Six months before Covid-19 devastated New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council approved a plan to spend nearly $9 billion to build four jails — one each in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens — and close Rikers Island. The city would better serve inmates and taxpayers by building new jails at Rikers — cheaper, faster and better.
Rikers’ nine jails are deficient. They lack provisions for public health, forcing inmates to share toilets. Detainees — most awaiting trial — endure heat and noise.
But building four new jails in dense urban neighborhoods from Chinatown to the South Bronx does not guarantee inmates better care.
To drop four new jails into heavily populated neighborhoods — downtown Brooklyn and Forest Hills round out the four — the city must reduce its inmate population from 6,000 (pre-corona) to 3,300, a 42 percent decrease. But even as Covid has spurred emergency releases, the city has gotten its inmate population down to just under 4,000 — still above this target. And, as The Post reports, police have re-arrested 110 released detainees for new alleged crimes — including serial burglaries and robberies that make it harder for New Yorkers to recover from the pandemic.
Is it wise to build jails that must operate at near 100 percent of capacity all the time, even if crime never goes up?
Another motive is to locate jails nearer courts, ensuring easier travel from Rikers to the rest of the criminal-justice system. The new Bronx jail, however, will be two miles from the Bronx Criminal Court. At the other three jails, there is no guarantee that any given inmate will find himself incarcerated near the court relevant to his case.
Consider: The four jails divide inmate capacity equally, but the distribution of inmates jailed before trial is not equal by borough. A recent survey of inmates found that 32.1 percent had been arraigned in Manhattan. Only 15.1 percent were arraigned in The Bronx.
If the new jails operate at capacity, the unequal distribution of inmates by borough will require the transfer of inmates to a jail not near the courthouse where their case will take place.
Dividing the inmate population equally ignores another issue: Crime and incarceration rates are not distributed equally by borough, nor do alleged offenders necessarily commit a crime in their home borough.
The Bronx, for example, has the highest incarceration rate, proportionate to residential population. Thus, once the Bronx jail fills up, an inmate from The Bronx who allegedly commits a crime in Manhattan could find himself detained in Queens, making it just as difficult for family and friends to visit.
That’s Rikers’ other big drawback — isolation and long security lines for visitors. But you solve the isolation problem with more transit: Run more frequent — and free — buses (and ferries), and let visitors walk around the island from jail to jail rather than have to wait for bus transfers. You solve the security lines with better scanning technology and efficient personnel.
There’s a better alternative: Rebuild Rikers as modern, campus-style jails, transferring inmates as each new building opens.
Bill Bialosky, a New York City architect, suggests a prototype: New low-rise jails could offer natural outdoor space for recreation and therapy, including farming and animal husbandry. They’d have ample space for modern security check-ins for visitors.
High-rises can’t do this; indeed, there are no examples of successful, modern high-rise jails in the West.
If the goal is to bring jails to neighborhoods, why not bring neighborhoods to jails? New York could still open up much of Rikers as a setting for law-school and social-work clinics — with the new daytime population of teachers, students and staff, once past a security checkpoint, able to purchase goods crafted by inmates at stores staffed by low-risk detainees about to be released.
With COVID ripping apart the city’s budget, it’s hard not to ignore the potential savings: Building on the island would save 20 percent, compared to four separate, complex work sites in Manhattan. A $9 billion project that goes far over budget, on the other hand, just takes away money the city needs for other critical projects, like building a modern Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Post-COVID, New York will have to rethink past failures — and trading in the symbolic but unworkable victory of closing Rikers for the practical accomplishment of modern, humane Rikers jails would be a good step.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow her on Twitter here. This piece was adapted from her recent report,“Reimagining Rikers Island: A Better Alternative to NYC’s Four-Borough Jail Plan.”
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