The No New Jails proposal is dangerous and will not close Rikers

Recently, the No New Jails group released a document that proposes closing Rikers by overcrowding 3,000 incarcerated people into existing borough jails in the Bronx (the boat), Brooklyn (the Brooklyn Detention Center), and Manhattan (the Manhattan Detention Center) that have a combined allowed capacity of 2,100 people.  This proposal will harm and endanger people, and is prohibited by state minimum standards for jail conditions. 

Today there are 7,200 people in jail in New York City (pop. 8.5 million).  NNJ acknowledges that people will remain incarcerated in NYC for the foreseeable future.  

  • The document assumes that 3,000 people will be incarcerated, as compared to the City’s 4,000-person goal. (NNJ, p. 4.)

Incarcerating 3,000 people in the existing borough jails is morally indefensible.

  • The math doesn’t work. The existing borough jails have an allowed legal capacity of 2,100. These jails already lack sufficient space for programming, recreation, visitation, and medical care for the 1,600 people they hold today. Cramming 3,000 people into these jails would be inhumane, dangerous, and exacerbate their existing problems.

  • Illegal. The City cannot legally hold 3,000 people in the existing borough jails, nor could it be licensed to do so under state regulations. Also, the Brooklyn Detention Center’s cells and day rooms are smaller than those permitted by current regulations. They are grandfathered in, but never would be authorized today.[1]

  • Inhumane. NNJ describes the current borough jails as “dangerous, toxic, and harmful to the health of incarcerated people.” (NNJ, p. 43.) This description is correct. The Brooklyn Detention Center, for example, was built in the 1950s, is falling apart, and has no air conditioning. Yet NNJ would subject even more people to even worse and overcrowded conditions. One of the goals of closing Rikers is to make conditions better for the smaller number of people who remain incarcerated, not worse.

  • Rikers stays open. Because 3,000 people cannot legally or morally be crammed into the existing borough jails, Rikers will remain open.

The existing borough jails do not have units for women, trans or gender non-conforming people, or people with serious mental illness.  

  • The NNJ document does not describe what will happen to these people when 3,000 people are locked up in overcrowded existing borough jails.

Opposing the development of therapeutic units outside the borough jails for people with serious mental illness (NNJ, p. 5) means these people will continue to suffer in jail.

  • The stress and violence associated with incarceration are particularly harmful to people with serious mental illness (SMI).

  • Thanks to calls from advocates, the City is studying proposals for secure therapeutic units that would allow people with SMI who are order to be detained by a judge for a criminal offense to be held in an H+H facility, rather than in a borough jail, so that the person with a SMI would not be in the jail environment and receive better medical care.

  • The No New Jails document opposes these external mental health beds as a “jail expansion plan” – which is not only misleading, but also would continue to condemn those with serious mental illness to unacceptable and destabilizing conditions in jail. (NNJ, p. 5)

“If they build it, they will fill it” is a fallacy in New York City.

  • NYC has been decarcerating for the past 20 years. Today there are approximately 14,000 jail beds in NYC and 7,200 people in jail. There are almost 7,000 empty beds on Rikers. The claim that if the City rebuilds borough jails, it will fill them is wrong.

The City’s plan is shaped by formerly incarcerated people and other advocates.

  • Under the City’s current plan, the number of jails in NYC would drop from 11 to 4, the number of jail beds would drop from 14,000 to 4,600, and the number of people held in jail would drop from 7,200 today to 4,000 or fewer. Some advocates who support this plan are pushing the City to drop the target number of people in jail to 3,000.

  • This is an ambitious and progressive plan that was developed in response to and with profound input from people who were incarcerated on Rikers and other advocates.

This plan is working: the number of people in jail is plummeting.

  • When the City announced it would close Rikers in April 2017, there were 9,500 people in jail. That number has already dropped by 2,400 people and the city is as safe as ever.

NYC can invest in communities AND in safe conditions for incarcerated people and staff.

  • Rebuilding the borough jails will not be cheap, but will ultimately cost far less to operate than the $2.7 billion per year that we currently spend on today’s failing system, freeing up billions for needed investments.

  • The Lippman Commission estimated gross savings of $1.6 billion each year from a lower operating budget after closing Rikers, and net savings of more than $540 million each year after subtracting construction costs for rebuilt borough facilities and a $250 million annual investment in programming, ATIs, and other services. These funds can be used to invest in communities impacted by mass incarceration.

  • We do not need to pit closing Rikers against making investments in other needed areas. We can and must do both.

[1] The Queens Detention Center, which was built in the 1950s and closed in 2000, has approximately 400 beds, but it does not meet minimum standards for cell size, recreation space, and fire and safety codes. It has no air conditioning. Reopening this jail is prohibited by state law.