“Roughly eighteen months ago I was released from state prison after serving nearly forty years throughout the state of New York. Contrary to what you may have heard today, there are no good prisons. Jails, prisons, and correctional facilities are cruel, inhumane, and oppressive places.”
—Jose Saldana (Director, Release Aging People in Prison)
Mayor Bill de Blasio is selling a shiny plan to spend at least $11 billion to build the infrastructure of the criminal punishment system for generations to come. This mayor repeats the promises of Mayors Walker and La Guardia, who built Rikers Island in the 1930s as a modern and “humane” penal colony; Mayor Wagner’s “rehabilitative” and therapeutic jail building (including the Brooklyn Detention Center and the Adolescent Remand Shelter) in the 1950s; Mayor Koch’s family-focused ‘reforms’ in the 1980s; and Mayor Bloomberg’s 2006 plan to open a shopping mall on the first floor of the Brooklyn Detention Center. We reject the audacity and entitlement of this mayor to believe he can do with his Department of Correction (DOC) what none of the jail-building mayors before him could.
De Blasio’s Rikers record over the past five years makes clear that the DOC is only becoming more brutal and incompetent. Here are 11 signs that the mayor’s $11 billion jails will fail:
1. The rate of guard violence against incarcerated people has increased by almost 80 percent since 2016. Internal investigations are slow, inconsistent, and have not improved over the last three years.
2. The annual cost per incarcerated person has ballooned, increasing by 66 percent since 2014, to a shocking $302,000 per person per year. The driving cost is guard compensation. The city says there will be no layoffs and they continue to hire hundreds of guards per year. When the new jails are set to open, there will be over 3,300 guards who have no purpose but to take a paycheck, costing the city over $450 million per year.
3. In 2018, people missed nearly a quarter (23 percent) of all medical and mental health appointments, largely due to DOC not bringing them to their appointments.
4. Sexual assault and harassment has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2018, incarcerated people filed over 1,300 reports of sexual assault and harassment. Additionally, women visiting people in city jails have repeatedly been sexually assaulted and harassed by guards. The Department faces lawsuits from over 50 women who have been abused.
5. Since 2014, the city has nearly tripled the amount of money it pays in litigation settlements and judgments, to approximately $31.5 million in 2018. This is a 50 percent increase in the number of lawsuits filed against the Department of Correction. These settlements obscure the life-long trauma of each of these brutal events and the payment of settlements does nothing to change the brutality of the system. NYC has already shelled out over $15 million in order to remunerate the families of people who have died in DOC custody. There is no end in sight for the escalating violence in NYC jails.
6. DOC refuses to comply with 2017 City Council legislation requiring the Department to lessen the burdens of paying bail. City Council’s 2019 report finds that the DOC is not accepting bail payments “immediately and continuously;” has failed to provide information on how to post bail; and is not releasing people within three hours after they have paid.
7. From 2014 to 2018, DOC lockdowns increased by almost 75 percent, reaching a high of about 2,700 lockdowns in 2017. A majority of these lockdowns lasted longer than nine hours, including 215 lockdowns that lasted more than 25 hours. In the new jails, all housing will be individual cells, so lockdowns will result in solitary confinement for everyone.
Opinion: Close Rikers to Address the Violence of Jail Discrimination – For Now
8. School attendance rates are dropping. DOC and DOE have a legal responsibility to provide 16-21 year olds an education, like any other young person. Instead, DOC has failed to escort young people to school. Attendance fell by half between the Fall 2018 and Spring 2019 semesters.
9. In 2014 and 2018 respectively, the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) found serious lapses in jail security that allowed for rampant smuggling of drugs and weapons into facilities by DOC staff. In 2017, the top DOC official in charge of internal investigations was fired after he was caught spying on the DOI, the city’s watchdog for city government fraud and abuse.
10. The DOC remains out of compliance with 16-year-old federal court requirements to provide mental health discharge planning for people as they leave jail.
11. The Department of Correction is ramping up President Trump’s racist and violent immigration policies. Between October 1, 2016 and June 30, 2018, DOC imprisoned 140 people for ICE beyond the time when such person would otherwise be released from DOC custody. In this time period, DOC directly transferred 48 people from their custody to ICE and, just this year, DOC expanded the circumstances under which it will hand over more people to ICE.
Under Mayor de Blasio, the New York City jails have gotten worse. New skyscraper jails do not address the brutality of the Department of Correction and cannot solve the inherent problems of incarceration.
Contrary to popular belief, jails and police contribute little, if anything, to our collective safety. Although crime has been declining in NYC for decades, so far this year, there were 70,000 reports to the NYPD of victimization or violence; yet, the NYPD will address few, if any, of those instances of harm. This is most clear when it comes to gender-based violence. Nationally, less than a quarter of rapes are reported to the police, and in NYC, the NYPD only solves about half of reported rapes. Clearly, if jailing is not ending the epidemic of sexual violence in our communities, then what will?
Our long-term vision begins by closing Rikers and instead of wasting the $770 million per year it takes to keep Rikers open, pour it into cash-strapped community-based programs that help all New Yorkers reduce interpersonal violence, transform harm, and actually thrive. We can close Rikers and beyond by moving towards eliminating pretrial detention altogether, limiting judicial powers that remand people into jail, and decriminalizing the activities that land people in jail . Pouring billions of dollars into new jails that will eventually fail, just as old jails have always failed, pushes us further away from racial and economic justice and solutions that actually address violence and harm.
Close Rikers now. No new jails.
Alston, Ramos, and Williams are organizers with No New Jails NYC, a multi-racial, multi-gender, intergenerational campaign aimed to shut down Rikers without building new jails. Alston is a also community organizer with BYP100, and centers disability justice through a Black queer feminist lens in her work throughout NYC. Ramos is a member of the NYC Chapter of Critical Resistance, and a doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. Williams is originally from Florida and brings her creativity and art as a dancer into her organizing work.