No New Jails now has AOC on board, but opponents see a fatal flaw

The Manhattan Detention Complex, a municipal jail in Lower Manhattan.
The Manhattan Detention Complex, a municipal jail in Lower Manhattan.
VIIIPhotography/Shutterstock
The Manhattan Detention Complex, a municipal jail in Lower Manhattan.

No New Jails now has AOC on board, but opponents see a fatal flaw

The prison abolitionists would keep people incarcerated in certain jails, for now.
October 4, 2019

No New Jails NYC has had a very big week. The grassroots campaign got Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most influential politicians in New York, to back its plan to not only close the Rikers Island jail complex, but to not build any new jails in its place. The campaign also convinced City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer to vote against building new jails when the New York City Council is expected to approve the de Blasio administration’s plan on Oct. 17. In its one year of existence, No New Jails has become a serious player in the massive campaign to shut down Rikers Island. 

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. “(No New Jails) is essentially calling for, after Rikers is closed, for those people to be detained in the existing borough facilities,” said gabriel sayegh, co-founder of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice a partner in the #CLOSErikers campaign, who writes his name with lower-case letters. “And that is an indefensible position from almost any standpoint.”

The New York City Department of Correction currently operates three jails that aren’t on Rikers Island. The Brooklyn Detention Complex, the Manhattan Detention Complex, often called the Tombs, and the Vernon C. Bain Center, a floating jail just off of the Bronx, known as either the Barge or the Boat. 

These three jails receive much of the same criticism as the jails on Rikers Island – that they are outdated facilities that are marred by violence. Sayegh and the #CLOSErikers campaign are on board with the de Blasio administration’s plan to knock them down and start over. The plan before the City Council would close all the city’s jails and replace them with four brand new ones. But No New Jails has a different plan: close the Rikers Island jails immediately, but never build new jails, just stop locking up people who are awaiting trial. 

“We’re a prison abolitionist group,” No New Jails organizer Nabil Hassein told City & State. “Ultimately, we believe that human beings do not belong in cages.” But to get there, as No New Jails laid out in a September report, Rikers Island would be closed first, and the other three jails would come later – meaning New Yorkers would continue being locked up in the existing borough-based jails, despite some complaints that conditions inside are poor – or would be if they were more crowded with additional detainees from Rikers. “Any jail closure is a positive step towards abolition, and any jail being built is a step away from that,” Hassein said. 

Given New York’s political realities, the report is aspirational, and its lack of timeline and technical details is ruffling some feathers among other criminal justice reformers who are supporting City Hall’s plan. That includes #CLOSErikers, but also the so-called Lippman Commission, which published the report forming the backbone of City Hall’s jails plan. The commission sent out a press release Thursday criticizing the No New Jails plan on eight different points. A primary focus: “Incarcerating 3,000 people in the existing borough jails is morally indefensible.”

Of course, Hassein and No New Jails agree with that point. Their report notes that “conditions” at the three jails “are dangerous, toxic, and harmful to the health of incarcerated people.” But until the city can release every single person in jail, No New Jails suggests diverting some of the billions of dollars that it would cost to build new jails into improving conditions for inmates in the current ones. 

Any jail renovation – particularly while people are still being held there – would create serious logistical issues, which the No New Jails plan doesn’t grapple with, but their plan also puts them somewhat at odds with their newest high-profile supporter, Ocasio-Cortez.

“We don’t want to see other people moved to boats or barges,” she said to press in Queens Thursday evening. “I just don’t want to see them in a cage at all.”

The vision of a city without jails, shared by both Ocasio-Cortez and No New Jails, inevitably raises a question: what should people accused of violent, horrible crimes do while they await trial?

Hassein did not have an answer to that. “Abolition demands a lot of imagination and change from all of us in terms of what would actually address harm,” he said. 

No New Jails’ report doesn’t go into detail on long-term solutions, except for a brief note that “taxpayer money should instead be invested in safe and secure residences for both those who have done harm and those who are at risk of being harmed.”

Their short-term plan is slightly more clear. Influence the conversation, and convince the City Council to vote down the plan for four new jails. That much alone is unlikely to happen, and the step after that, getting the New York City government to shut down Rikers without building new jails, seems nearly impossible. 

But supporters of the de Blasio administration’s plan, like City Councilwoman Diana Ayala who represents the site of the proposed Bronx jail, say they’re listening to the criticism.

“We all believe that Rikers should be closed,” she told City & State. “We have to do the right thing here. Are we going to get it 100% right? Maybe not. We will tweak it along the way.”

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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