Mayoral candidates spar over creating new jails at in-person forum

Five New York City mayoral candidates attend a forum hosted by City & State.
Five New York City mayoral candidates attend a forum hosted by City & State.
Ralph R. Ortega
Five New York City mayoral candidates attend a forum hosted by City & State, the 92nd Street Y and PIX11.

Mayoral candidates spar over creating new jails at in-person forum

A few days before early voting starts, five mayoral candidates jockeyed for position on Monday night.
June 7, 2021

In the final days of New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary, the lines of attack have gotten sharper, high-level staff have switched camps and the candidates running to lead the city are scrambling to fundraise and win last-minute endorsements.

At an in-person mayoral forum on Monday night hosted by City & State, the 92nd Street Y and PIX11, five of the top-tier candidates largely stuck to matters of policy, staking out their positions on issues that included integrating the public school system and how to handle community rezonings. Former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, civil rights attorney Maya Wiley, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales and former Citigroup Vice Chair Ray McGuire participated in the forum. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Andrew Yang were invited to the forum but did not attend.

For much of the mayoral campaign, Adams and Yang have traded the top two spots in the polls. On Monday, a Spectrum News NY1/Ipsos poll had Adams in first place at 22% and Yang in second at 16%. But Garcia and Wiley, who were both at Monday’s forum, have gained new momentum within the past month, as Garcia rides the high of endorsements from The New York Times and the Daily News, and Wiley accumulates the support of progressive lawmakers and organizations – some of them fleeing the Stringer and Morales campaigns, which have each had their own recent controversies.

Wiley and Garcia at times found themselves on different ends of the issues. While the discussion on Monday was mostly tame and policy-focused, some fireworks flared when closing Rikers Island was raised. The project of closing the infamous jail is one of several undertaken by Mayor Bill de Blasio whose ultimate implementation will fall to the next mayor. And while the five candidates agreed that Rikers Island should be closed, they diverged on what – if anything – should replace it.

Garcia and Donovan both spoke about engaging communities in the current plan to build four new borough-based jails. Wiley, who has said before that she doesn’t want new jails, said that the vast majority of people currently in Rikers Island need mental health services and supportive housing – not to be incarcerated. Morales stated her opposition to the creation of new borough-based jails more explicitly. “I don’t believe that we address a racist and inequitable system by creating nicer jail cells,” she said. McGuire said that four new vertical borough-based jails were not the solution, but did not specify what he considered to be the right solution. To some surprise, Morales and McGuire found common ground there. “Spending $8 billion to $10 billion on four vertical jails is an abject failure of leadership and vision,” McGuire said. Morales replied: “I actually agree with you.”

When Garcia and Donovan mentioned the Brooklyn Detention Complex, a recently closed facility, as one potential site where a borough-based jail could work, Wiley appeared to mistake that for Brooklyn’s federal detention facility, Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, referring to the federal lockup as “an awful place too.” Garcia corrected Wiley, saying she was referring to a separate facility, but Wiley reiterated her commitment to pursuing alternatives to incarceration. “The bottom line is that we’re talking about something that does not work for people,” Wiley said.

The debate around incarceration versus abolishing jails gets to the heart of perhaps the most controversial issues of the mayoral race: funding for the New York City Police Department and how the city should tackle crime. While the candidates didn’t directly address that question on Monday, their answers on Rikers Island broadly revealed where they stand. Morales, for example, has stated unequivocally that she would defund the NYPD, while Wiley has said she would shift $1 billion from the department’s budget and into other areas like schools and child care. Garcia, meanwhile, has focused not on defunding the department but on adding new resources, such as mental health response teams.

On other topics, the five mayoral candidates found some agreement, including on the need to proactively seek community input on proposed rezonings for affordable housing, the importance of arts funding and education, and the imperative to integrate the New York City public school system. But the candidates split on the city’s controversial Gifted and Talented school admissions program, with Morales proposing to do away with all school screening, while Garcia has said she would keep the city’s specialized high school admissions test, but get rid of the Gifted and Talented test for 4-year-olds.

With less than a week before early voting begins, opportunities to watch the candidates interact and debate in person are dwindling, and Monday’s forum broke the norm of Zoom forums and virtual debates. Hosted at the 92nd Street Y’s Upper East Side venue, some candidates celebrated the occasion. “I am thrilled to be here in person,” Garcia said on Monday. “It is a very optimistic sign for the future.”

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.