A pamphlet about the proposal (courtesy of Kei Williams)

New York City’s Rikers Island is among the nation’s most infamous prisons, rife with well-documented scandal. Inhumane treatment, sexual and physical abuse, and unjust detention are common and widely acknowledged concerns. Nationally, prison reform and abolition activists often center their campaigns around past and present injustices carried out at the jail, and NYC official have begun acknowledging these conditions with promises of reform. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to close the jail and open four smaller jails by decommissioning or demolishing existing jails in each borough. A brochure about the proposal advertises architectural and design updates, upgraded medical facilities, and neighborhood integration.

In January of 2018, the city instituted a 10-year timeline to close the jail permanently, with the first of nine jails in the complex set to close in summer of 2018. Amidst the plan to shutter the prison, controversy has arisen as the Mayor’s office announces its plans for the new NYC jail system.

The de Blasio administration presented the supposed renovations in a glossy pamphlet advertising the four proposed jails in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan’s Chinatown. The brochure advertises the four new facilities will bring, “Architecture and design that enhances the neighborhood with minimal street-level impact,” fusing the aesthetic of corporate gentrification with the prison industrial complex and opening a new chapter for the prison business.

“Modern facilities would replace the outdated jails of today. These new facilities would be integrated into the look and feel of the neighborhood. Their interiors would be built with state-of-the-art design for a more humane, safer environment that promotes better mental health and medical services. Their exteriors would include retail and other amenities to serve the neighborhood,” the pamphlet states. The headline reads, “A jail as a good neighbor.” The administration argues the closer proximity to community and family members will bolster success rates following release. You can read the pamphlet in its entirety here.

Kei Williams, a working visual artist and member of the No New Jails Campaign, has been active in the effort to prevent the new plan. Williams told Hyperallergic in an email:

For the City to focus on the aesthetics of the proposed jails shows the priorities of the Mayor, which is to continue to sell NY away to large real estate developers. Land that should be used for public, community resources such as hospitals, public schools, mental health centers, and a better mass transit system is instead being shown as prime real-estate with ground-floor retail available for rent. There is nothing humane about a jail, and there’s not enough paint or window lighting to change that.

Last night, No New Jails NYC held a press conference and rally at the Bronx Courthouse, prior to the fourth public input hearing about the jails, where they spoke out against the insertion of new prisons into communities and voiced concern that the prisons are not directly addressing the institutional injustices carried out at Rikers. Similar concerns arose at a public meeting in September when Brooklyn residents disparaged the expansion for “perpetuating incarceration.”

When reached for comment, a representative of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said in an email, “The foundation of the plan is to cut the jail population in half and replace the existing jails on Rikers Island with borough-based facilities. In the end, it will be fewer jails than we have now.”

When asked about last night’s action in the Bronx, he added:

We deeply value the community’s responses and look forward to a thorough engagement process. After the scoping meetings there will be more engagement to come, including comment periods on the draft Environmental Impact Statement, community board hearings and meetings in other public forums, as well as ongoing conversations in public and private with civic groups, elected officials and other interested groups and individuals.

This was the last public scoping meeting about the endeavor, but according to the City’s website written comments will also be accepted through October 29. The city will organize and present an environmental impact statement to the public, and if approved by the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the jails will open in 2027.

In an email correspondence with Hyperallergic, Williams concluded:

The Mayor says this is a transformative plan but it is simply another connecting funnel for the prison pipeline. Everything about us (Black and POC) — all the creative things that come out of NYC from and because of us — are already criminalized, and this plan would just accelerate this process while creating the infrastructure to sustain the oppression of Black and Brown people’s existence.

… We do not need new jails. We need community resources for those most impacted within these neighborhoods. Mott Haven — where the Bronx location is proposed — is the poorest neighborhood in the Bronx, one of the poorest in NYC. How can the Mayor justify the use of ten billion dollars to build new jails when you have 40% of families living in poverty? When we have the highest rate of homelessness in the country?

… We could save money from arresting people for fare evasion, and provide over 62,000 low-income New Yorks with free train and bus access … We could provide over $287,000 to NYCHA for rental associations, and have additional funding available to provide educational and workforce development for adults and youth. These are just a few of the things we could do with $10-billion dollars. None of them include being able to buy a cup of coffee downstairs, while a loved one — our neighbors, children, friends — are caged just above the shop. We don’t need more jails. We need strong communities. That includes closing Rikers now, and divesting and relocating the funds to the areas where the community needs it the most without building any new jails.

Rikers Island (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In activist, legal, and political circles, many worry that the new jails will not amend the institutional abuses at Rikers.

At least 50 women who have visited Rikers Island have joined a lawsuit alleging they were sexually assaulted by correctional officers.

In the instance of Kalief Browder, the young man was arrested at age 16, unable to pay his $3,000 bond, and detained on Rikers for three years before his charges were dismissed. Haunted by his experience, he committed suicide at the age of 22, which sparked local and national outrage.

On October 1, 2018, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted: “Beginning today, no one under 18 will go to Rikers Island. Kids will be treated like kids instead of adults. This is an [sic] historic moment for criminal justice reform and another step toward replacing Rikers Island with smaller, safer, more humane facilities.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in January, announced plans to end cash bail for minor crimes in an effort to quell the exploitation of low-income New Yorkers charged with certain crimes. He affirmed the plan over this past weekend at the Global Citizen Festival.

All information about public input is here.

Jasmine Weber is an artist, writer, and former news editor at Hyperallergic. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.