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Is it possible to close Rikers without building a new jail in Chinatown?

BY DASHIELL ALLEN | “While most Chinatown businesses focus on food, health and medicine, this Chinatown dig specializes in mass incarceration,” activist and comedian says Aaron Yin in a video on Tik Tok.

“This twin-building jail complex is nicknamed The Tombs,” Yin says, “because once you look at them you can’t help but feel dead inside.”

The dismantling of the now-emptied Manhattan Detention Complex, known as “The Tombs,” is imminent.

Scaffolding is set to surround the Chinatown facility on Tuesday, with demolition, or “deconstruction,” as the city likes to call it, beginning in May or June.

Lower Manhattan is overwhelmingly opposed to the city’s $8.3 billion “borough-based jails” plan to replace Rikers Island with four “megajails” to be located in every borough other than Staten Island with a combined total of 3,300 beds. In Manhattan, the new jail would reach a maximum height of 335 feet, which would be between 30 and 40 stories tall.

Speaking to The Village Sun, project opponents raised a plethora of concerns about the massive plan — ranging from the displacement of Chinese small businesses, to the health risks caused by construction, to a lack of evidence that the new jail would fundamentally alter the myriad problems plaguing Rikers since it first opened in the 1930s.

At the same time, the conditions at Rikers Island are widely decried as a “humanitarian crisis” that cannot be allowed to continue. In 2021 alone 15 detainees lost their lives out of a total population at Rikers of between 5,300 and 5,500. In a 2014 report, Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District Court of New York, described the “repeated use of excessive and unnecessary force by correction officers” on the island as violating detainees’ “constitutional rights.”

Coss Marte, the founder of CONBODY fitness, spoke earlier this month at a protest against replacing The Tombs with a new borough-based jail. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

The question foremost in many people’s minds, then, is what should take Riker’s place? Is it possible to close Rikers without causing a displacement impact on Chinatown? Will a megajail ever be a vehicle for social justice? Can the carceral system itself even be reformed and, if not, then what is the path to what some advocates are demanding — the “abolition” of all jails?

“We want to look to the roots of these problems,” said Jihye Song, an organizer with Youth Against Displacement, a Chinatown and Lower East Side activist group. “Ultimately, we have to go to the root cause first, and the surface level comes after.

“If your solution is to do the bare minimum and not change the system — it’s just moving the cups around,” she added.

The community has some ideas — but the city doesn’t appear to be listening.

Alternatives to the city’s plan

In September 2021, Elizabeth Glazer, the head of former Mayor de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice, and one of the borough-based jail plan’s chief architects, co-authored a report titled, “What To Do About Closing Rikers.” In the report, she and Michael Jacobson, the director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance and a former commissioner of both the city’s Departments of Correction and Probation, expound upon “seven actions the next mayor should take” to improve the current plan.

While the current plan would reduce the detainee population to 3,300 — with a total of over 800 beds in each facility — Glazer and Jacboson’s target number is lower, 2,200.

The report acknowledges of de Blasio’s jails scheme that, “although succeeding where past attempts had failed, the necessities of reaching a political agreement resulted in a plan with substantive shortcomings that must be addressed so that the new facilities are part of a transformed justice system, not a decentralized mini-version of Rikers.” (Part of that political agreement involved a contentious $35 million payment to the nearby Museum of Chinese In America a.k.a. MOCA.)

In an interview with The Village Sun, Glazer explained in detail the steps that Mayor Adams could take, starting as soon as tomorrow, to at the very least reduce the harm caused by detainment at Rikers Island.

Key to Glazer’s plan is the use of currently empty or underutilized state-owned jail facilities across the city, including the Lincoln Detention Center on W. 110th Street and Bayview in Chelsea. That would ideally allow the Chinatown facility to remain at its current size. She believes that several smaller jails located around Manhattan could prove more just and humane compared than a single, larger one.

(Both facilities she mentioned have been shuttered for years and are still owned by the Department of Corrections, according to the city’s ACRIS database. A criminal justice nonprofit had briefly considered turning the Bayview Detention Center into a community center, although plans were scrapped in 2019. Meanwhile, a few years back there was speculation that the Lincoln facility could be redeveloped as luxury housing.)

“There are also some options to expand what’s already the city’s plan to provide therapeutic beds for people who are incarcerated and require physical attention, in hospitals,” she said.

(Photo by Dashiell Allen)

Additionally, these options “would not require a new land use process,” given that the sites are already zoned for use as jails, she noted.

“If you believe that it’s a good idea to move off Rikers, and I think it is a good idea, then the question is how can jails both operate in a more humane way that permits a decent environment for both the people who work there and the people who were incarcerated?” Glazer asked.

Still, she, admitted, in her understanding, The Tombs would need to be demolished either way, even if the new facility replacing it was no larger than the current one.

“When I was there we did look at whether it would be possible to simply rehab the existing building, and for a whole range of reasons it just was not possible,” she said. “It would really mean that you would have to take the building down to its walls.”

Ironically, when The Tombs was last remodeled, in the 1980s, the $42 million renovation ($118.5 million in 2022 dollars) was described by The New York Times as “one of the most humane and efficient jails anywhere.”

The use of smaller state facilities wasn’t considered during the 2019 ULURP (city land-use review) process, according to Glazer, who noted the city was prioritizing speed and didn’t consider it feasible to negotiate with state agencies.

“There was a contentious relationship between the governor and the mayor,” Glazer said, laughing slightly. “And that relationship has changed quite a bit. So that opens up that lane that really didn’t exist before,” he said, referring to the more amicable rapport between Governor Hochul and Adams.

Glazer also called for the number of Correction officers to be cut, calling Rikers the “most richly staffed jail on the face of the planet.” According to her report, as of July 2021, the jail was employing close to 9,000 officers for a total population of 5,800 — close to two officers per detainee.

According to Glazer and Jacobson’s report, it costs the city $447,000 annually per each detainee at Rikers. While the ratio of Correction officers to detainees has increased by 218 percent over the past decade, the rate of violent incidents on the island has increased by 2,043 percent.

“If you right-size the correctional staff to that population, the savings are something more than $1 billion in operating costs,” she explained. “And you think of what that money could be used for to really provide a high level of training and support to officers, to invest in programming, to invest in everything in the city.”

Even before any that would happen, Glazer would like to see the city take immediate action to reduce the current number of detainees on Rikers.

“It’s unconscionable for the conditions to remain as they are and simply to wait for new buildings,” she said. “Bottom line is we should move as quickly as possible to start moving people into these smaller facilities and these other options, like therapeutic beds, and make the repairs as quickly as can be done on the facilities on the island while the building is happening.”

She would also like to see a coordinated effort by the Department of Correction and the criminal justice system, similar to what was done at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the city released 1,500 people from jail in a one-month period.

“That’s with district attorneys, public defenders and courts at the table,” Glazer said. “So just to say that it requires attention and focus everyday.”

What about reimagining Rikers?

Meanwhile, a group of architects, led by Tribeca resident Bill Bialosky, thinks that a more “humane” alternative to closing Rikers would be to redesign it.

“Justice reform is never going to be achieved on tiny, little, postage stamp skyscraper sites throughout the city,” he told The Village Sun.

“It takes space and low-rise and low-density buildings to be able to provide all the myriad of programs that all those people need for us to correct the wellness issues that have never been addressed.”

While one of the main arguments for closing Rikers is its relative isolation from the rest of the city — and the courthouses — Bialosky thinks this could be remedied through free ferry service. And he thinks the courts could be placed on the island, as well.

In 2019, Bialosky’s group presented their proposal to City Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Robert Holden, who promised to at least consider it.

It’s doubtful this plan will be considered, though, given that the City Council voted on a binding resolution in 2019 that bans the use of the 400-acre island as a jail after Aug. 31, 2027. That deadline could also explain the city’s urgency to continue with its current plan.

“Definitely, the idea of building on Rikers had been on the table,” Glazer said. “And, in fact, there was money in the capital budget to build a 1,500-bed facility on Rikers. But I think the ‘Close Rikers’ movement was very successful in making the case that Rikers Island itself should not be used, for moral reasons and for operational reasons.”

Currently, the city is pursuing a feasibility study for Rikers Island to be used for wastewater processing.

‘No one is listening’

Nancy Kong, a resident of Chatham Towers, an apartment complex neighboring the Manhattan Detention Complex from across Columbus Park, likes many of Glazer and Jacobson’s proposals. However, she isn’t sure if she agrees with the final number of detainees in their vision, due in part to the recent rise in violent crime throughout the city, including the murders of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee.

(Photo by Dashiell Allen)

Kong, though, is 100 percent certain that Rikers needs to close.

“Just even what happened during COVID brought light to how incredibly harmful and dangerous, and inhumane the conditions are and it just needed to be addressed,” she said of the current jail.

Either way, she sees the plan as reasonable and “scalable” in size — although she’s strongly against the demolition of The Tombs. In all, she said, she’s “75 percent” in agreement with Glazer and Jacobson’s points.

Kong believes that all neighborhoods in the city should contribute their “fair share” toward housing detainees — not just the four communities currently proposed.

“I’m willing to discuss, negotiate and compromise but literally no one is listening,” she said. “But that’s part of it: You can build here, but build smaller and really make sure that it’s fair and equitable and other communities. All the City Council people that voted for this, why are they not also putting skin in the game? That’s my big issue,” she told The Village Sun.

Since 2018, Kong has attended nearly every community board meeting regarding the jails plan — not just in Manhattan but in the outer boroughs, as well.

“You’re watching a train wreck and the solutions are there,” she said of the city’s current plan. “And no one is listening. I don’t get it.”

Alice Blank, vice chairperson of Lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1, agrees with Kong’s sentiment.

“A project of this scale — what is the rush?” Blank said. “I understand we need to close Rikers, but is this really going to be an advantage here? I think it’s clearly showing that it’s not. I think this process is a very difficult one and it’s not one that anyone has any experience with.

“You have to ask yourself, is this really an intelligent way to go about this, and is this an intelligent way to spend $8.3 billion?” Blank said, questioning the megajails scheme’s overall price tag.

In response to a request for comment on whether he believed the cost-benefit analysis for the borough-based jail plan was sound, Chloe Chick, a spokesperson for Comptroller Brad Lander, said, “Our first priority is to close Rikers because what is happening there a humanitarian crisis — 16 New Yorkers died there this year, and people are not getting food, medical services or access to lawyers. The comptroller supports and continues to push for policy steps to reduce the number of people incarcerated before trial and for the investments in alternatives to incarceration and community-safety models that will bring both more safety and more justice.”

Lincoln Reslter, the councilmember for Northern Brooklyn’s District 33, which includes the Brooklyn House of Detention, which is also in the initial stages of demolition, told The Village Sun in a statement, “Rikers Island is a humanitarian crisis, and during COVID the conditions have been worse than ever before. We need to strengthen and advance the plan to permanently shutter Rikers as soon as possible. I strongly support the efforts to reduce the scale and bed count within the borough-based jails.”

In an interview, Jan Lee, co-founder of the grassroots organization Neighbors United Below Canal Street, stressed that the key to the issue is addressing the “root causes” of why people wind up in jail in the first place.

“We’re looking at a new administration,” he said. “I think every indication that I’ve gotten from Eric Adams, for one, as a candidate, he made very clear he does not approve of the jail in Chinatown.

“I don’t think that the general public has an appetite to spend 8 to 11 billions [dollars] on structures without actually addressing the root cause” of crime itself, Lee said.

“I believe that if we have the bail reforms that work, we have the alternatives to incarceration that work, we have a robust investment in healthcare workers that can address the needs of mentally challenged people, we can phase out the buildings for different use,” he said, pointing out that it’s much more challenging to phase out a single megajail.

It’s worth noting that the $8.3 billion price tag only covers the physical structures themselves. That figure doesn’t take into account the need for restorative programming, job training or any other amenities for the detainees, all of which will ultimately be included in the new jail complexes.

“I am actually disgusted about how many councilmembers and the [former City Council] Speaker Johnson and the mayor ratified this plan by saying we know the inevitability of Black and brown men in urban cities — it’s jail,” Lee said. According to him, the city is essentially saying, “Let’s just circumvent giving all the services in your community. We’re just going to give it to you when you’re in jail.”

In order to construct the four new jails before the 2027 deadline, the city is using the “design-build” method, which means obtaining, through a single procurement process, a single contractor responsible for both designing and building the structures.

However, C.B. 1 Chairperson Blank and Lee both raised concerns over this method.

Blank, who is an architect, noted that the design-build megaproject is “the first of its scale in New York City.” Lee, for his part, thinks that it could lead to the single contractor cutting corners to achieve its goals under budget.

Already, the city’s choice of development and construction companies has been questioned by Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan, a self-described jails “abolitionist.” She pointed out on Twitter that Gilbane Building Company, which was short-listed to do the new jails’ construction, “faced no real consequences for safety violations that led a construction worker to fall to his death.”

City defends its plan

At a heated C.B. 1 meeting last Thursday, more than 30 representatives from the city’s Department of Design and Construction, as well as the Department of Correction, tried their hardest to quell concerns.

Several times plan opponents disparaginly referred to them as “foot soldiers” for the city agencies.

Sasha Ginzberg of the Department of Correction stood firm on the city’s commitment to close Rikers by 2027.

“Any direct experience there makes it clear that those facilities are not fit for any human to live or work there,” she said. “We need to build the borough-based jail system.”

As for using smaller state facilities like those described by Glazer, she said it wouldn’t be possible to have a large range of programming in them, and that transportation between facilities is inconceivable. The D.O.C. rep added that she hadn’t gotten “any indication” from the state that it would be willing to give up the facilities.

“At its core, the borough-based jail plan is a decarceration plan,” she said.

The Chung Pak senior-citizen residence, which also includes commercial offices, at left, directly adjacent to The Tombs, still has not given a letter of agreement for the megajail project. Chung Pak residents and commercial tenants alike have expressed concerns about the huge project, which would cause years of disruptive construction work right next door to them. (By Dashiell Allen)

Chinatown activist Lee questioned whether the project could proceed at all as scheduled without the consent of Chung Pak, a senior-citizen apartment complex located on the same block as The Tombs. He asked what would happen if an agreement was not reached with the apartment complex.

“We anticipate we should be having that agreement,” answered Anil Ally.

“You should have had that approval already,” Lee retorted. “What is your Plan B?”

“We’re working on it,” Ally said.

“Will you take legal action against them?” Lee shot back.

“They’re gonna do whatever they want and they don’t give a damn about us,” interjected Edward Cucchia, an attorney whose office wall abuts The Tombs.

Ultimately, the one thing with which everyone in the community agrees is that the city’s borough-based jails plan can and should be improved — whether that means using Glazer and Jacobson’s report as a blueprint, or making deeper investments into addressing the root causes of homelessness and mental health.

Regardless of which plan the city eventually pursues, “you’re still locking a ton of people up,” said Yanin Penan, a member of Youth Against Displacement. “It’s still addressing nothing about housing, nothing about the mass displacement and insecurity that people are experiencing in this city.”

24 Comments

  1. LES3025 LES3025 February 20, 2022

    “Lower Manhattan is overwhelmingly opposed… .” Yeah, I’m gonna need a citation for that. Also, what is the connection between a new jail and displacement? Does displacement mean something or is it just a word people say when they don’t like a new building?

    • The Village Sun The Village Sun Post author | February 20, 2022

      In May 2019, Lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1 voted unanimously against tearing down The Tombs to build a new borough-based jail there. Speaking of citations — who in Lower Manhattan actually is FOR building a new megajail at the site? Can YOU provide a citation?

      • LES3025 LES3025 February 20, 2022

        I’m not the one making a statement about whether there is or is not overwhelming support or opposition for a thing. But sure, if you’re asking me to identify a person in Lower Manhattan who is in favor: Margaret Chin, who was elected and reelected to City Council for 10 years by 10s of thousands of Lower Manhattanites, voted for the plan (http://tribecatrib.com/content/council-approves-jail-tower-plan-and-downtown-group-will-sue-stop-it). So did Carlina Rivera and Corey Johnson, whose districts also extend into Lower Manhattan.

        Community Boards are unelected and represent a particular slice of the broader community. If you want to say that there is opposition, which includes a unanimous vote against by CB1, that would be fine and factual. But to cite the CB vote and extrapolate that to “overwhelming opposition” across all of Lower Manhattan is just wrong.

        I think the reality is that there is no data on the scope of support for or opposition to this project and the majority of Lower Manhattanites probably have little knowledge of the plan or the policy implications of building versus not building the jail.

        • The Village Sun The Village Sun Post author | February 20, 2022

          Yes, Margaret Chin…but who else?! The same criticism du jour of community boards that they are “not representative,” blah, blah, blah… . This is the way YIMBYs blast community opposition nowadays. People are familiar with this line of argument by now. It’s BS! And just a way to try to deligitimize community opposition. How many people want a megajail on their block or in their neighborhood? C’mon. As Kathryn Freed has pointed out, people have been protesting against jail projects in Chinatown for decades. No one is out there clamoring FOR a new jail. As Biden says, C’mon man!

          • LES3025 LES3025 February 20, 2022

            Ah, I see we are shifting the goalposts from the empirically testable “Lower Manhattan is overwhelmingly opposed” to the subjective “no one wants a megajail on their block.”

          • The Village Sun The Village Sun Post author | February 20, 2022

            Chris Marte was elected, with a mandate, to succeed Chin in the City Council. He’s one of the megajail’s biggest critics and is a co-founder of the anti-megajail group Neighbors United Below Canal (NUBC). There was tremendous anger within, particularly, the Chinatown community at Chin’s position on this project. Chris Marte nearly defeated Chin in the Democratic primary four years ago, and, in fact, would have done so if there had not been two spoilers in the race.

          • LES3025 LES3025 February 20, 2022

            This is still goalpost shifting! I’m not disputing that there’s opposition to the plan. You all are the ones who called it overwhelming and I was asking for support.

    • John John February 20, 2022

      “Yes new mega-jail in Chinatown! More mass incarceration! YIMBYYYYYYYY!!!!!!!!”

      • LES3025 LES3025 February 20, 2022

        Yeah man, super progressive of you to oppose closing Rikers Island. Are you aware that groups in favor of decarceration support this because getting Rikers closed is a priority (https://twitter.com/FreedomAgendaNY/status/1490702121813037059)?

        Not sure what you think YIMBYism has to do with it. Do you think the developers I am supposedly shilling for want a jail next to the luxury condos they’re planning to build?

  2. Chinatown Chinatown February 20, 2022

    “Yeah, I’m gonna need a citation for that.” A citation for that? Or you can just crawl out from your hole and join the world of the living. Three years of anti-jail protests and innumerable meetings tell the story. No one owes you a “citation.”

    • LES3025 LES3025 February 20, 2022

      I live on the border of Chinatown. I was in Chinatown today for the Lunar New Year parade. I know there is organized opposition to the plan and I’m not saying otherwise. But the fact that the opponents are loud and organized doesn’t mean they are an overwhelming majority, which was the statement made in this article.

  3. Zeke Luger Zeke Luger February 21, 2022

    Um, you do realize they’re fighting real estate corporations with more money than 95% of Lower Manhattan residents combined. *Anyone* being willing to go on record opposing the jail is evidence of significant opposition, let alone this entire following list, including Councilmember Chris Marte, the Chinatown Consolidated Benevolent Association, Neighbors United Below Canal, the Community Board, NY Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, Chatham Towers, the Coalition To Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side (which is 19 different community orgs), Downtown Independent Democrats, Denny Salas — that’s A LOT of Lower Manhattan beyond just the Community Board or a few lone activists — and represents a broad range of political opinions.

    • LES3025 LES3025 February 22, 2022

      They’re construction firms, not the Mafia. No one is going to get whacked by speaking up against this project. Public meetings are filled with the opposition. If anything, it would be braver and a greater risk to one’s personal safety to stand up in one of those meetings and speak in favor of the jail.

      There’s also a ton of overlap between the people/entities on the list you mention. Marte is on the steering committee of NUBC, along with a member of the Board of Directors of Chatham Tower. There is overlap in the “coalition members” of NUBC and the Coalition To Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side (and some of the “community orgs” that are part of them are really just one or two people). There is overlap between the CB and DID. You don’t get extra points for double counting or for a “neighborhood group” that’s a front for a few people’s personal views.

      I’m not disputing that there are a lot of people that are against this. But there are somewhere around 400,000 people in Lower Manhattan. Maybe a few thousand (if I’m being generous) are very vocally opposed. Closing Rikers Island is a good and broadly popular decision. The borough-based jails are the way the city has decided to do that. Just because no one is going to march down Canal Street or scream at a Community Board meeting to support building the jail doesn’t mean the opposition is overwhelming.

      • The Village Sun The Village Sun Post author | February 22, 2022

        Yup, umm…still waiting for your to produce the list of groups and people for the jail out of those 400,000 people. You’re clearly knocking yourself out doing research on the people who are against the jail — trying to deligitimize and minimize them — but you still haven’t produced a “for” list. Your position is completely speculative and hypothetical but you argue it and argue it. The people and groups for the project seem to be those who have received something from the city in return. Some would say they have been “bought off.” … Just sayin’.

        • LES3025 LES3025 February 22, 2022

          I’m not claiming that there is overwhelming support for building the jails, and I said that I don’t think there’s any real data on levels of support or opposition across the entire community. I think that support and opposition are both limited and that most people don’t know and/or don’t care.

          There isn’t organized support for the jail. There is almost never organized support FOR the specific implementation of any broadly popular policy. Take housing. People broadly support building more housing and affordable housing in particular. But show up to any meeting about a specific project and you’re only going to hear the people opposed. People broadly support climate-change resiliency projects. But every East Side Coastal Resiliency meeting was dominated by the people opposed to it. Open Restaurants is obviously very popular. But the loudest voices are those opposed.

          It’s not that hard to understand why this is. Good policies typically have large but diffuse benefits, which are often realized in the future. They are good for a lot of people but not especially good or immediate for any specific person. Even the best policies though, create losers (or at least people who perceive themselves as losers). For those people, the burdens of the policy are acute. People who feel that they are being acutely harmed by a policy have a motivation to organize and stop it. On the other hand, people who might benefit in a small way in the future do not have a motivation to organize in support, even if the aggregate benefit for everyone would be very large. You see this in housing all the time. Building more affordable housing is good but, when it comes to a specific project, the neighbors who will be impacted by new development are motivated to oppose, whereas people who might live in the new housing don’t know the project is being discussed or see themselves as potential beneficiaries. How often have you seen an organized group of people who are on affordable housing waitlists or who lost out on past lotteries show up to an LPC or ULURP meeting for a specific project? Never happens.

          The jail is no different. Building a new jail is going to impose localized burdens. It’s understandable and expected that some people in the community are going to organize to oppose. But the benefits are diffuse, so it’s equally understandable and expected that few, if any, will organize in support.

          Unfortunately, plenty of people in Lower Manhattan are going to go to jail in the coming years. They will benefit from going to jail here rather than on Rikers. Do you think they’re going to band together to support building a jail? Do you think their families will? Of course not.

          Plenty of people support closing Rikers. Of those, some are pragmatists that understand that the borough-based jails are how that will happen. Is it reasonable to expect them to organize to support this specific jail project, especially when the city has seemingly already committed to it? I think not.

          That’s why I take such issue with the “overwhelming opposition” characterization. The fact that there is a vocal opposition doesn’t mean that everyone is opposed or that the opposition is right that the policy is bad. There are good reasons to believe that the opposite is true. But talking about it this way confers an air of legitimacy independent of, or in spite of, the policy implications of their position. (Ironically enough, the rest of this piece actually has some interesting discussion of the policy).

  4. C.J. Scheiner C.J. Scheiner February 21, 2022

    1. Has the City considered the increased costs to the prison system created by the decentralization of services, such as prison health and legal services, if Rikers Island prison is replaced by several smaller jails, which would have to each duplicate these type of services?
    2. Would the City close Rikers Island jail if Rikers Island was permanently prohibited from being commercially developed for residential or other use except as a free park?
    3. If a new Chinatown jail must be built, why is there no consideration for repurposing The Tombs as a mental health-based residential unit for the homeless, rather than spending money to tear it down and then spend money to reconstruct it?

  5. Mark Moore Mark Moore February 22, 2022

    If we listened to you nothing would ever get done. There’s already a jail there right next to all the courthouses, what’s the big deal about building a new one in its place. And Bill Bialosky clearly hasn’t been listening to any of the reasons for closing Rikers in the first place. Everyone wants to be a critic and try to stop a project that’s already underway.

  6. LL LL February 22, 2022

    Transforming/reforming the criminal “justice” system into something that is humane, just, with better outcomes is not the same thing as “closing Rikers” and building jails in 4 boroughs.

    Putting aside issues such as bail reform, pre-trial release options, community services etc and just focusing on the matter of a facility because some people do need to be in jail pre-trial (let’s say a person accused of rape and murder). And while others may just need services, there really is no place for them…

    A few logistical things…
    the plan is for new jails for men in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens. SI will go to Brooklyn. Women in just one facility. People will be housed where they are arrested – not the borough of residence. So “easier” for family to visit is not actually true.

    When there are staffing shortages etc at Rikers somewhat possible to move Correction officer staff around at different facilities as they are all on Rikers. Same thing with City medical providers. This will be impossible with borough jails.

    The borough jails will be crammed and lack space. No green space. Insufficient rec space. Etc. New buildings will just add congestion to already congested streets and wreck neighborhoods. New jails will not solve the issue of CO staff and some of the dysfunction and corruption. Borough jails will not be the solution that supporters insist they will be.

    Rikers has space. What should happen is that Rikers should be rebuilt as a state of the art, humane, best practice therapeutic campus – secure (violent detainees), semi-secure and non-secure buildings (like a half-way house residence – people free to come and go) but with curfew) depending on situation. Medical, mental health, drug rehab, vocational, recreation, green space.
    Make the Correction officers’ job less stressful to attract better staff

    Free transportation for families.

    • LES3025 LES3025 February 22, 2022

      Fair and thoughtful points. I agree the borough-based jails are going to have a lot of problems and overall I would favor decarceration efforts over building new jails. But it seems to me that the city has committed to this plan as the alternative to the Rikers that exists today, and I think getting rid of the Rikers that exists today is a good thing. I’m not calcified in this view and am interested to read more.

      I would feel a lot differently about the opposition to the Chinatown jail if the leader of the effort wasn’t a pro-carceral, pro-cop, reactionary landlord. That has definitely colored my views about the merits of the opposition (completely apart from my other comments about the extent of the opposition and media coverage of it).

      • LL LL February 22, 2022

        LES3025 – Even if most people arrested are released pending trial, there still is need for some sort of facility for those who must remain jailed. There is no question that the Rikers structure is in terrible shape and that there is need for a new physical structure.

        But to squish jails into new high-rise buildings in NYC?
        Doomed to failure – an expensive, logistical and operational nightmare.

        And once the buildings are up, it is not really possible to “fix” or remediate a jail, especially with limited space.

        BTW the Bronx court (“Hall of Justice”) built only in 2008 has been a problem from the beginning and is now a worsening mess.

        The federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan is a complete wreck and in such bad shape that prisoners had to be moved to the Brooklyn facility, which is only marginally better.

        Again — Rikers Island has lots of land and room to build a good physical facility and ensure services. (Rikers even has a gardening program for inmates.)

        If a non-secure residence was built, then people who really need mental health evaluation or drug rehab, etc. could get it there. They would be free to come and go — pending trial — but would actually have a place to stay and get services.

        Many have no place to go since their families don’t want them or don’t have the space.

  7. LL LL February 22, 2022

    LES3025 – One more thing…while there is need for bail and correctional reform, it seems that even people who believe in those goals in social justice can be pretty fickle when it comes to matters that interest them or impact them.

    Should an adult who waves a gun around in a store, says threatening things but does not actually shoot anyone be released pending trial? There is likely difference of opinion.

    Or a person who stalks and implicitly threatens an ex-partner?

    How about the city EMT now charged with the hit-and-run death of a teacher? Should the accused be released on his own recognizance? Have a big bail set? Presumably he has saved lives, yet some in the bicycling community are lighting up social media with “off with his head”

    • LES3025 LES3025 February 23, 2022

      The answer to almost all of these questions is almost certainly “yes” in my opinion, although I think my politics are in the minority on this issue. If someone represents a sufficient danger, they should be remanded, either to jail or a mental health institution depending on the circumstances. But cash bail isn’t necessary to secure appearance at trial in most cases and beyond that it just criminalizes poverty. In all of the situations you mention, if the person isn’t sufficiently dangerous to be remanded, whether they are released shouldn’t depend on how much money they have.

      Unfortunately, the politicians in the State of New York mostly do not agree with me, so we will continue to have crowded jails and I prefer that they be as efficient and humane as possible. While there are surely hypothetical solutions that are better, it’s not clear to me that any are really possible given the city’s path commitment at this point.

      Even if they were, I’m not convinced some of the alternatives thrown out there are better. I have read about some of the proposals to rebuild Rikers (for example, https://www.manhattan-institute.org/rebuilding-rikers-island). I think they undersell the potential benefits of borough-based jails, and oversell the potential for the alternative to mitigate the risks (primarily around costs). I’m also skeptical of Bialosky in particular because he is working with the Chinatown opposition, who are not neutral here and do not share my goals or values.

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