Dear Mayor de Blasio:
Recently, you and I were both quoted in a New York Times article about closing Rikers Island. While you stated that it was unfeasible, you still called it a “noble concept”—and I provided practical suggestions on how to accomplish this worthy goal, based on my experience as career captain in the NYC Dept. of Correction and expertise as a professor with advanced degrees in criminal justice and forensic psychology.
I recommended building modern, secure, and effective detention centers next to or even above courthouses in each borough, to replace the antiquated, dangerous and remote jails on Rikers Island.
I worked at such a community correctional center, the old Bronx House of Detention, for many years. Located in a vibrant neighborhood with many services, correction officers and staff were happy to work there, which made the environment more pleasant than at the isolated and run-down jails at Rikers.
On that island, inmates and staff alike experience stress due to being so isolated from the community—and being “out of sight, out of mind” can lead to excessive violence, inmate v. inmates fights, inmate v. staff attacks, and staff v. inmate use of force incidents.
As you know, there have been a number of discussions recently about closing down Rikers, for many reasons, like the island’s deteriorating physical plant, obsolete buildings and potential vulnerability to storms, as well as its distance from courthouses, difficult-to-reach location for visitors and enormous operating costs.
None of these factors are disassociated with the most important critiques of Rikers: That is has a history of violence and embodies racial inequities within our criminal justice system.
Realization is growing that the only way to reduce racism and abuse of the most vulnerable populations such as juveniles and the mentally ill is to move jails from “out of sight, out of mind” on Rikers into local neighborhoods in the public view, where inmates and officers alike will be more closely watched by family, oversight agencies, and the media.
New Ways to Combat “NIMBY”
While there may be an initial reaction that homes, schools or businesses shouldn’t be next door to a jail (“NIMBY” or “Not In My Back Yard”) it is easy to demonstrate that secure, modern jails located next to (or even on top of) the courthouses in each borough are much safer and more economical than having to secure and transport inmates from Rikers to courts in each borough on vans or buses, walk them in and out on a chain, etc. In fact, “the only people coming and going freely [from local jails] are law-enforcement personnel and inmates’ families and lawyers,” who would bring more customers and dollars to local businesses such as restaurants, banks, and stores.
Encouraging visits from loved ones to those being held in jail can be seen as a crime reduction and crime prevention program in and of itself, because “It’s been established that regular contact between inmates and their friends and family on the outside lowers the rate of recidivism.”
Indeed, the goal is not just to combat “NIMBY” but move towards “Yes in my backyard!” That’s not some impossible to imagine. After all, rural areas often seek prisons for the jobs, infrastructure investment and political pull they deliver. While the city wouldn’t want to replicate that rural-based, prison-industrial complex in its construction of community corrections facilities, the lesson from past prison politics is that neighbors need not by foes of detention centers.
Community input and involvement
Most important of all during the planning process is to engage the community in a variety of ways, to ensure their support and understanding of the new jail. Newsday noted that the move to shut down Rikers has reignited the conversation about “more community courts and borough-based facilities [which] would be easier to manage and more accountable.” Areas with community correction centers already in existence call them “good neighbors” and officials are more hopeful “at the prospect of closing Rikers and transitioning to a fairer, safer criminal justice system than they have ever been.”
Locally, in most cases where neighborhood correctional centers were opposed, it was because the city attempted to create these new centers behind a veil of secrecy. News coverage quoted community leaders saying the main problem was that “From day one the city has not been forthcoming… [they want] to spend taxpayer money to build a jail in our own backyard, but they haven’t told us a thing about it.”
Community representatives never complained that “a new jail would worsen commerce or safety, possibly because downtown Brooklyn and Little Italy have city detention centers, thriving local economies and low crime rates.” Rather, “opponents were… upset that the idea for a new facility was kept secret by the [mayor] and only came to light through media reports and leaks.” Community representatives complained about being “blindsided” by a “secretive plan.” Clearly, what is most important is how this issue is addressed and that new community correction programs are implemented with input from the public.
These same community leaders often support closing Rikers hoping to replace it with “alternatives to incarceration such as education, affordable housing, job training, and drug rehabilitation programs.” Moving such groups to embrace community corrections requires more openness and inclusion by the city, rather than keeping people out of the planning process.
A DOJ publication on Building Community Support for New Jail Construction notes that “jails have few natural constituencies and those that do exist may have relatively little political influence”—so it is critical to be a good neighbor and gain voter support by convincing them “of the ‘rightness’ of the project.” How to achieve this? Not by putting the project together behind closed doors and then ramming it down the community’s throat or by “selling,” “educating” or “informing” people about an already done deal. No, what must be done is to involve people in the project in an “interactive relationship in which interested parties… express opinions and… have input into the process [because] people tend to support what they help to create, even if they disagree with some of the results.”
A key step is to create a core group made up of all stakeholders from the justice system and the community, to begin to build support based on an in-depth understanding of the situation, and an examination of various options. These discussions should be open and available to the community, and throughout the process it is important for planners to continually “ask people for their thoughts, input and questions” via a range of tactics including listening meetings, surveys, focus groups, community meetings and other public forums, as the DOJ report suggests.
(A real-life example from elsewhere: The Cloud County Law Enforcement Center in Kansas prepared a project document to address all of these issues, from “what happens if we do nothing?” to why repair of the current jail does not address underlying design flaws, how the new jail benefits the community, funding issues and more.)
Local jails aren’t state prisons
Building community correction facilities should not be confused with expanding state prison systems as part of the “prison-commercial complex” where new beds will need to be filled by arresting and imprisoning ever more young, vulnerable, poor people, most often those suffering from mental illness, drug addiction, or simply people of color who are targeted due to intentional or unintentional bias throughout the justice system from witnesses to police to prosecutors. The move towards community corrections is part of the response against the pattern in the US since the 1980s of “longer sentence lengths and incarcerating for more offenses… leading to a 220 percent increase in the incarceration rate since 1980.”
By being located in the community, there can also be more oversight to ensure that these short-term jails do not grow too large. This will ensure improved release procedures for pretrial and sentenced populations, including “setting time limits for releasing pretrial defendants… transferring committed offenders to state facilities rapidly, and transferring mentally ill inmates to state hospitals in a more timely fashion,” according to the DOJ.
Indeed, what is needed isn’t just new jails in a different place but less incarceration altogether. Research has shown that 94 percent of felony defendants released pretrial returned to court, and that 82 percent of those remain arrest-free. Yet because of a few high-profile cases where someone released pretrial commits a crime, alternatives to incarceration are limited.
Overusing jails has a number of negative impacts: on the physical and mental health of those incarcerated, as well as on their families (the suicide rate in jail is nearly four times the society-wide figure), on employment prospects, educational opportunities, family life, housing and more.
Recommendations for improving this situation include improving release procedures for pretrial and sentenced populations, developing and implementing alternative to incarceration, re-examining policies that lock up individuals for nonviolent crimes, diverting people with mental health and drug treatment needs to the public health system and community-based treatment, diverting spending on jail construction to agencies that work on community supervision, changing pretrial release policies and using community-based alternatives, and finally providing more funding for front-end services such as education, employment and housing. Having the jail in view of the community will encourage more use of pretrial diversion programs, bail reform, specialty courts (including drug courts, domestic violence courts and mental health courts) and alternatives to incarceration such as supervised probation, electronic monitoring, and court-mandated treatment – as well as supportive housing, education and job training and placement programs.
The time is now
Mayor de Blasio, given strong public support for stopping the explosion of violence on Rikers—especially as we may be seeing this culture of violence seeping back onto city streets in the recent spate of slashing and stabbings—now is the time to explore this goal more vigorously. In order to close Rikers and move inmates into modern, secure jails located close to the courthouses, we must reduce the number of detainees. You have already moved in this direction: by expanding bail options so the poorest of the poor are not incarcerated simply because they cannot meet even a low bail demand by implementing effective diversion programs to direct those charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies into appropriate programs for youths, drug abusers, and the mentally ill, and by speeding up the court process so that those charged with more serious or violent crimes (who thus cannot be sent to a diversion program or receive lower bail) have their cases adjudicated more quickly so they can either be released or sent upstate to serve their sentences in state prison, where there are more programs in place to help rehabilitate, educate and treat prisoners than in short-term local jail systems such as Rikers or even new local correction centers.
The place to start is in the Bronx. Why? The old Bronx House of Detention was in the perfect location, near the Criminal and Supreme Courts, with easy access to public transportation for staff, as well as for visits by family and by attorneys preparing cases for trial. It was in a vibrant neighborhood with a wide array of services from bail bonds to fast food to restaurants to medical centers and hospitals. I am personally familiar with this area, growing up and attending Cardinal Hayes High School in the neighborhood. As high school students we were always aware of the Bronx House of Detention, as well as the nearby courts, because we could see them from the building where we attended school every day. Their proximity in no way made us feel unsafe.
Clearly, while some may say “Not In My Back Yard” with fears of a jail near to where they live, work, shop, travel, or where their children go to school, in fact it is safer to have such facilities adjacent to the courts. This makes it more efficient to move inmates quickly, easily and securely from the jail to the courtroom, rather than having to chain them up and escort them by bus from a far-off Rikers Island location, into and out of the court buildings.
To reduce real estate and building costs, the new jails could be built adjacent to or even over the Bronx Criminal Court building. While the classic Art Deco Supreme Court buildings are landmarked, utilizing the air rights to build a connected jail would be possible without damaging the original structure, and the Criminal Court building is flat, modern building where it would be feasible to build a jail directly above it. Building modern jails connected to or above the courthouses by utilizing air rights already owned by the city removes any concerns about excessive real estate costs.
To sum up: Mayor de Blasio, the reason you want to start in the Bronx is because of the easy access via public transportation, availability of all the amenities mentioned above, and you want to build the jails next to or above the courthouse to reduce transportation time and make it simple to get detainees to court, and have their cases adjudicated quickly, as opposed to waiting forever to get their day in court.
Closing Rikers and building new jails, utilizing air rights owned by the city over or adjacent to current court buildings in the five boroughs, is a Win-Win situation. In fact, it’s a Win-Win-Win-Win-Win situation for everybody: correctional officers and program staff, inmates, visitors, the city, the borough, the neighborhood.
Engage the local community in an open dialogue to build support. The place to start is in the Bronx. And the time to start is now.
David A. Fullard, Ph.D., is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Empire State College, teaching Criminal Justice and the Social and Behavioral Sciences. He is also licensed by the State of New York Board of Regents as a Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). He retired in 2011 as a Captain with the New York City Department of Correction (NYCDOC) after thirty years’ service.