Why the plan to replace Rikers, or reform any prison, is doomed to perpetuate the problem
This comprehensive strategy is prison building by another name, disguised under urban planning and land review bureaucracy.
By Ragini Srikrishna and Monica Mohapatra
Before the controversy around Amazon coming to New York dominated the headlines, the mayor and city officials were quietly working on opening four new skyscraper jails within the city. Although the city’s plan to close the Rikers jails complex solicited initial excitement within criminal justice communities, it has since faced ongoing criticism from New York City residents, as well as organizers and advocacy groups, for this little known aspect of the proposal.
Local and national media have not paid enough critical attention to the most socially-damaging aspects of this plan, which set the stage for large-scale innovation in prison design. The plan close down Rikers, currently being marketed as a “decarceration” plan, is in fact a proposal to add nearly 6,000 new cages in the four boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
City officials first unveiled their plans for building four “modern” borough-based jails to replace Rikers in early August of 2018. The brochures for the new jails, as well as the layout mockups from the design and architecture team, emphasize “retail” space and breathable structures. These modern skyscraper jails are envisioned to have parking, retail shops and community space—design modifications intended to normalize the violence of caging human beings.
The future of incarceration may very well look like this: malls settled beneath towering cages as a regular aspect of consumer life in New York. Right now, existing New York City jails aside from off Rikers Island have the capacity to lock up 2,800 people daily. The new jails will expand this capacity exponentially. This proposal will be reviewed using a process known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which involves the participation of the local community board, the borough president, the city council and the city planning commission.
The relative lack of critical attention paid to the jail plan’s most regressive aspects is especially alarming given that the opening of these new jails does not at all come with a guarantee that Rikers will close. By building four of the tallest jails in the world through an amalgam of political smoke and mirrors, instead of investing community-based resources, City Hall belies its own political corruption and systematic racism.
This comprehensive strategy is prison building by another name, disguised under urban planning and land review bureaucracy. It must be acknowledged by political stakeholders as a human rights issue that has to be stopped.
Similar efforts to rebrand incarceration as “humane” are taking place in the rest of the country, with NYC being the most high-stakes testing ground thus far. Abolitionists opposed to Mayor Bill De Blasio’s expansion plan are demanding that the city invest in public infrastructure such as parks, hospitals, and schools, as well as in non-coercive healthcare services instead. In particular, residents are demanding that the City redirect funding towards the derelict long-neglected New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) houses.
The De Blasio administration claims building four new jails is the only way to close Rikers. Rikers itself was originally created in response to excessive violent city jails in the 1930s. As Jarrod Shanahan and Jack Norton have noted, Rikers was the staging ground for early-century rehabilitative reform wherein “prison-keepers [sic] sought to solve their problems by building new ones.”
Almost a century later, the city has recognized that Rikers is so violent it is beyond reform. Rikers represents the life cycle of any and every jail, whether or not it is built to reform incarceration. By design, jails isolate, violate, and force people to suffer in new and terrifying ways. A jail complex built to be a “justice hub,” with galleries at its bottom and skyscrapers on its top, won’t alter the fundamental violence of incarceration, but may give it the sheen of new capitalism.
In the 1930s, the city boasted of Rikers having “modern facilities with glass, plumbing, and lighting.” Today, the Rikers Island complex comprises of ten jails. 80% of those in Rikers are in pre-trial detention, and cannot afford bail or haven’t been offered it by a judge. The cages on Rikers accommodate up to 15,000 people.
In 1988, the Federal Bureau of Prisons built the Rosie’s, the women’s facility on Rikers, in response to similar violence at the Women’s House of Detention. As incarcerated women continue to face increasing rates of sexual assault and violence, the DoC proudly praises Rosie’s as progressive and humane, lauding how they allow incarcerated mothers and infants together—in a cage. Both Rikers and Rosies, along with the many other detention facilities in the state of New York, and throughout the country, have seen high rates of violence among inmates, as well as from correctional officers.
Most recently, reports of incarcerated people going without heat or hot water at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) galvanized widespread protests against the NYC Department of Corrections. Meanwhile, New York City is just one of the places where prisoners have gone on strike to protest inhabitable conditions and abuse, including inside immigrant detention. Notably, many of these jails, including MDC are in accessible and local neighborhoods, which is one of the proposed benefits of Mayor’s jail plan. But this has done little to improve the lives of those inside.
While groups that are reformist see the new jails as a step in the right direction, they refuse to recognize that the best way to cut out the need for “humane” jails is to stop locking people up. Closing Rikers can happen without building new jails if the city were to end pre-trial detention. Incarcerated folks and their families have spoken up about Rikers, and continue to speak up about how cages are always dehumanizing, and we should be listening.
As abolitionists, we are against reform that promises new, better-designed jails. A cage is inherently a bad design and does not address community harm.
In many ways, the De Blasio administration has made it clear that they do not support transparency or community-led dialogue on the new jails, particularly by reducing the entire process to an insufficient land-use issue. The mayor’s jail expansion plan makes no move towards a justice system that promises safety, which is why we demand an abolitionist framework for NYC, if not a national quorum on jail construction.
An abolitionist framework necessitates public investment in community needs such as housing and healthcare. Resourcing community needs instead of jails would move us towards a world where transformative justice is prioritized for all of us who are queer, Black, brown, trans, non-binary, and all others who are regularly targeted by white supremacist capitalism.
Rikers functions as every jail in America does—profiting off of Black, brown and cash poor people in cages; stripping incarcerated people of their dignity. New York City already incarcerates an average of 8,000 people every day, 90% of whom are Black and brown folks, and the rule of thumb for jail design has been “if they build it, they will fill it.”
Again and again, MDC, and other similar jails, such as the Tombs, Varick Street Detention Center, and the Barge, see incarcerated people facing a lack of care and rates of violence that plainly cannot be reformed. The ideology that we can use incarceration as the main problem solver for social issues has always been barbaric.
Incarceration does not eliminate violence, but in fact perpetuates it. No New Jails NYC argues that closing Rikers is not only a good idea, but it is also a necessity. We must close Rikers, and ultimately, all NYC jails. We must stop relying on incarceration to resolve economic and social problems in our communities.
New jails will not reduce or reform the systematic mistreatment at Rikers. These proposed jails will force more harm. This violence permeates communities of color. We are already criminalized and this project will further exacerbate our oppression.
We will fight to free ourselves.
How Can We Fight?
No New Jails NYC is a multiracial, intergenerational network of residents, community members, and activists fighting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s jail expansion plan. We are calling for the immediate closure of Rikers without building new jails. Instead of spending billions on more jails, we are calling for massive investment to address the needs of communities targeted by criminalization.
Ultimately, we are organizing towards a safer NYC free of confinement and surveillance and filled with opportunities for all people to thrive. No New Jails NYC demands divestment from city jails and opposes the construction of new jails. We want our loved ones returned home to our communities—not left in cages.
Ragini Srikrishna is a visual storyteller and community organizer whose passion lies in combining art and storytelling to help us understand the world and ourselves better.
Monica Mohapatra lives in Brooklyn and is from Bangalore, India. Her work focuses on decarceration, surveillance, and abolition. She’s a member of the No New Jails campaign, as well as a fan of the silver lining. You can find her @cemicool