Prius Progressives: Tear Down That Rock

When New York City’s Progressive in Chief, Mayor Bill de Blasio, flipped, it was, shall we say, surprising. Suddenly, he was on the side of closing the massive prison complex on Rikers Island after having spent years fighting activists demanding its closure. What gives?

Councilman Rory Lancman twitted the inside poop.

Let me explain the politics here: anti-Rikers folks & MMV outmaneuvered BdB; he panicked that Sunday’s Lippman report would leave him last guy defending #Rikers. Not good place for a progressive. Rest is spin. Disrespect of J. Lippman is unforgivable.

That would be former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, and MMV would be New York City Council President Melissa Mark-Viverito, and they were about to cut BdB (which, appareantly, is de Blasio’s rapper name) off at the knees, leaving him the only progressive not supporting the closure of Rikers because he couldn’t bear to be shunned by the forces of law and order. Again.

There are good fact-based, penal reasons to shutter Rikers, which is unquestionably a cesspool of violence that has defied all attempts, serious and lame, to clean it up. But it’s not so simple, even in New York, where Judge Lippman called its closure “a moral imperative.”

The time has come to close Rikers Island.

New York City’s sprawling main jail, located on an island in the East River, is a stain on our great city’s reputation. It leaves its mark on everyone it touches: the correction officers working back-to-back shifts under dangerous conditions, the inmates waiting for their day in court in an inhumane and violent environment, the family members forced to travel long distances to see their loved ones and the taxpayers who spend billions of dollars to keep the whole dysfunctional apparatus running.

These problems will not be fixed with a fresh coat of paint, new trainings or even a major facilities overhaul. They run far too deep.

No, Rikers isn’t some horror movie stage, where the walls are sentient and the bars force good people to do dark and evil things. Environments aren’t inhumane and violent. People are. And if they can’t fix the people who run the joint, they are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic (see, I can use trite phrases just like anyone else!).

At one point, the isolation of holding defendants jailed or awaiting trial in an isolated location was considered a virtue. Nobody wants to live next door to a jail, and what sort of idiot doesn’t want to keep criminals, potential or otherwise, away from the good people? These once-obvious benefits to warehousing people made Rikers the perfect location for New York City’s main jail.

Penal concepts have changed, and the detriment of warehousing inmates in mass institutions far from taxpayers has shifted to local, smaller jails, no longer isolated across the bridge of sighs from the mainland of humanity. Sounds good, until they try to build a jail on Sutton Place. Much as people may hate Rikers, they still aren’t thrilled about having one next door. Not even a little one.

To be fair, there is much within our criminal justice system to celebrate. The past 30 years have seen dramatic reductions in crime and incarceration in New York City. Today, the city’s entire jail population is under 10,000, about half of what it was in the 1990s. Through innovative policing strategies, the expansion of alternatives to incarceration and myriad other progressive efforts, the city has demonstrated that less jail does not mean more crime.

And there can be no reform that doesn’t give the hat tip to the official stakeholders for accomplishing what they had nothing whatsoever to do with. Everybody lays claim to the reduction in crime. Was it really “innovative policing strategies” like the unconstitutional stop & frisk? Was it the “myriad progressive efforts” considering that it happened everywhere, without any “progressive efforts” whatsoever?

But this self-inflicted pat on the butt belies its internal inconsistency. There are still 10,000 people in Rikers. Half of what it was, and twice what it should be. There are two particular identifying features of Rikers inmates: they’re black* and they’re poor. That’s the dirty little secret that the Prius Progressives don’t want you to know.

Even as we celebrate those achievements, we must acknowledge our jails have become costlier and more dangerous. Indeed, the cost of jailing someone in New York City has ballooned to nearly $250,000 a year, roughly the cost of a four-year Ivy League degree, while stabbings and slashings have quadrupled in the last decade.

Kinda makes it seem silly to remand a defendant for smoking a joint to jail for the inability to post $1000 bail, set for no better reason than a kid ADA asked for it, where he will either be coerced into a time-served plea or sit for a few years awaiting trial, only to have his case dismissed before voir dire.

But bad things happen on Rikers. Of course, nobody blames the screws, whose job it is to prevent them rather than perpetuate those bad things, because it would make the union sad. Nobody blames the judges who set bail for petty offenses for no better reason than fear that if they buck the prosecution’s request and the defendant goes out and harms someone, they’ll get ripped to shreds in the paper of record. No one blames the District Attorneys whose office policy is demand bail for people for no particular reason. And no one blames the cops for arresting black kids to make their numbers to prove how progressive administrations aren’t soft on crime.

So blame the Island. Blame the walls. Blame the bars. Hope that tales of sad tears will sufficiently cloud people’s reason to believe the fantasy that it’s the Rock that’s evil.

The island’s isolation and inaccessibility are at the root of the systematic problems — denying people their right to a speedy trial, completely disconnecting inmates from family and their community, keeping the facility out of public sight and scrutiny, fostering a bunker mentality among staff. Furthermore, the “culture of violence” the United States Department of Justice found on Rikers Island is indelibly linked to that location. These issues cannot be fixed on the island. Sending everyone arrested in New York City to one remote island is a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem. It’s a broken model.

Islands don’t deny people their right to a speedy trial. Judges do. Prosecutors do. Walls and bars don’t constitute a culture of violence. Prison guards do. What the hell does “indelibly linked to that location” mean, that it’s an evil island that forces kindly screws and thoughtful judges, fair prosecutors and helpful cops, to turn dark and violent?

The Rock is isolated, as it was meant to be. Changing the regime to small localized jails might help, though part of the lie is that a defendant will be sent to a jail near his family. The Department of Corrections is going to place defendants wherever there’s room, as they always have, and a Bronx mother is going to find her trip to Staten Island even less pleasant than her trip to the Rock.

But this is going to be hugely expensive, finding locations to place jails in neighborhoods where the mommies will shriek about how child molesters will rape their babies. And the jails will be run by the same prison guards as Rikers, except supervision will be dispersed across the city rather than in one main location. While disclaiming that any of these obvious problems will happen, they seek to shift the focus from reality to emotions.

The main obstacle is political. We need to motivate our elected officials and the general public. We need to articulate a simple truth: We are better than this. Rikers Island is an affront to the civic values of New York City. Reforming our jail system and closing Rikers Island is not simply good public policy — it is a moral imperative.

What nobody wants to talk about is that the problem isn’t walls and bars, but people. This can be fixed overnight, and Judge Lippman knows it. He’s right that the main obstacle is political, but it’s not the will to tear down Rikers. It’s the will to stop warehousing defendants because they’re black and poor. And it costs nothing except the admission that this has all been a lie.

*Hispanic too. It’s not that I forgot you, but meter matters when making a point.

10 thoughts on “Prius Progressives: Tear Down That Rock

  1. REvers

    Gitmo was going to be closed, too. This will turn out just about the same.

    And they will still be holding people because they can’t make bail because judges don’t have the guts to do their jobs.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s slated for a closing ten years from now. By then, there will be screams about why prisoners don’t deserve their own safe space on an island.

      1. Ross

        I thought I saw a documentary years ago, narrated by Kurt Russell, where all of Manhattan was going to be turned into a walled prison. Is that not going to happen?

      2. Billy Bob

        Funny man! I did not think of that. You mean Rikers will not be going the way of Alcatraz? Also, dubbed The Rock, I believe, Left-Coast version.
        Never been to Rikers. When it becomes a state/city park, I might go there. Ever been to Northern
        State Penitentiary? PhilthyDelphia. Now that’s what I call a prison. It’s a fortress of unimaginable proportions, stonework. (No longer in operation as such.) Your wallpaper photo may have been taken there. Or was it Ossining? Aka, Sing-Sing.

        1. SHG Post author

          Thank you for informing me that Ossining is also known as Sing Sing. This totally changes Dog Day Afternoon for me.

  2. B. McLeod

    I suppose it is possible to blame things that happen in a place on the place. But of course, it isn’t the place. Tear it down, build another. If nothing forces the people and practices to change, the new place will be the same as the old.

    1. SHG Post author

      One can blame anything. Ain’t gonna change anything, but blame it all you want. Thing here is that Judge Lippman knows what he wrote. He’s a smart guy. He’s playing the public for fools, and the Times is giving him the soapbox to do it.

  3. Captain Smugglewash

    $250,000 really? is it not rent-controlled?

    I have some spare room I could house one or two if you compensate me to the tune of one hundred thousand bones or clams or whatever you call them. of course, it might affect the right to a speedy trial as I live in Europe, after how many hours does it become not speedy enough?

  4. Andrew Cook

    That’s hard to quantify because it uses American Football rules: a one-hour game lasts three and a half hours, and months in jail only count as days for the speedy-trial rule. SHG’s written about it before.

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