To no one’s surprise, the New York City Council voted to shutter the jail on Rikers Island and spend $8 billion on four new jails, one in each borough except Staten Island because a jail on a garbage landfill seemed redundant. The only surprise was that the original $11 billion was reduced to a mere $8, showing the Council’s thriftiness when the new jails theoretically open in 2026.
In New York time, that means the jails won’t be ready until sometime after President Chelsea Clinton’s administration at an adjusted cost of $92 billion, but I digress because I lack the sound focus of New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay.
On Thursday, the City Council voted to build four jails across the city, a critical step toward making the closing of Rikers a reality. The plan it approved will further shrink the capacity of the city’s jails from about 22,000 to around 3,800.
Crime has fallen dramatically since the bad old crack days in New York City. What will it look like in 2026? How will today’s passionate voices for empathy feel when their empathy isn’t for the skin color of inmates but that of the people they beat or kill, should another epidemic be created demanding cries for incarceration? Who cares? Whatever we feel today is absolutely right and the only possible concern.
The vote came amid a raucous scene in Lower Manhattan. Protesters passionately opposed to building any new jails chained themselves to the City Hall gates. One group of Chinatown residents implored Councilwoman Margaret Chin to vote against rebuilding the jail in their district. Police officers stood by with plastic cuffs.
Though New Yorkers are famous for the wokiosity, it applies only when the jails are built in someone else’s backyard, because nobody wants their kids to have to walk through a sea of defendants, not all of whom are wonderful people, on the way home from school, or their property values to hit bottom, because a jail was built next to their $2.1 million condo in an up-and-coming neighborhood.
Mr. Johnson gave a rousing speech calling Rikers “a stain on New York City.” It was met with shouts of “Amen!”
As [Council speaker, Corey] Johnson paused to acknowledge the group of activists who fought to close Rikers and were formerly incarcerated on the island, rows of men and women stood up in the chamber’s soaring balcony, drawing loud applause.
Physically, Rikers, or The Rock as it’s affectionately known, is dilapidated. It was thrown together in haste to deal with the exploding population in the ’80s, before Mara Gay was born, and was a shithole back then. A billion or two renovation could do wonders.
Rikers is isolated, which was once considered a positive for locating jails. It’s hard to reach for people who want to visit their loved ones. This could be improved with some mass transit planning, but New York can’t manage to get the subways to work in midtown, mostly for lack of money to repair the tracks and trains. A billion might help here as well.
But the problem was never really the walls or the location, but the men and women wearing correctional uniforms and paying their dues to the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association. Closing The Rock and opening four new smaller Rocks isn’t going to change anything about the screws in charge.
The city jails now hold just 7,100 people, a population that is projected to fall to 3,300 over the next several years. Crime is at record lows. Standing on Rikers Island, that kind of math hurts. Thinking about those people who were unnecessarily incarcerated, one is overwhelmed by the lost human potential.
That includes Kalief Browder, the 16-year-old teenager who spent three years on Rikers Island after being accused of stealing a backpack. It includes Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died at Rikers after being placed in a unit that is effectively solitary confinement. It includes Jerome Murdough, a mentally ill veteran who died from heat exposure in a Rikers cell in 2014.
Being overwhelmed is no excuse for being clueless. The new jails will be staffed by the same old guards. Eight billion dollars, at least as of the moment, to redecorate the dining room while serving up the same slop for dinner, and the believers are filled with pride in their great accomplishment.
And when the next panic comes, as it surely will, and the same unduly passionate geniuses demand all the bad dudes be imprisoned for life plus cancer, what will it cost for the City to buy The Rock back from its gentrified condo association offering waterfront luxury units? After all, nobody will want more jails in their neighborhood once the pendulum swings and defendants are hated again.