Mass incarceration

New York City Council Votes To Build Four New Jails and To Close Notorious Rikers Island

But can the city commit to reducing its jail population—and will Rikers' infamous culture just be transplanted to the new jails? 

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After years of pressure from criminal justice reformers and civil liberties groups, New York City is tentatively moving ahead with a plan to shutter its notorious Rikers Island jail complex—the second-largest jail complex in the U.S.—within the next decade.

The New York City Council voted Thursday to approve an $8.7 billion plan that will require building four new jails to replace the Rikers Island complex, which since it began holding inmates in the 1930s has been a high-profile magnet for abuse, violence, corruption, and death.

"This is about valuing our people, no longer condemning people and sending them on a pathway that only made their lives worse and worse," said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio following the vote. "Today we made history: The era of mass incarceration is over."

Of course, it's much easier to declare mass incarceration over than to actually decarcerate. The tentative plan is to close down the 10,000-bed jail complex on Rikers by 2026. The four new jails together will hold an estimated 3,300 inmates at any given time, meaning New York City will have to find a way to draw down its daily jail population, which currently hovers around 7,000, by more than half.

There will also undoubtedly be political opposition and legal challenges from neighborhoods where the new jails are slated to be built, as well as opposition from conservatives and powerful law enforcement groups in the city.

"There is simply no way to cut the average daily jail population—which the city itself has described as 'more violent and difficult to manage'—that much more without leaving dangerous criminals on the street, where you can be sure they will continue to diminish the quality of life in their neighborhoods," argued Rafael A. Mangual, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, in the New York Post.

That said, reforms to New York's cash bail system, expanded diversion programs, and other measures are expected to lower the city's jail population.

In any case, the vote to shut down Rikers is a historic development. During the peak of mass incarceration in New York City the 1990s, Rikers held nearly 23,000 inmates. 

New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman said in a press release that the council's vote "marks the start of the long-overdue process to close Rikers Island and put an end to the culture of official lawlessness and abuse which it represents."

"Too many New Yorkers have died or suffered enormous and irreversible physical and psychological harm as a result of their mistreatment at Rikers—Kalief Browder, Layleen Polanco, and far too many others," Lieberman continued.

Browder was 16 years old when he was incarcerated at Rikers for three years without trial—two of them spent in solitary confinement—for allegedly stealing a backpack. After his eventual release, he committed suicide in 2015. Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, died in a solitary cell earlier this year.

Browder and Polanco's deaths increased the political momentum behind the push to close Rikers. It also galvanized activists who oppose the construction of any new jails at all, who say a hefty $8 billion price tag could be invested in communities rather than new cells.

Activists with No New Jails NYC briefly disrupted the New York City Council meeting, dropping leaflets that read: "If you cage our future, blood on your hands."

"The idea that a new jail can fix the problems of the old one is a long-standing misconception that has driven the carceral expansion of New York City," Shanahan, a criminal justice professor at Governors State University in Illinois, told The Washington Post.

When it opened, Rikers was billed as humane and modern jail to replace the sort of facilities that sounded like, well, what Rikers sounds like today. As I detailed in a 2016 Reason feature on the long, troubled history of the D.C. jail, new buildings can't fix deeper problems in correctional systems.

"When Rikers eventually shutters and the last person leaves the island," Lieberman said, "the abhorrent culture that has always plagued the facility must not follow it."

Again, easier said than done. On Friday, The City reported that de Blasio did not renew the appointment of a New York City Department of Corrections commissioner who has been working for three years to limit the use of solitary confinement in New York City jails.

NEXT: 'This Is a Culture War': Sex Work Decriminalization Bill in D.C. Draws 14 Hours of Passionate Public Testimony

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  1. Send them all to Gracie Mansion and let them camp out on DeBlasio’s front lawn.

    1. Don’t really care what they do with the criminals in New York – as long as they stay in New York at New York’s expense.

      It’s sort of like Kalifornia. They turn it into a cesspool, I don’t care. Swim in it.

      The only down side is people leave places like NY and CA and go to relatively “uninfected” states and take their socialism/communism with them.

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  2. As a New York City resident, I find the redistribution of the remaining jail population from Riker’s Island to the surroundings boroughs (one, incidentally, will be built a few blocks from where I live) to be a pointless exercise motivated by the desire of progressive politicians to cement their reputations as champions of morality while doing absolutely nothing to refine or modify the training received by the City’s corrections officers.

    Overpopulation was never the issue. Instead, the issue was the creation of a volatile powder keg formed by pitting career criminals against other career criminals in the form of corrections officers and then throwing in a dash of qualified immunity to avoid confronting the reality that basic human rights were violated with impunity.

    None of that is going to change. On the other hand, property values around the jails will plummet precipitously. Affordable housing *and* moral preening? Well, that’s clearly a double win for the People’s Republic of New York.

    1. It does sound like they’ll have to reduce the number of incarcerated as the new facilities combined won’t have the same capacity. (Although I suspect what will actually happen is connected firms will get contracts to build more housing instead.)

      1. Reducing the number of incarcerated individuals is code for imposing lenient bail conditions and, in appropriate cases, refusing to prosecute altogether. Granted, this will mostly be the case for minor drug dealers and various first time offenders. Now, in some cases, this may be worthwhile. Some people really do get caught up with the wrong crowds through a series of bad choices and poor judgment; these people, however, are in the minority of offenders. Based on my experiences, initiatives to reduce inmate capacity will simply create a situation where relatively low level, non-violent criminals will be permitted to ply their illicit trades, while copping a plea, until they graduate to being relatively dangerous, higher level criminals.

        Without any risk of significant punishment for the first, second, and even third round of offenses, there is a huge incentive to continue living the criminal lifestyle. Knowing that your felony charge in many instances will be bumped down to a misdemeanor, and that your misdemeanor will likely wind up nothing more than a violation, creates a huge incentive to continue conducting business as usual.

        The general policy in New York City is to let bygones be bygones unless someone is killed which, in practice, translates to a city plagued by pretty thieves, burglars, and drug dealers that sit on your stoop until they are shot, or shoot someone. Looking back at most “NYPD-shoots-innocent-man” incidents in NYC will reveal that the “innocent” victim of police violence typically has a rap sheet a mile long and was given chance, after chance, after chance before finally finding themselves in a precarious standoff with the cops.

        1. What specific experiences do you have to support your statement that “initiatives to reduce inmate capacity will simply create a situation where relatively low level, non-violent criminals will be permitted to ply their illicit trades, while copping a plea, until they graduate to being relatively dangerous, higher level criminals”?

          1. Having spent time as a criminal defense attorney and, on the other side of the isle, litigating against police departments for various types of civil rights violations. And, of course, as a lifelong resident of New York City. From my experiences, and from my interactions with other attorneys, etc., keeping people out of jail is not all that difficult unless a gun was involved.

            1. Despite avoiding jail time, do they come out with a criminal record regardless?

              Were your clients mostly fatherless because their fathers are sitting in prison and their father’s before them?

    2. “”As a New York City resident, I find the redistribution of the remaining jail population from Riker’s Island to the surroundings boroughs (one, incidentally, will be built a few blocks from where I live) to be a pointless exercise motivated by the desire of progressive politicians to cement their reputations as champions of morality while doing absolutely nothing to refine or modify the training received by the City’s corrections officers.””

      As a NYC resident myself, I agree with that.

  3. I still can’t figure out how in Escape from New York they got past the NIMBY crowd to wall off Manhattan at all.

    1. They all agreed to move to Philadelphia.

    2. It happened during Trump’s 3rd term.

  4. So why not do what California did and de-criminalize all minor (and some not-so minor) offenses? If there is no crime, nobody gotta do no time.

  5. “The blueprints of the new jails advertise rape-free zones also known as ‘safe spaces’. It also has a gymnasium with ample room for inmates to play with a large parachute. When asked how any of this will reduce inmate numbers the architect shrugged and said ‘Frankly, I would want to come back. See that? That’s a do-it-yourself taco bar.’ We learned the taco bar was added to appease the Hispanic population of the prison.”

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  7. If there is no crime, nobody gotta do no time.It happened during Trump’s 3rd term. pinoy channel

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