PEOPLE’S REPORT BACK: DECEMBER RIKERS OVERSIGHT HEARING
Momentum and political pressure have been steadily building towards shutting down Rikers Island and on Monday, December 4, the New York City Council held an oversight hearing to demonstrate that policymakers are beginning to respond to community demands. Unfortunately, the city’s presented strategy consisted of shifting one violent system into a newer version by asserting that Rikers must be replaced through borough-based jail expansion.
Critical Resistance NYC testified to insist that modernizing, adapting, or expanding the jail system is a counterproductive and oppressive response to the closure of Rikers Island and we emphasized the following five points:
- Shut down Rikers now;
- Do not reopen, expand, renovate, or build borough jails;
- Invest in people’s wellbeing;
- Shrink the NYPD and the forces that criminalize people; and
- Prioritize community-led alternatives.
Included in our written testimony were the comments of imprisoned organizers, including Sheldon, who shared with us the dehumanizing conditions of Rikers:
Rikers Island was one of the most insidious and barbaric places in which I have ever set my feet. [It] was and is simply an evil place and by the time an individual leaves there, to either go to a state prison or, if fortunate enough, to be exonerated or to make bail, [he has] already been so traumatized and socialized into a culture of violence and debauchery that it takes quite a bit of effort to regain [his] former self and sense of humanity.
Much of Monday’s hearing constituted a back and forth between council members and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), while the Department of Correction (DOC) Commissioner and Chief of Staff largely remained silent. Council members overwhelmingly pressed the Mayor’s Office on their slow timeline for replacing Rikers Island with a borough jail system, avoiding any discussion of the option to bring pre-trial detention to an end.
The protracted timeline of MOCJ’s plan to shut down Rikers Island is directly tied to the planning, design, and construction of an expanded borough jail system. As such, they testified to the release of a request for proposal (RFP) for a ten-month “Capital Project Scope Development” to investigate and assess the existing Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan Detention Complexes and to identify and explore sites for new jails. This RFP was released to only four pre-approved vendors, ensuring that our public funds will be funneled into a company seeking to profit from the continued imprisonment of poor, Black and Brown people. It is expected that the vendor will be selected in February, afterwhich there will be ten months of investigation, assessment, and design, which will conclude with a final report and presentation to the NYC Office of Management and Budget (OMB). According to MOCJ, all in all, this will be one of the largest capital projects in NYC’s history. Council members inquired about the potential to expedite the re-opening of Queens House in particular by avoiding the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), a process that gives public officials and community members the opportunity to comment on land use projects, under the premise that this was already a once operating jail.
Close to twenty-five community members testified at the hearing, representing coalitions, public defenders, and advocacy organizations. First to speak was former Chief Judge of the State of New York Jonathan Lippman, chair of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. Despite MOCJ’s statement that a new Staten Island jail was unlikely and not “cost-efficient,” Lippman echoed the council’s calls, saying “it is so clear that we have to have local jails in each of the five counties…this business about everywhere but Staten Island is ridiculous… everyone shares the burden.” In reality, jail will never be a shared burden. Nearly eighty-seven percent of the current jail population is Black and Latinx, and nearly a third come from five specific neighborhoods. Jails exist to oppress, punish, and control poor and working class people and our communities must resist the expansion of the jail system – especially as the city tries to justify their plan with the false notion of “fairness.”
Akeem Browder, brother of Kalief Browder and a strong voice for shutting down Rikers, challenged the council and administration to look beyond only expanding supervised release for people detained on non-violent charges, stating “the violent offenders versus non-violent offenders theory and aspect doesn’t actually sit right with the thought that in our communities we aren’t allowed or afforded the thought that we are considered non-violent”. He continued, “giving that designation of violent and nonviolent I think should be rethought and reformed.” This served as a much needed response to the comments of MOCJ, who insisted on that dichotomy, saying, “The Lippman report believes that all nonviolent felonies can be eligible for supervised release, we don’t believe that” and “they think that all the nonviolent felons can walk out the door.” In CR’s work as an abolitionist organization we reject efforts to divide people into classes of those deserving versus non-deserving of imprisonment.
Critical Resistance NYC was disturbed by the number of community members who spoke in favor of borough-based jails. We call on all those protesting Rikers to join us in rejecting this disgraceful abandonment of communities through increased imprisonment. We must collectively reframe this closure plan and refuse to use public funds, in one of the largest capital projects undertaken by the City of New York, to imprison our neighbors. Jails prohibit people from having their basic needs met while also causing immeasurable trauma and harm – and in some instances, death. Jails closer to home do not and cannot support our communities nor ensure safety.
We are especially disappointed that public testimony only served to strengthen political momentum to reopen or utilize the space occupied by the long-shuttered Queens House. We are sure that anti-Rikers organizers are in fact well aware that the horror of jail is not unique to Rikers Island but rather inherent to all jails and all forms of imprisonment. Currently-operating borough jails like Brooklyn and Manhattan House routinely violate city jail standards and carry out multi-day lockdowns where imprisoned people are denied their basic rights and prevented visits, showers, health services, and out-of-cell time. Organizing for the closure of Rikers must adopt the ultimate goal of decarceration and we must all take a stand against the city’s expansion plan.
TOWARDS A JAIL-FREE NYC
As the NYPD widens its net and the Mayor drags his feet, we will be alert and ready for the city’s next steps. The closure of Rikers impacts all of our communities and we are ever more resolute that we can shut down Rikers quickly and without opening new jails. There will be many opportunities for community engagement, advocacy, and organizing. Stay tuned and help us build a strong movement against jail construction!
For more information, or to learn more about Critical Resistance NYC, please contact