Vera: Vote to Close Rikers But Commit to Decarceration

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Photo by David Etheridge-Bartow.

The Vera Institute of Justice on Tuesday called for the New York City Council to take a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to close Rikers Island” in its October 17th vote but only if the city councilors and Mayor Bill de Blasio agree to five “key commitments” that will support decarceration.

The city’s calls for closing the notoriously violent jail complex by 2026 and housing a dramatically reduced jail population in four newly constructed facilities.

The call from Vera Institute, a nonprofit national research and policy organization, comes a week after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made public her opposition to the de Blasio administration’s plan. Rikers Island is within Ocasio-Cortez’s district.

“We shouldn’t be building new jails,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in an Instagram post. “This plan is presented as what’s necessary to #CloseRikers, but the plan itself doesn’t even include the closure of Rikers.”

Ocasio-Cortez on the same day met with members of No New Jails NYC, a grass roots movement calling for Rikers to close but also for no new jails to be built. The congresswoman said the city’s priorities should be homelessness, housing and transportation, not jail construction and asked the council vote be delayed at the very least.

“Without your input, the City developed a $10.6 billion scheme to build four new jails without any binding commitment to close Rikers Island.” No New Jails says on its website.

Vera supports a yes vote this month but only if its five points are prioritized. The article posted on its website was written by Insha Rahman, director of strategy and new initiatives.

The first point is to “commit to reducing the number of people who can be incarcerated to far less than 4,000, the number currently on the table in the City’s plan. We can and should go as low as 3,300 jail beds citywide.”

According to Vera, “This is ambitious but not unrealistic, between the historic reforms to bail, discovery, and speedy trial that were passed in Albany in April 2019, potential reforms to parole, and the continuing decline in arrests and crime in New York City.”

The second is to allocate “a significant sum of money—at least $260 million a year—for the next decade to housing, healthcare, treatment, education, and the other resources and services that deliver safety to our neighborhoods and help communities to thrive.”

Third, Vera is pushing for a timeline for constructing new jails in the boroughs along with demolishing the jails on Rikers Island. The institute says, “Waiting until the four new jails are built to begin closing Rikers Island, and moving people from the current borough-based jails onto Rikers Island during construction, are inconsistent with a firm commitment to closing Rikers Island once and for all.”

“Begin building first in Queens and the Bronx, where the sites picked for the jails sit empty, and demolish at least two jails on Rikers Island each year as the borough-based construction progresses.”

The fourth point is to invest in “culture change that will ensure that the violence and despair that plagues Rikers Island is not transferred to the borough-based jails.” This would involve enacting legislation and directives that “promote human dignity through architecture, policies, and programming—individual rooms with natural light and private showers, sinks, and toilets; access to kitchens and fresh food; and more time in programs, employment, and the community.

The fifth and final point asks that the city invest in “a future where abolition is a reality, engage in a design process where the new facilities are built as buildings first, and then adapted to be jails, so that, when the day comes where we no longer rely upon incarceration, those structures can be repurposed for some other use than as a jail.”

As the Vera statement pointed out, attempts to close Rikers have failed before: “once in the late 1970s, and once again in the mid-2000s. Both times, those efforts were defeated by a chorus of naysayers who did not want jails in our communities but were fine with leaving people in cages on Rikers Island, out of sight and out of mind.”

Vera also points out that the “political will” is much different in 2019 and the facts of incarceration have changed. “New York City has already decarcerated from 21,000 people in jail on any given day in the 1990s to 7,000 today, with a goal of fewer than 4,000 in the near future.”

But No New Jails wants more progress to be made than that.

“In its one year of existence, No New Jails has become a serious player in the massive campaign to shut down Rikers Island,” reported City and State New York. “And that’s a real problem for their allies in the fight to close Rikers Island, who see a fatal flaw in No New Jails’ plan.”

Vera’s argument is that the city does require replacement jails, as the existing ones “cannot suffice.”

“While much ink has been spilled over the violence, terror, despair and decay that is Rikers Island, the same holds true of the existing jails in the Bronx and Manhattan, known anecdotally as ‘the Boat’ and ‘the Tombs.’ The cells in the Brooklyn House of Detention–cramped, isolated, and falling apart–do not meet minimum standards for jail conditions but were grandfathered in because they were built so long ago.”

The mayor’s commitment to closing Rikers was in response to a large grass-roots movement as well as the findings of an independent commission peopled by two dozen experts called the Lippman Commission that published “A More Just New York City.”



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