Jails have a smell, a combination of disinfectant and disgust. The former never really washes away the latter, and the combination of the two odors is repulsive. Rikers Island was a repulsive place, and it bred a culture of cruelty among not only its transient residents, but among the staff overpaid to keep them in line.
Close Rikers became a rallying cry, even though it was nothing more than an island with human warehouses. Corrections officer culture had become toxic, and unionization plus political inertia prevented any serious change, so the simpler sell was that Rikers had evil walls, and ceilings and steel bars. Blame the buildings and it would fix the problem, as if any other jail wouldn’t smell as awful.
There were two actual problems with Rikers, its isolation and its size. Isolation was its virtue when it was built, since nobody wants a jail in their neighborhood, and the folks who reside there weren’t welcome on Sutton Place. Size was a by-product of necessity, when crack, and its daily killings, caused the need for cells to explode. When Rikers Island ran out of room, they put people on a barge brought in to take the overflow. Nobody ever said they would rather be on the barge than Rikers. Jails smell the same, and both had water views.
Crime has dropped to an extent never conceived back in the dark crack days. The “why” will never really be answered, but the numbers don’t lie. So the massiveness of Rikers is not only excessive, but its embodiment of all the carceral ills has given activists a target to rally against. Closing Rikers was first accompanied by the call to open smaller, more localized jails, which sounded nice as its proponents refused to believe that people still didn’t want to live next door to a jail.
From the limousine liberals to the marginalized themselves, the woke notions of sacrificing their homes, their children, for the sake of the downtrodden inmates ran straight into the wall of reality. Even though the hucksters tried their best to spread the sweet blame of Rikers, not even the residents of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, adjacent to Brooklyn House of Detention and its own projects, were stupid enough to invite more jail into their lives.
They may have won over the unduly passionate who wouldn’t have a jail in their neighborhood, but they made no headway with the people who would actually live with their enlightened scheme. And so they doubled down on the fantasy.
The social and economic cost of the incarceration is high, and it has been disproportionately borne by black and Hispanic communities. Yet research strongly suggests that incarceration had little to do with the decrease in crime, and in fact may have contributed to crime. “We’ve thrown jail at every problem for so long. We know now that we were wrong,” said Scott Hechinger, senior staff attorney and director of policy at Brooklyn Defender Services. “It doesn’t enhance safety. It does the opposite, and it costs a fortune.”
Aside from this being the typical empty rhetoric that plays well only to the most vapid, it’s got nothing to do with the problem of where to put jails. But what it does is suggest that maybe, just maybe, we don’t need jails at all. Closing Rikers depended on opening other jails, cost notwithstanding, and not even the most teary-eyed believer was going to agree to it being next door to him. So like Nigerian scamsters, activist hucksters were trotted out to test whether they could find someone, anyone, stupid enough to not realize the misspellings were deliberate and they were foolish enough to fall for the scam.
In recent months, some of the fiercest opposition has come from activists and community groups that say the city should close Rikers without building any new jails. They argue that the jail population can be reduced to tiny numbers through more criminal justice reforms, and they have called for the $8 billion-plus estimated cost of the jail plan to be spent on housing, mental health and education. “We are a group of prison industrial complex abolitionists,” said Pilar Maschi, a community organizer with No New Jails NYC, a grass-roots coalition that opposes the plan. “Moving a person from one cage to another is not satisfactory.”
Would there be any politician willing to participate in this scam, or stupid enough not to realize it was just a scam?
Expressing the same interest, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens in the House, signaled that she opposed moving jails to individual boroughs. “I know the term ‘prison abolition’ is breaking some people’s brains,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter Oct. 7. “We have more than enough room to close many of our prisons and explore just alternatives to incarceration.”
The problem with the new catch-phrase, “abolish prisons,” isn’t that it breaks people’s brains, but that it’s an insanely bad idea, and the sort of marketing pitch that could only appeal to the terminally foolish. Close jails and “explore just alternatives to incarceration” ignores one salient detail. There are violent people out there who would beat AOC to a pulp to steal the $12 she has in her handbag without giving a damn about her.
We’ve gone from the old excesses of imprison them all, forever, to the new absurdity of pretend we can hug them to redemption, because there’s no such thing as a bad dude, but just the marginalized, misunderstood and the mentally ill.
Closing Rikers won’t make the smell go away, but if nobody wants beautiful, modern, new, more wonderous and caring jails next to their home, then there is no argument left but to abolish them altogether. Fortunately, the New York Times hasn’t entirely fallen for the scam.
Modern jails can be more humane jails. And it is better for New Yorkers to stay in their communities while legal proceedings are underway, rather than to be shipped to an island in the East River far from family and support networks. “We need to do this work with more compassion, more understanding,” said Capt. Justina Corporan, a senior corrections officer, while giving reporters a tour of the aging Rikers complex. “The line that separates the people on the inside from the people on the outside is thinner than anyone thinks.”
Yet, we’re no closer to making this happen because of the extremes of “jail ’em all” or “jail none of ’em.” Nobody wants to spend the money, but worse, nobody wants the new jail next door. And the bad dudes hate the smell of jail as much as anyone, but they still exist. The people on the inside know the reality, and even they realize the disaster that will ensue if the useful idiots buy into the scam. Fantasies and lies from either side don’t fix problems, but just swap one problem for another. The only thing that never changes is the smell of a jail.