Rendering of the proposed new Bronx jail.

The recent city budget vote clearly demonstrated that the ongoing debate around racial equity still has a long road ahead in New York. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and too many others have devastated the nation, and they have yet again laid bare the racism that has been embedded in our society for centuries. Systemic institutional racism and decades of neglect and financial disinvestment, coupled with patterns of city-subsidized harm on Black and Latino neighborhoods, make it clear that we must have radical investments in affected communities like Mott Haven if we are to achieve equity and justice in our country.

Which begs the question: Why is City Hall set on spending $1.1 billion to construct a new prison facility in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx? While City Hall postponed the plan to build new jails until next year due to COVID, it remains absurdly committed to implementing a plan that will only exacerbate the inequities lived by generations. The plan continues a disturbing pattern of racist policies that caused the existing conditions—entrenched poverty and crime—in Mott Haven in the first place.

Our city faces deep economic uncertainty, but significant cuts to essential programs in the 2021 budget will once again disproportionately impact low-income communities like ours. We raise our children among the worst-ranked indicators in health, education and economic security. Following decades of disinvestment, 38 percent of South Bronx residents and 49 percent of our children live in poverty, and pre-COVID unemployment rates were at three times the national rate. Top-down development decisions that zoned and subsidized the disproportionate siting of waste transfer stations, fossil fuel power plants and heavy diesel trucking businesses in our community have caused chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, cancer and hypertension; the very conditions that COVID-19 thrives on, resulting in some of the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates.

The funds previously allocated for jail construction in the Bronx, and elsewhere, should instead be spent in a smarter, safer, and more equitable manner. Our Mott Haven community is in crisis, and any tax dollar investments must be in (long-ignored) social, educational and economic opportunities for the community—not a jail. There was no consideration given to the community’s existing public health issues, and given the impact of Covid-19 on this community, the city must rethink their plan. 

It should be noted that the city has taken steps to reduce the jail population during this pandemic, reducing the average daily population in our city’s jails by 29 percent since March. However, this reduction only further raises the question of the ongoing need to construct large-scale, new facilities around the city to hold an expected jail population size that has already radically changed. At the very least, this implies that the current plans are no longer appropriate.

City Hall’s jail plan was pushed through the City Council without regard to enormous opposition from local Community Boards, fellow elected officials, and residents who live in and around the communities of the planned locations. The siting and approval processes were fundamentally flawed, failed to engage in comprehensive community engagement and bypassed a final environmental impact statement, all hallmarks of previous battles in communities of color, particularly in the Bronx.

We need a capital budget that reflects the global, resounding cry that Black Lives Matter and heightened attention to communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, rather than doubling down on the tale of two cities. Continuing to fund a capital plan that includes new jails across the city and underfunds essential services for Mott Haven and other similarly situated communities is reckless and irresponsible.

The one-year delay in first year funding is an opportunity to avoid further exacerbating existing inequalities in our city and communities. The city’s elected officials must stop ignoring Mott Haven constituents and their needs. They must reconsider the plan to build a new jail in Mott Haven, and instead reinvest the funding in much-needed services and community-driven projects for social and economic empowerment. This community has suffered enough. We can’t breathe!

Arline Parks is the vice chair & CEO of the Diego Beekman Mutual Housing Association and A. Mychal Johnson is the co-founder of South Bronx Unite.

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