Mayor Bill de Blasio at the 2014 DOC graduation
Mayor de Blasio attends the 2014 graduation ceremony for new correction officers.

The unprecedented economic shutdown waged to stem the spread of COVID-19 has heaped economic hardship upon public health catastrophe. As businesses shutter, unemployment claims have surpassed 22 million in the United States, and the national rate approaches levels unseen since the Great Depression. The national epicenter, New York City, expects roughly 500,000 job losses alongside a $7.4 billion drop in tax revenue in the next two years. In human terms, this means that just as the virus has disproportionately impacted people already struggling, especially in working-class communities of color, the economic fallout from capitalism’s structural inability to “pause” will wipe away the jobs and resources millions of working people depend on to survive.

Mayor de Blasio has draped this humanitarian crisis in a military metaphor. “Things we would love to focus on in peacetime,” he told reporters, “we don’t get to focus on in wartime.” Unfortunately for de Blasio and the city’s elites, you cannot solve a public health emergency the way you fight a war. Yet, de Blasio’s new budget, which prioritizes our city’s paramilitary police and corrections department over much-needed public services, indicates the city believes otherwise.

On April 16, the mayor announced $6 billion in budget cuts across fiscal years 2020 and 2021.“This administration is committed to doing whatever it takes to keep New Yorkers protected,” de Blasio’s office insisted, arguing that the cuts prioritize “protecting health, safety, shelter, and access to food for all New Yorkers.” The operative word in this formula is “safety,” apparently synonymous with police and jails.

While the budget proposes deep cuts to secondary education, summer youth employment, health and welfare, housing, and transportation—with the Department of Homeless Services and Social Services budgets cut by 2 percent and 6.4 percent respectively—the NYPD’s funding, already monstrous and disproportionate at over $5 billion in 2020, will face no belt-tightening; instead, the proposed budget increases the uniformed and civilian NYPD workforce by approximately 300 positions.

Ever ready to hand over more and more social functions to the police as the NYPD workforce expands, the city has tacitly authorized the NYPD uses the virus as an excuse to justify their military-style occupation of working class communities of color. The $1000 fine Governor Cuomo and de Blasio have instituted for violating social distancing amounts to 3 percent of annual income for someone making $15 an hour, and 0.1 percent for someone making $1 million, with the former being far more vulnerable to aggressive policing. Squeezed by reductions in social programs on one side and the use of police and fines to enforce public health orders on the other, working class New Yorkers will bear the brunt of this new austerity budget.

And although the proposed budget cuts the Department of Correction workforce by almost 1,730 positions through attrition, this apparently-large figure still leaves almost two guards for every person in city custody, even as documented assaults against incarcerated people and their visitors continue. Further reducing the DOC uniformed workforce to the Lippman Commission recommended guard-to-incarcerated-person ratio of just under 1:1 would allow the city to divest over $500 million annually from city jails, which could be invested in social programs. Yet, while the city could make allowances for retraining redundant guards for socially useful work, it instead persists in funding the DOC’s legacy of violence.

Most alarmingly, hidden in the mayor’s “austerity” budget is the $10 billion capital commitment for building four new jails in NYC, the city’s most dramatic shakeup to the city’s jail system since its construction of the notorious Rikers Island jail complex and Greenwich Village’s Women’s House of Detention in the 1930s.

COVID has thrown into sharp relief the city’s shortage of hospital beds, the erosion of public health infrastructure, and the devastating consequences of converting hospitals into condos. Yet, while this public health emergency has necessitated a floating hospital in the Hudson River and the conversion of the Javits Center into a temporary hospital, the city still finds “state of the art” skyscraper jails to be the best use for $10 billion in capital funds. Indeed, instead of creating more hospital capacity, the city plans to open jails inside the public hospital system.

These funding priorities are nothing new. Since the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s the city’s spending has imposed a narrow definition of “safety” rooted in the racist ideology of “law and order.” Funding for the NYPD and DOC has held steady or increased in inverse proportion to city spending on human services, housing, public assistance, and gainful employment in non-uniformed sectors of the city government. Rhetorically justified by economic crises, New York City’s austerity budgets are undergirded not by economic necessity but by elites’ need to maintain social “order” at all costs, including large-scale campaigns of systematic racist harassment like stop and frisk.

Policing and jails are hazardous to public health even in normal times. In a pandemic, they can do little but spread the virus. To date, 3,350 NYPD officers previously working face-to-face with New Yorkers have tested positive for COVID-19, with the real numbers likely much higher. And setting aside police who unknowingly spread the virus to the people they detain, even healthy cops making arrests in pandemic times are meting out possible death sentences in city jails. A senior doctor at Rikers underscores the COVID risk by describing NYC jails as “the world’s worst cruise ship crossed with the world’s worst nursing home, plus violence.”

The city’s own response to the disaster unfolding in its jails is telling. Through a steady stream of releases from DOC custody meant to mitigate the deadly spread of COVID, the city has tacitly conceded that the thousands of people in its jail system did not belong there in the first place. For the first time since 1946, the city’s average daily jail population has dipped below 4,000, and quantifiable crime and arrests have continued their precipitous fall, revealing all the more starkly how rates of policing and jailing have little deterrent effect, functioning instead to further destabilize individual lives and communities. Even in the wake of the rollback to the (weak) bail reform laws that went into effect in January, the city is reducing its jail population faster than the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice’s timetable for shuttering Rikers, which as recently as February 2020, predicted that the city wouldn’t fall below a daily average jail population of 4,000 until 2025. But rather than taking this opportunity to accelerate the closure of Rikers and re-evaluate the need for skyscraper jails with the capacity to incarcerate 3,300 New Yorkers daily, the Mayor has been silent on the jail construction plan since its approval in October 2019.

The COVID-19 crisis has held up a mirror to our society and revealed a slow-motion disaster already unfolding in the lives of working people. That Mayor de Blasio’s budget grows his police force and includes $10 billion in capital expenditures for new jails is only the latest in his litany of betraying progressive values and the wellbeing of working class New Yorkers. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, as police and jails prove to be the city agencies least able to combat COVID, the city intends to double down on the spending priorities that have made so many New Yorkers unsafe in the first place. However, de Blasio’s budget is not etched in stone. It remains to be ratified by City Council in June, when we will find out just how committed New York’s ruling politicians are to maintaining this discredited status quo.


Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot is a Ph.D. Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. Jarrod Shanahan is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Governors State University.

One thought on “Opinion: NYC Can’t Jail Its Way Out of a Public Health Crisis

  1. Things have gotten worse since this writing. While de Blasio continues a mindless slog toward his $10 billion capital commitment for new jails to be built across the city, the DOE is facing MASSIVE budget cuts at a time when children need more.

    The DOE executive budget includes $111 million in cuts for this fiscal year’s operations, and another $471 million in reductions for 2020-21.

    The 1.1 million children in NYC public schools – the future of this city – are being abandoned by the de Blasio administration. Already underfunded by the city, and dependent on parents to prop up the system, NYC public schools should be getting MORE amid this crisis. STOP THE MADNESS MAYOR! Invest in the city’s future and not in the business of incarceration.

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