by Nancy Kong
June 11, 2019
New York Needs Real Criminal Justice Reform, Not A New Jail in Mott Haven
After years of troubling reports about the horrific conditions inside of Rikers Island, most New Yorkers agree that the notorious prison complex must be shut down for good. Instead of taking the long-view and advancing the kind of targeted, comprehensive criminal justice reform that would ensure the abuses plaguing Rikers never happen again, Mayor Bill de Blasio is attempting to jam through a quick fix that does absolutely nothing to address the root problem.
The Mayor’s 10-year, multi-billion-dollar proposal, included in his 2020 executive budget, is to construct four publicly-funded borough-based jails on sites in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. In other words, he is planning to shutter Rikers and then cross his fingers that four new jails run by the same dysfunctional Department of Correction will somehow, someway produce different results.
Adding insult to injury, Bronx residents and others in the communities surrounding the proposed sites have been completely shut out from the conversation. The proposed jail in Mott Haven would be built at 320 Concord Avenue, on the current grounds of an NYPD tow pound, just two blocks from P.S. 65 elementary school. Despite the fact that local community boards in all four boroughs have voted to oppose the proposal, it is still passing through the ULURP process unchanged.
It’s time for the Mayor to listen to the concerns raised by local community residents and press pause on this hurried, flawed plan that will create four mini Rikers in New York City.
The Mayor’s plan devotes no resources to building communities, strengthening diversion programs, or reforming the leadership of the city’s Department of Correction, which oversaw the violence, mismanagement and corruption that has plagued Rikers for decades. Bronx residents have been outspoken regarding the proposal, reiterating that the city should instead focus on meeting the needs of education, affordable housing and public healthcare instead of a new, obtrusive jail.
Let’s remember what we’re dealing with here. It was recently reported that there is significant undercounting of violent incidents at New York City jails based on a report by the Department of Investigation. Further, a 2017 court-ordered report outlined the relationship between inmates and officers at Rikers, and its findings indicate that officers “relish confrontation” with inmates, which explains why violence has increased despite a decrease in number of people incarcerated and an increase in officers.
What’s wrong with Riker’s has little to do with facilities, but much to do with the regressive policies that the Mayor and the leadership of the Department of Correction have been implementing for years. Building a 26 story, 1.5 million square foot jail in the Mott Haven will do little to address such failed policies.
The report’s concerns are echoed by New Yorkers who hope for true reform that addresses and overturns the disastrous policies and practices that have plagued the criminal justice system for decades. To that end, local officials, New York City residents and prison reform advocates have noted that Mayor de Blasio’s plan for new jails demonstrate his misunderstanding of the criminal justice system and criminal justice reform.
The bottom line here is if Mayor de Blasio is going to spend billion in taxpayer funds on this issue, New Yorkers want that money to spent on a real progressive plan for criminal justice reform. We don’t want massive new jails that will become new breeding grounds for the same human rights abuses seen at Rikers.
Instead of doubling down on his deeply problematic proposal for new jails, he should reverse course, listen to the concerns of his electorate, and develop a real plan to invest in providing alternatives to incarceration for pre-trial detainees, supporting mental health and drug-use treatment programs, ensuring speedy trials, and fixing the systemic leadership problems at the Department of Correction.
Nancy Kong is a spokesperson for Boroughs United, a coalition of community activists from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan who support real criminal justice reform and oppose Mayor de Blasio’s regressive plan to build for new jails in New York City.
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