Opinion: The Right Way to Close Rikers

The following is an Op-Ed by Rev. Rubén Austria in response to last week’s ‘Creating a More Just New York City‘ by Stanley Richards who made the case for building a new jail in Mott Haven neighborhood of The Bronx.

The Right Way to Close Rikers

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When Mayor De Blasio first announced in March of 2017 that he would commit to a plan to Riker’s Island, I was overjoyed. I was on the steps of City Hall in April of 2016 for the launch of the #CloseRikers campaign as a coalition of community groups announced its intention to relentlessly pressure New York City to close the infamous jail complex, appropriately dubbed “torture island” by people who have been detained there.

When the campaign launched, few people thought that closing Rikers was realistic. The Mayor had dismissed the idea as a “noble concept” that was impractical, unfeasible and too expensive.

A year of intense pressure from grassroots activists forced the Mayor and his administration to grapple with the horror that is Rikers Island. An Independent Commission of criminal justice experts convened by New York State’s Chief Judge concluded that closing Rikers was indeed feasible, and laid out a number of common sense reforms to bring the already declining jail population low enough to meet this goal.

Yet my joy turned to dismay in February 2018 when the Mayor announced via press release that the plan to close Rikers Island would necessitate building a brand new jail at 320 Concord Avenue in the South Bronx. There was an immediate uproar in my neighborhood in response to the announcement.

Rev. Rubén Austria at the launch of Close Rikers Campaign

Why, we wondered, was the Bronx the only borough where a new jail would be built? Why had city officials never even bothered to talk to the local community, especially the residents of the Diego Beekman houses who had spent the last two years developing a plan for community development on the same plot of land where the new jail was proposed? Most of all, why was the city continuing to spend millions of dollars in a failing model of incarceration when our neighborhood desperately needed investments in the types of positive supports – education, affordable housing, living wage jobs – that keep people out of the criminal justice system?

For the residents of the South Bronx, opposition to the new jail went far beyond the standard “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) response. Many people who spoke out against new jail construction were formerly incarcerated or had loved ones detained at Rikers. They wanted to see Rikers closed and wanted their incarcerated loved ones closer to home. The opposition was not a rejection of people in the criminal justice system, but rather a reaction to a longstanding pattern of top-down city planning efforts imposed on a community with little respect for its residents. From the creation of the Cross Bronx Expressway that ripped neighborhoods apart, to the siting of waste transfer stations and truck intensive industries that poison our air, to the recent Jerome Avenue rezoning, the people of the South Bronx have constantly had to fight against decisions made on our behalf by people who don’t live here. The offense to our community was not just the building of a jail, but another decision made for our neighborhood without ever consulting the people it would impact.

Over the last few months, I have had many conversations with brilliant and dedicated criminal justice reformers both inside and outside the system who are supporting the city’s plan to Close Rikers. They have helped me see that the plan has strengths. Shrinking the jail population from 9,000 to 5,000 and replacing the ten facilities on Rikers Island with four borough-based jails is progress. Renovating the existing borough-based houses of detention in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan shows a commitment not to increase the city’s jail footprint, and the multitude of proposed reforms are all smart ways to make the criminal justice system fairer, smaller and more efficient. There are efforts underway to engage neighborhood residents in redesigning jails to facilitate rehabilitation and community reintegration.

These are all noble and well-intentioned goals and represent the best efforts of the the system to reform itself. Yet they are not enough.

I cannot support the city’s plan to build a new jail in the South Bronx. It’s not because I don’t want a jail in my backyard. I live, work, and worship alongside the same people who cycle through the city’s jails. It’s not just because the plan is being imposed on us from above, although I still resent the assumption that outside experts know best what the community need. It’s not because I do not like the technical plan, because it’s one of the most thoughtful, practical and realistic plans I’ve seen to shrink the criminal justice system.

The reason I oppose the plan is because it falls so far short of the mark when it comes to reimagining true human justice.

The plan to close Rikers focuses almost exclusively on technical reforms within the criminal justice system and still relies on the basic premise that we have to put people in cages for the foreseeable future. Absent from the plan are strategies to equip communities to develop entirely different ways to respond to crime, violence and disorder that do not depend on our criminal justice system, which has never been rehabilitative and often does more harm than the crimes it punishes.

Where are the commitments to bring to scale proven restorative justice approaches that equip community members to hold people who have caused harm accountable in ways that heal and transform? Where are the investments to provide young adults in high-poverty neighborhoods with real economic opportunities that are more attractive than street crime? Where are the resources to expand the work of “Credible Messengers,” formerly incarcerated mentors whose interventions with young adults have achieved reductions in recidivism far beyond what was ever thought possible? Where are the strategies to make justice the responsibility of the whole community, and not merely the prerogative of a legal system that has yet to prove that it can administer justice fairly?

Having worked for nearly two decades to develop community-driven alternatives to incarceration, often in partnership with criminal and juvenile justice agencies, I am enough of a realist to know that we cannot decarcerate overnight, and that the long march towards justice will require incremental reforms that get us progressively closer to the day where we don’t put people in cages.

Across the nation, community movements are achieving success in demanding that old, dilapidated, abusive, expensive facilities be shut down. Yet the system’s knee-jerk response is to rebuild shiny, newer facilities that may be comparatively kinder and gentler, but still depend on incarceration as a form of social control. The fight against the plague of prisons feels like a game of whack-a-mole. As soon as shut one facility down, a brand new one pops up, and the cycle of incarceration continues.

If the city projects that it will take ten years to close Rikers (a timeline many advocates contest), then instead of rushing to build new jails, could we use that time to engage in the deeper, broader and more transformative work of resourcing communities to reimagine what justice looks like? If we’ve reduced the jail population from more than 21,000 in the 1991 to under 9,000 today – all with continued declines in violence and crime – why do we think that 5,000 is the best we can do? Perhaps the system can only imagine reforming itself enough to get to that number, but what community solutions might be resourced and brought to scale that could bring the jail population to 4,000, or 3,000, or 2,000 or less?

What if we created neighborhood-based accountability groups that could respond to 90 percent of the incidents currently handled by the criminal justice system? Groups like Common Justice in Brooklyn are bringing restorative justice solutions even to serious and violent crimes with phenomenal results. What if we invested in groups like the Bronx Cooperative Development Institute to provide people with the economic power to live crime-free lives? What if we brought initiatives like the Bed Stuy Human Justice Initiative that is transforming the relationship between police and community members through pre-booking arrest diversion to every police precinct? What if we brought approaches like our South Bronx Community Connections initiative that has proven successful in keeping juveniles out of the justice system to bear on the young adult population? What if instead of building a 1,500 bed city-run jail in the Bronx, we invested in scaling models like Abraham House, a 10-bed faith and community run residential home in Mott Haven?

These ideas may currently sound like an impractical, unrealistic “noble concept” but so was the very thought of closing Rikers just two years ago.

The plan to close Rikers is a good starting point for a much deeper exploration of what justice in our city should look like. But the only way forward is a community-led effort that reimagines not only criminal justice but true human justice. Until that happens, our communities must reject any plan that depends on recreating the same failing jail system that has never, ever worked for us.

Rev. Rubén Austria is the Founder & Executive Director of Community Connections for Youth, a Bronx-based non-profit organization whose mission is to empower grassroots faith & neighborhood organizations to develop community-driven alternatives to incarceration for youth, and a resident of the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx.

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