The New York City Council overwhelmingly voted earlier this month to close the notorious Rikers Island jail complex. The $8 billion resolution will replace Rikers by building, expanding and renovating four smaller jails in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan by 2026. Rikers is infamous for its long record of torture, brutality, corruption, uninhabitable conditions and numerous civil rights violations. The push to close Rikers has been building for years, especially in light of reports of solitary confinement, suicides and correctional officers’ abuse of inmates.
But the legacy of Rikers Island has already been cemented, and it will affect tens of thousands of New Yorkers for generations to come — most of them poor, black and brown or otherwise marginalized. Seven more years will only exacerbate their suffering for that much longer without any real justice in sight.
The growing prison abolition movement No New Jails is one of the most outspoken critics of the plan. It argues that the billions of dollars going toward building new jails in already-vulnerable communities will only continue the harmful legacy of incarceration that disproportionately affects black and brown people. That money, No New Jails activists say, should go directly into funding social services for the communities most impacted by incarceration and target the actual causes of incarceration themselves — poverty, racism and inequality.
No New Jails does not only oppose the building of new jails in the boroughs — they also doubt that the city’s plan to close Rikers will even be implemented, given the vast timeline. According to a report by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, one of No New Jails NYC’s biggest concerns is that Mayor Bill de Blasio will not be in office in 2027, which is when Rikers is scheduled to close its doors. “There’s no promise that it will actually be closed,” one organizer told the Eagle. These concerns are well-founded: the city’s plan is sparse with details on the actual closure of Rikers. The only things set in stone are the definitive locations of and construction plans for the new jails.
The plan is costing New York City taxpayers billions of dollars without even a sure guarantee of closing Rikers and ending decades of injustice. According to Albert Saint Jean, an organizer with Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the resolution to close Rikers “was just a resolution … what they voted on was to approve the construction of the four new jails.”
The plan to close Rikers by 2026 is not legally binding or at the discretion of the City Council. All it has the power to do is build new jails, which is what the resolution will actually accomplish. Given the city’s disturbing record on criminal punishment and mass incarceration, it is essential that the City Council be held accountable to its plan of action. Rikers’ closure is not certain, and the only thing that will be is the construction of new jails, despite de Blasio’s deceptive statements of the contrary.
How much longer will New Yorkers tolerate false promises, especially with so many lives on the line?
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 28, 2019 print edition. Email Asha Ramachandran at [email protected]