Oct. 7, 2019. By Shane O’Brien
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has come out against the Mayor’s borough-based jail plan joining the likes of Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and the advocacy group No New Jails.
Ocasio-Cortez took to Instagram Wednesday to call on the city council to vote against the proposal or to at least delay the vote scheduled for Oct. 17.
“We shouldn’t be building new jails,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in the Instagram post. Ocasio-Cortez endorsed a report published in September by No New Jails NYC, a group of activists who want Rikers to close without any new jails being built.
The No New Jails plan involves reducing the prison population to a level where Rikers Island can be closed and no new jails are necessary.
Van Bramer shared her post on Twitter and told the public to read an op-ed he wrote in the Queens Eagle where he expressed a similar sentiment.
The city and most advocates for closing Rikers Island have condemned Ocasio-Cortez and those who share her views.
They argue that the only way to close Rikers Island is through the construction of borough-based jails since the city doesn’t have enough cells to cater to the prison population.
Excluding Rikers, the city only has enough space for 2,100 inmates. There are currently about 7,000 inmates detained across the city.
The city’s plan to shut Rikers and build borough-based jails is close to becoming a reality. The proposal was recently approved by the City Planning Commission and the last step is for it to be passed by the city council, which is voting on it next week.
The Mayor’s office is fighting back against the advocates for No New Jails, concerned that they could topple its plan.
The debate follows Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement in 2017 that he planned to shut down Rikers and replace it with four equal-sized, borough-based jails in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx. The mayor’s proposal would cost around $11 billion, a sum deemed far too high by Ocasio-Cortez and Van Bramer.
The four jails would house a combined total of about 4,000 inmates and de Blasio’s plan calls for reducing the city’s jail population from 7,000 at present to no more than 4,000 by 2026.
No New Jails NYC argued in its report that the city’s jail population could be reduced to 3,000 in the same time period. The group is advocating for Rikers to be shut down without any new jails built in its place and said it is possible to do so if the city reduces the jail population to 3,000 inmates.
The group also argues that the city has given no guarantees that Rikers will close if the four borough jails are built.
The group’s slogan is “if they build it, they will fill it,” and they argue that if the city builds jails capable of holding 4,000 inmates, then it will incarcerate 4,000 people.
Van Bramer contends that the mayor’s proposal is a waste of money and that the city would be better closing Rikers, reducing New York’s jail population and investing the money in services to prevent crime without building any new jails.
“The city’s crime rate continues to decrease dramatically, with fewer than 7,000 people held on Rikers; way down from more than 20,000 in the nineties,” Van Bramer wrote. “So why are we spending billions of dollars to build sky-high cages stacked on top of each other?”
However, the mayor’s office said that closing down Rikers without building any new jails was simply not possible. It said that it does not have space for 3,000 inmates in the non-Rikers prisons and that Rikers would have to remain open if no new jails are built.
Alacia Lauer, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said that the current New York City jail facilities outside of Rikers Island are not sufficient to hold the city’s entire jail population.
She said that the the city has three active jails outside of Rikers Island–with one in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively. She said that they are antiquated and lack adequate programming space. She also said that the current Brooklyn jail has no air conditioning and that the decommissioned Queens Detention Center is not fit to hold any prisoners overnight.
The three facilities are capable of holding a combined 2,100 inmates – 900 less than the population No New Jails forecasts and 1,900 less than what the city predicts.
Lauer said in a statement that the city would be permanently closing Rikers Island and would be replacing outdated jails in the boroughs with modern ones.
“The City’s historic decarceration plan to shutter the 11 active city jails, including the eight jails on Rikers Island, and replace them with four safer, more humane facilities in the boroughs is an opportunity to continue the City’s efforts that have fundamentally reshaped our criminal justice system—efforts born out of the lived experiences and hard work of activists across this city,” Lauer said.
The Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform also said in a statement that it was impossible to house 3,000 inmates when only 2,100 beds were available. It argues that doing so would be illegal and dangerous.
The commission also refutes No New Jails’ slogan that “if they build it, they will fill it.” The commission pointed to Rikers Island, where there are currently about 7,000 empty beds.
It noted that the current borough prisons don’t have units for women, trans or gender non-conforming people, and people with serious mental illnesses and that placing them in an overcrowded jail system would be irresponsible and inhumane.
The commission said that Rikers would have to remain open if the borough-based jails are not built as the city cannot legally or morally cram 3,000 people into 2,100 beds.
Gabriel Sayegh, co-founder of Katal which is part of the #CLOSErikers campaign, said that Ocasio-Cortez’s stance was irresponsible.
Sayegh said that Ocasio-Cortez hadn’t really considered the position she had taken on the borough-based jail proposal.
“She’s obviously a brilliant politician, which leads me to believe that she took a position before fully processing the facts and the implications of the demands,” said Sayegh.
Like No New Jails, #CLOSErikers calls for the city to reduce the jail population to 3,000 by 2026. However, Sayegh said that the plan to replace the aging borough jails was almost as important as the plan to close Rikers.
“I don’t think anyone in their right mind would look at the existing conditions inside the [existing] borough jails and argue that people should be detained there, even people charged with very serious offences,” Sayegh said.
Sayegh said that Rikers remaining open and the borough jails remaining in their current condition was the “worst-case” scenario for the #CLOSErikers campaign.