problem—in particular, the “overwhelming brunt of the
violence” borne by inmates with mental illness. A month later, the
Manhattan US Attorney’s office released an eighty-page report
describing the use of excessive force by correction officers on
teenagers held at Rikers. The following year, city officials agreed to
federal oversight of the complex, the result of a legal settlement
from a 2011 class action lawsuit against the city by the Legal Aid
Society and the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York,
among others. Then, in 2016, the Lippman Commission concluded that
Rikers was beyond reform—and made what seemed at the time the
radical recommendation that the city should tear it down and replace
it with five borough-based jails. Finally, last year, the New York
State Commission of Correction underscored Rikers’ failure by
including the jail complex in its “Worst Offenders” list of
facilities requiring state monitoring.

For all the litigation and official reports, it was perhaps the story
of Kalief Browder
[[link removed]]’s
suicide in 2015 that stoked public outrage and sealed Rikers’s
fate. Browder was a young man who had been held on the island, unable
to make bail, for three years, much of that time in solitary
confinement; suffering from depression, and paranoia after his release
in 2013, he died two years later. Browder’s story thrust Rikers’s
harsh conditions back into mainstream consciousness, making it a place
that could no longer be ignored. 

Facing unrelenting pressures from activists, the mayor’s office of
criminal justice put out its own plan to replace Rikers with not five,
but four jails—one in each borough, minus Staten Island. (There are
currently eight operating jails on Rikers and three others across the
city.) The mayor’s plan—which calls for the rebuilding of existing
jails in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the return to service of an inactive
one in Queens, and the construction of a new one in the Bronx, at a
cost of $8.7 billion—argues that historic reductions of crime in the
city and the reduced average daily population in city jails would
allow the city to aim to cut the incarcerated population by more than
a half by 2026, with an additional combination of reforms of bail and
pre-trial detention. The mayor’s office also maintained that better
infrastructure would allow officers a wider view of cells and that
more sunlight, improved training of staff, and programming available
for detainees, like job reentry preparation, would lead to safer jails
than those on Rikers. 

The morning Mayor DeBlasio first announced the plans for closure was a
big day for activists, many of whom have been advocating for decades
for the closing of Rikers. “Dozens of us came out,” said Darren
Mack, an organizer since 2016 with the criminal justice organization
JustLeadershipUSA’s #CLOSErikers campaign. “It was surprising and
it was a joy. If it came to demolishing that facility right now, I
would stand next to them with a sledge-hammer.” Though a year
behind, this represented a major step in the right direction for the
city. 

Over the last few years, Mack has dutifully attended events in
connection to closing Rikers all around the city, sharing his story as
a testimony to why Rikers is beyond reform and in urgent need of
closure. At the land use review hearing, he spoke about how far
organizing efforts to shut down Rikers had come—until recently, he
said, it would have been a contentious suggestion. 

In 1992, aged seventeen, Mack was arrested as an accomplice to his
older brother in a robbery. He received a sentence of twenty-to-forty
years, and spent nineteen months on Rikers. There, he read Malcolm X,
George Jackson, and Michel Foucault, as well as Thomas
Sugrue’s _The Origins of the Urban Crisis_. Mack was released on
parole in 2012, but it was hearing about Browder that became the
catalyst for his activism. He learned that Browder’s brother, Akeem,
was involved in the movement to close Rikers, and Mack joined. “I
was burning with rage, that the same old shit was still happening,”
Mack told me. “I wonder how many other Kalief Browders existed.”

In the three years since he was protesting outside the mayor’s Park
Slope YMCA gym, Mack and the #CLOSErikers campaign find themselves
supporting the mayor’s plan, arguing for the urgent need to close
Rikers above all else, even as they demand more reforms and a smaller
target jail population from the city. This process to close Rikers
had gone “further than we have ever imagined,” the Vera
Institute’s Rahman said at the hearing, and “voting yes… is not
at odds with striving for a day when jails become obsolete.” 

From almost every perspective, there are still disturbing facets of
the mayor’s plan. Several council members said at the hearing that
they would not be prepared to vote on the plan until there were more
concrete commitments to criminal justice reform. Others asked for the
building assessments to be redone and the size reduced to reflect the
expectation that there will be an even smaller number of inmates than
was anticipated at the plan’s inception. Rahman suggested that as
the city invests in new jails, it ought to make a corresponding
investment in the communities affected—for instance, for “every
dollar spent on jail, a dollar in a community that has been impacted.
In housing, education, health, green spaces.” Activists who oppose
the building of any borough jails argue that the new construction
undermines the value of closing Rikers by evading the real systemic
issues. And the city’s decision to put four buildings into one land
use process, rather than addressing one at a time, is seen by some
[[link removed]] as
an act of bad faith—prioritizing speed to circumvent public
critique. The lack of initiative in pursuing community input,
especially on points supported by members of the independent
commission, is alarming. 

Few disagree with the need to close Rikers, but most neighborhood
associations have disagreed with the mayor’s plan for reasons other
than criminal justice reform. Members of Chung Pak, an organization
that manages real estate in Chinatown, where the Manhattan borough
jail would be built, have expressed concerns about the effects that
construction would have on nearby retail spaces and senior citizen
residences. In downtown Brooklyn and Kew Gardens, Queens, community
members have complained of inadequate consultation before the
locations and plans were finalized. Indeed, the city appointed the
panels of its Neighborhood Advisory Councils, which could only make
recommendations and were conducted behind closed doors. None of the
community boards representing the areas where the jails would be built
have approved the plans. 

Baffling to many at the land use review hearing, the city plans to
rehouse inmates from the existing borough-based jails in Rikers itself
during the new construction in the boroughs. This would keep the
complex in use for the decade it would take to build the new jails.
The Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood association and borough
president have pushed back against the city’s chosen location for
the jail, arguing that it is not close to a court—as the commission
recommended—and that it goes against the community’s plans for
rehabilitation after decades of neglect from the city. The city’s
response has been that it can provide 235 units of affordable housing
adjacent to the jail. Questions also came up about how increased
traffic from visitors and correction officers—many of whom live
outside the city—would effect local residents and businesses. 

For many criminal justice reform activists and some council members,
however, these are peripheral issues. “This is about the whole
entire city,” Mack said, “it is bigger than just one
community.” 

*

The central challenge involved in closing Rikers Island is reducing
the complex’s jail population to a number that can be safely and
effectively accommodated elsewhere. And while it might not appear that
way, the number of people we keep in jail is almost entirely up to us
as a city. As Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office
of Criminal Justice, puts it
[[link removed]],
people enter jail “because of a series of decisions made by police,
judges, prosecutors, defenders, and defendants at different points in
the criminal justice system. At each decision point, an individual is
either directed away from or to jail: a police officer may make an
arrest or not; a prosecutor may bring charges or not; and the judge
may at any time dismiss a case, set bail, remand to jail, or release
with either no conditions or some conditions.” 

Given that we know the highest risk factor for incarceration is
contact with the criminal justice system, the best way to reduce the
number of people imprisoned is not to incarcerate them in the first
place. Of 7,000 people in New York City jails in April of this year,
almost 5,000 were held pretrial; by some estimates, 40 percent of
these would have been released under the New York State bail reform
set to kick in at the beginning of next year. The mayor’s office has
already revised its estimated jail population for 2026, the target
year for shutting down Rikers, from 5,000 to 4,000. But with upcoming
reforms yet to be in effect, the question on most advocates’ minds
is: Why can’t we go lower? 

John Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham who specializes in
incarceration statistics, told me that a reduced figure of 2,500 for
New York’s jail population seems outlandish only because we are
familiar with extremely high numbers. More than three quarters of
people currently in New York jails have not been convicted of a crime
and are awaiting trial; of these, 5 percent are in for a misdemeanor
or lesser infraction, 22 percent for a nonviolent felony, 38 percent
for a violent felony, and 11 percent for a suspected parole violation.
Of the remainder, some 8 percent are locked up for an actual parole
violation, 12 percent have been sentenced, and 5 percent are in
transit or finishing out sentences. The only category of inmate
population that is increasing is that of parole violators, a
regulation enforced not by the city but by the State Department of
Probation; this sanction is under consideration for reform in the New
York State legislature as the current statute includes unjust
stipulations like punishing violators not by the severity of the
infraction but by their original crime. 

“Any number [for a total jail population] is physically
achievable,” Pfaff said. “The challenge is getting all the
individual actors to get us there.” In his 2017 book _Locked In_,
he identifies prosecutors as particularly important actors. Mirroring
the gradual ascendance of the progressive prosecutor
[[link removed]] in
other major cities, attitudes are changing in New York courtrooms. In
recent years, Brooklyn DAs—from the late Ken Thompson to today’s
Eric Gonzalez—have declined to prosecute low-level misdemeanors like
marijuana possession, and last year, both the Manhattan and Brooklyn
DAs’ offices stopped demanding bail in most misdemeanor cases. 

Could we get New York’s notorious DAs to aim for lower numbers?
“New York today is not the New York of the 1980s and the strategies
that we are able to deploy today shouldn’t be the strategies we used
in the 1980s,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., whose
office has significantly decreased its prosecution of subway turnstile
jumping, told me. Bronx DA Darcel Clark told me that almost half of
the cases that come across her desk are “untreated trauma,
misdiagnosed mental illness, and now since the resources are not in
the community, the default is to call the NYPD and let the DA
prosecute them.” She added, “I can’t prosecute my way out of
what is happening in our communities.” With more resources, like
adequate housing, healthcare, and mental health services, Clark
argues, there would be a further reduction in jail population. 

Prosecutors are getting help from Albany—with the New York State
legislature’s first Democratic majority in a decade, there is
renewed hope for laws that will speed up trial discovery and bring
further bail reform. The New York State Bar Association also has a
task force looking into reforming parole justice. The Lippman
commission concluded that New York is the second worst in the country,
only behind Illinois, in parole, noting that while “incarceration
for technical parole violations can rupture the connections” people
have to their communities and support networks, there is “scant
evidence that incarcerating people for technical parole violation
increases public safety.” Beyond reforms passed upstate, the city
could increase its programs that allow for supervised release, as well
as the diversion for those in need of medical support from the jail
system. The city’s police department could also widen the categories
for which it issues desk appearance tickets instead of arresting
people. 

All of the above, say the activists, but many pose a more fundamental
question: What would it look like to have a criminal justice system
where locking people up is not the first tool of recourse?

Nick Encalada-Malinowski of the Voices of Community Activists &
Leaders (VOCAL), told me it’s been frustrating that conversations
have included no commitment “to anything other than building more
buildings, no commitments to making the investments in the communities
that would render these jails obsolete, and that is what everybody is
really excited for.” VOCAL is a partner in Court Watch NYC, which
sends volunteers to New York City courtrooms to monitor prosecutors
and keep them accountable. 

But the DAs are only one among several crucial players. The police
department and Department of Correction are both mayoral agencies.
Holding them in check are the public defender offices who provide
indigent defense to people who cannot afford to retain an attorney.
The defender offices, which are funded by the city, gave input in the
independent commission and continue to advise the city, but many of
the members I spoke to, who have been against the mayor’s plan, told
me about internal dissension and debate. 

One, Sophia Gurulé from Bronx Defenders, testified at the September 5
hearing that the lack of a legal guarantee to close Rikers in the
current plan was troubling in that a different, more conservative
future administration could decide to keep the island and the newly
expanded jails. She is one of two hundred public defenders—including
Tiffany Cabán, during her campaign for Queen DA (she lost; though the
recount result is still being disputed in the courts)—who have
published their support for the No New Jails movement in an open
letter [[link removed]]. It argued
that “spending billions to build new jails—at a moment when public
criticism of policing and imprisonment is so prevalent and public
funding for education, infrastructure, housing, and healthcare so
poor—is a devastating step backward.” This political moment, it
continued, “is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn the tide
against decades of constantly expanding the carceral system.”
Closing jails will force the police to see incarceration as a limited
commodity rather than a standard response. The National Lawyers Guild
has also supported
[[link removed]] the
group.

Another signatory, Anne Oredeko of the Legal Aid Society, told me that
it’s time we had a fundamental discussion about whether jails and
prisons actually create safety and reduce harm. After internal
discussions, the Bronx Defenders retracted an earlier statement
supporting the current plan and its specific proposals under
consideration in the land use process: “As public defenders, our
role is not to answer these questions; our role is to prevent our
clients from being caged and minimize the harm caused by the carceral
state.” The defenders had, in effect, shifted to more radical
demands—“to rethink the nature of our criminal legal system…
[which] requires that we end the over-policing of communities of color
and create alternative responses to people in crisis.” 

*

Hearing the abolitionist critique “If they build it, they will fill
it” echoed by some of the council members, it is clear that
activists from No New Jails, whose membership also draws on alumni of
Akeem Browder’s campaign, have pushed the conversation in more
heterodox directions. (This week, Representative Alexandria
Ocasio-Cortez met with No New Jails, and released
[[link removed]] a
statement on her Instagram opposing the mayor’s plan.) The
abolitionist argument “wouldn’t have had any place in the
conversation two or three years ago,” Rahman, who still supports the
mayor’s plan, told me. The abolitionists argue
[[link removed]] that
the city could shut down Rikers by ending pretrial detention entirely,
leaving about 2,000 people in the city’s jails by current numbers.
The city, they argue, should shift some of the money saved into social
programs: from ending homelessness to facilitating education, and
practice of de-escalation, conflict resolution, and transformative
justice to “decrease crime
[[link removed]] more
effectively than incarceration ever has.” 

When I asked Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot, of No New Jails, about the people
at Rikers charged with more than a misdemeanor, they pointed to a
statistic echoed in the Lippman commission’s report
[[link removed]]: that
in 2017, 46 percent of all cases charged as violent felonies in the
five boroughs were dismissed or resulted in an acquittal, meaning that
nearly half of them “shouldn’t have been there in the first
place.” Research from the Center for Court Innovation also shows
that 67 percent of violent felony defendants in New York detained
before trial in 2013 had a minimal or low risk of being rearrested for
a future violent felony. Following the land use review hearing, Glenn
Martin, formerly a Lippmann Commission member and the founder of
JustLeadershipUSA and its #CLOSErikers campaign, asked in a _Daily
News _op-ed, “Why capitulate to the mayor’s random $10 billion,
4,500-bed jail plan now,” when there is momentum for closing Rikers
and options to lowering the prison population to “2,500 beds? or
1,250?” 

The abolitionist movement points to the history of Rikers itself as
the most persuasive argument against replacing it. Jarrod Shanahan, a
scholar of Rikers history, told me that every effort to update
incarceration in the city—dating back to at least 1797, when the
West Village’s Newgate prison opened—has been an attempt to
improve conditions. At no point, he said, has the city government
“come out and said, ‘Hey we are going to build a very bad jail.
It’s going to be worse than what came before.’ Every step in [the
city’s carceral] history has been couched in this discourse of
improvement, of reform.” 

And yet, once the jails or prisons are built, the reformers lose
control of operations. One of the institutional reasons for that,
Shanahan says, is the correction officers’ union. “The defining
political issue of the New York City jail system since 1960 has been
the political power held by guards,” he said. The Correction
Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) has been very effective at
blocking accountability for abusive or violent behavior. COBA’s
current president, Elias Husamudeen, argues that his members are the
ones who are in need of protection from violent inmates. 

Because the mayor’s blueprint does nothing to address COBA
members’ de facto immunity, people like Shanahan, and
Encalada-Malinowski of VOCAL, are skeptical of the plan, questioning
why we’d expect change in new jails from an unaccountable agency
with no transparency. “In what other city agency can people just die
and there not be any inquiry as to whether or not there needs to be a
leadership change at that agency?” Encalada-Malinowski asked. 

The city’s inability to manage the very agency that oversees prisons
doesn’t inspire confidence, and threatens to undermine any progress
that would come from the new plan. Even with the injection of
resources, programming, and retraining over the last couple of
years—part of the city’s fourteen-point plan
[[link removed]] to
combat the culture of violence in its jails—the Department of
Correction remains troubled. While the incarcerated population has
fallen sharply, the department’s budget continues to increase; as a
result, it has gone on the City Comptroller’s Agency Watch List for
a second year in a row. The department has a staff of around 10,000
people overseeing some 7,000 inmates (by comparison, the entire
Federal Bureau of Prisons has a staff of about 36,000 for its 177,000
inmates). 

In 2015, the City’s Department of Investigation revealed a corrupt
process of recruiting in the agency, including the hiring of people
with prior gang associations. The seventh independent federal monitor
of the Department of Correction has said
[[link removed]] that
in the last six months, “the department’s use of force rates
reached their highest levels” since monitoring begun. The New York
State Commission of Correction has, in its time overseeing Rikers,
witnessed “extensive and systemic non-compliance” with regulations
and the department’s “unwillingness and inability to take required
actions to remedy” the deplorable situation.

Eisenberg-Guyot argued that such abuses are baked in—“the ultimate
endpoint of all jail and prison construction: conditions degrade
because the dehumanization and violence
[[link removed]] is
the point.” Abolitionists also raise grave doubts about the
mayor’s plan to build a number of “therapeutic housing units,
[[link removed]]”
in addition to the four jails, for the mentally ill—to be run by the
Department of Correction—rather than diverting people into mental
health institutions. Mack, who was holding a sign that read “Dump
DOC” at the land use review hearing, advocates
[[link removed]] redirecting
most of the funds from the agency into community resources such as
public health and housing. Studies
[[link removed]] have shown
[[link removed]] that
the majority of New Yorkers in jails and prisons come from seven
neighborhoods. If the city wants to address problems at their roots,
it has the information to do so. Dana Kaplan, the deputy director of
Close Rikers and Criminal Justice Initiatives at the mayor’s office,
told me that she “fully appreciates the call to invest in other
community-based diversion programs,” but doesn’t see it as
mutually exclusive with the current plan for borough jails. Here was
the fundamental divergence laid bare: activists distrust the system,
and see investment in people as a way to make it obsolete. The city
distrusts the people and sees investment in the system as a way to
keep them in check. 

In her 2003 book _Are Prisons Obsolete?_, the veteran activist Angela
Davis writes that one of the paradoxes of prisons is that while most
people can’t imagine life without them, “there is reluctance to
face the realities hidden within them, a fear of thinking about what
happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and, at
the same time, it is absent from our lives.” This is slowing
changing—and prisoners, too, have forced their way into public
consciousness, most memorably in 2016 on the forty-fifth anniversary
of the Attica uprising when work stoppages and strikes occurred
simultaneously across the country in the biggest prison strike in
American history. Closer to home, when 1,600 inmates were left to
freeze in the federal Metropolitan Detention Complex in Sunset Park
when power and heat were out for weeks this past winter, inmates
protested by banging on the windows, catching the attention of people
outside and turning the conditions into a scandal. 

One of those who joined protests outside the MDC was Kevin Steele, an
activist who helps organize prison strikes through the Incarcerated
Workers Organizing Committee. He joined the No New Jails protestors.
Steele, who spent time at Rikers himself—and got to know
Browder—including a year in solitary, believes more of the formerly
incarcerated should be telling their stories to convey to the public
the true crisis of mass incarceration. Inspired by reading the book
version of the musical _Hamilton_, Steele wrote a Hip
Hopera, _Taliaferro_, that was peformed at Eastern Correctional
Facility, for Black History month, “about the beef between [Booker
T.] Washington and [W.E.B.] Dubois. It was dope. We got all these men
singing and rapping.”

A couple weeks ago, I took the ferry up to the Bronx neighborhood of
Soundview to meet with Steele. He is currently working on a film, and
developing a curriculum for schools and students to start more complex
conversations about prisoners. What bothers him the most, he said, was
the insidious way the culture of violence at a place like Rikers
follows people home. Many of the correction officers and police inside
prisons are also low-income, working-class people from these same
neighborhoods as the incarcerated, he explained. But tensions arise
from their roles and relationships in the system. Steele said he feels
lucky that he was mostly able to resist internalizing the violence.
“I’m a little messed up. I think everyone is dealing with
that.” 

*

The City Council will vote on the mayor’s plan later this month. The
Council usually votes in line with the members whose district the land
use application affects—and all four seemed positive about the
mayor’s plan at the September 5 hearing, so the scheme seems likely
to move forward. Almost all the activist groups are demanding more
changes to the plan as it stands, however, while tensions remain
between those who believe it is a necessary evil to achieve the
closure of Rikers and those who think Rikers can be closed with a
better plan. Two weeks ago, the president of the Ford Foundation and a
member of the Lippman Commission warned against taking an
“extreme” position in the Rikers debate and letting “the perfect
be the enemy of progress.” Four days later, speaking at Riverside
Church, Angela Davis encouraged activists to show up outside the Ford
Foundation building in protest, arguing that abolitionism is not an
extreme position. Members of grassroots organizations like Decolonize
This Place, Take Back the Bronx, and No New Jails showed up to the
protest outside the foundation and about 300 current and former Ford
Foundation fellows signed a letter
[[link removed]] in
defense of abolitionism as a reasonable aim. 

At the council hearing, Brooklyn Councilmember Stephen Levin, whose
district would house the new Brooklyn jail, asked Elizabeth Glazer,
the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, “if money
wasn’t an object and we could implement every type of criminal
justice reform measure to the maximum scale, what would we want to
do?” Glazer listed implementing diversion programs, doing away with
city sentences, funding alternatives to incarceration, and supporting
early interventions to prevent people from coming into contact with
the criminal justice system—“a ton of things that could be done to
ensure that jails aren’t a first stop.” 

Listening to her speak reminded me of reading de Blasio’s 2016
comment that the closure of Rikers was “unrealistic,” and made me
think how little had truly changed since. It fell to the abolitionist
Mariame Kaba to warn of the cost of failing to realize what’s
possible: “We will be back in this room, I promise you, in ten
years, if these four new facilities are built, calling these
facilities inhumane.” 

_Anakwa Dwamena is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and
books editor for Africa is a Country [[link removed]].
(October 2019)_

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