Rikers Critics Want More Teeth in Jail-Replacement Plan

MANHATTAN (CN) – Several New York City councilmembers are expected to introduce bills Wednesday related to replacing the notorious Rikers Island penal complex, and they’re already facing pushback. 

Activists with the group No New Jails rally in the park across from City Hall in September 2019 ahead of a land-use hearing on a proposal to close Rikers and replace it with four new borough jails. (Photo by AMANDA OTTAWAY/Courthouse News Service)

The legislation supports the construction of four new jails plan while also including a new bill of rights for incarcerated people, a demand for reports on the progress of closing Rikers, and a commission to guide reinvestment in communities impacted by incarceration.

It seems the bills are meant to provide some scaffolding — and perhaps sweetener — to a plan opponents and activists say has been rushed through the city’s decision-making channels. Some activists say these bills were rushed, too.

The activist group No New Jails has cast the bills are misguided and says they do not compel either current or future officials to act in the interests of incarcerated people.

“No New Jails NYC sees these bills for what they are: legally toothless and ethically spineless attempts to misdirect attention from widespread community opposition to Mayor de Blasio’s racist and violent plan to build new jails in NYC,” the group said in  a statement.

Technically, the council has not yet approved the plan for new jails, but it must hold a vote on the issue in about three weeks. The proposed legislation seems to indicate members expect it to pass.

Opponents of the plan have chiefly expressed concern that it could actually expand incarceration since there is no legally binding language requiring future politicians to actually close Rikers Island once the new facilities are built. Outside the City Planning Commission vote on the plan last month, protesters carried signs with an silver screen homage: “If they build it, they will fill it.”

Councilman Stephen Levin is expected to introduce a bill that calls for a commission to recommend areas of reinvestment in New York City communities directly impacted by incarceration. 

Leah Sakala, a policy associate in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, has been following the new jail plan through news reports. She said a crucial component of community-based reform is reinvestment, which is supposed to direct resources to poor, black or Latino communities that have historically experienced disinvestment — a term she defined as “investment in the form of really punitive reactions that focus on punishment and control.”

Reinvestment “really starts with the idea that safety has traditionally been defined in a way that is far too narrow and focuses on responses to challenges,” she said, pointing to responses like high police presence and incarceration rates.

“But people need far more than the criminal justice system to be safe,” Sakala added.

As noted by No New Jails, however, Levin’s bill does not specify where the funds will come from to implement the commission’s recommendations and does not even compel the city to comply with those recommendations. 

“His bill merely tinkers at the margins of incarceration, while leaving fully intact the the carceral structures, agencies, policies, and practices, which cause the harm his commission would ‘study,’” No New Jails said. “This is, at best, lipstick on a pig.”

Sakala said such a commission should first and foremost be led by those directly impacted. 

“Their voices really need to guide those discussions,” she said. 

Levin’s bill requires that only five of 18 commission members include people who have been directly impacted by incarceration. The rest of the group would be made up primarily of local officials appointed by the mayor or city council, including just one justice-reinvestment specialist, and be chaired by a representative of the Department of Social Services. The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A bill co-sponsored by Councilmembers Levin and Diana Ayala would require reports from the mayor’s office and the Board of Correction on the progress of closing Rikers Island, and how that process is affecting inmates and employees. 

No New Jails says Ayala’s bill is toothless, and that making data public won’t necessarily improve conditions. Ayala’s office did not respond by press time to multiple requests for comment. 

Councilman Keith Powers is set to introduce a bill with his Manhattan colleague Helen Rosenthal that would amend the bill of rights for incarcerated individuals as well as set some design standards for the new jails — natural and aesthetically appealing materials like wood and fabric instead of metal, a call button or telephone in each room, and wiring for internet. Inmates should be called by their names and preferred pronouns instead of by numbers and be allowed to decorate their cells, the bill says. 

No New Jails remains unmoved.

“We have no idea how the Council proposes to enforce ‘names and pronouns’ in the city jails when they cannot stop the DOC from killing people,” the group said in its statement, using an abbreviation for Department of Corrections.

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