Current Affairs

New York City Has a Jail Problem

Opening new “borough-based” jails isn’t the answer. We need to try something different.

“Thinking you can reform incarceration by building four new jails in each borough is like thinking you can humanize slavery by breaking up a large plantation in Mississippi into four smaller plantations in Georgia, the Carolinas, and West Virginia,” said Kevin, as we sat on a bench near New York’s redeveloped South Street Seaport in the late fall of 2018. “Just like it is in the nature of slave masters to whip the slave, it is in the nature of the prison industrial complex to dehumanize prisoners, and capitalists to exploit workers.” 

Kevin Steele, round-faced, bright-eyed, and shy at barely thirty years old, had spent three years incarcerated as a teenager on Rikers Island. He’d spent another five upstate, where he participated in the 2016 prison strike. When Kevin came home, he continued to organize with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), and it was IWOC’s participation in the No New Jails campaign that initially brought Kevin and me together. 

On October 17, 2019, the New York City Council voted to authorize the construction of four new “borough-based” jails in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Erroneously celebrating the move as a vote to “close Rikers,” city councilmembers and local elites proclaimed their triumph over the barbarity of the city’s most infamous jail. The struggle over the future of incarceration in New York City has been at least temporarily decided (if also, in the era of COVID, temporarily deferred): new jails will solve the crises of the old ones. 

Today, as COVID tears through jails and prisons and capitalism’s cyclical and accelerating crises of unemployment and homelessness deepen as the pandemic again exposes the racial fault lines of a system built for profit over people, we stand at an inflection point. What if the city had listened to abolitionists a year ago, who argued for the closure of Rikers Island without building new jails, and for redirecting investment from policing and punishment toward community needs? What is at stake today in NYC is whether we can collectively imagine a city without jails, or if incarceration—even under humane and rehabilitative guise—is a permanent feature of our social landscape. 


If you or a loved one have never been jailed in New York City, you might not know much about the Rikers Island Jail Complex beyond its reputation as “the big bad wolf of New York,” as Kevin puts it. Yet locally and nationally, other jails are just as violent as Rikers; the infamous jail in the East River isn’t an exception. Abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues that the state creates and exploits “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” This is her definition of racism, and thus, policing and incarceration are its paradigmatic institutions—especially post-Civil War, when the mass criminalization of Black people perpetuated “slavery by another name” through the convict leasing system. As Kevin emphasizes, prisons are just one aspect of “capitalism, imperialism, and all the systems of oppression that are built on the backs of the poor.” Eighty-eight percent of New York City’s jail population is Black and Latina/o. To believe that this distribution of incarceration is fair, you must believe that Black and brown people are disposed to criminality.

A shaky field of evidence, a mendacious cop, a two-minute arraignment, a snap legal interpretation: these are the things that send people to jail pretrial, sometimes to their death. On average, approximately 80 percent of people in city jails are awaiting trial. Although nearly 50 percent of all criminal charges brought in NYC will eventually be dismissed (and only 12 percent of cases that start as felonies are convicted as felonies, whether through trial or plea), spending even a single night in jail is brutalizing. It exacerbates mental and physical illness; exposes people to direct violence or death; causes people to lose jobs, housing, and children; and increases future likelihood of criminalization and incarceration

There’s a stencil on the visitor’s exit door at the Rose M. Singer Center—the women’s jail on Rikers—that reads “Women are like angels. Even when you clip our wings, we still can fly.” That incarceration represents a clipped wing, a tribulation to be surmounted through personal perseverance and individual uplift, perfectly encapsulates the jail reform consensus. But sitting in the Rosie’s visiting room—most often with Ms. Kitty Rotolo, a nearly-60-year old white trans woman whom I met in the brief period between her release on parole and her re-arrest six months later—as a mere visitor to the jail, I still feel the urgency of abolition deep in my body. 

Kitty was arrested in October, about two months after the first meeting of No New Jails in the summer of 2018. I started visiting her because we were friends outside, and because I knew that in the weeks leading up to her rearrest, she was terrified of going back, and because, one week, she was there, and the next, the state had stolen her away, and I missed her. To push against the coalescing reformist consensus, No New Jails built relationships with people incarcerated across the city and state, shaping together our vision of a city without jails. As news of our organizing spread, we started to receive requests for information, and, eventually, visits. So, from once a week with Kitty, to two and then three times a week with other incarcerated women, I made the trek to visit Rikers. 

The search protocol for visitors is more rigorous than Sing Sing’s (a maximum security prison just north of New York City). This confused me until a friend with an incarcerated partner reminded me that the especially punitive and restrictive regulation of family contact in city jails is intended to coerce guilty pleas from people who have not yet been convicted. And, because I’m transmasculine, the search provokes the guards’ gender bemusement. I am both called a “young gentleman” and asked to run my hands under the bottom of my bra (I don’t wear one). A single continuous wooden table snakes through the visiting room, painted at intervals with numbers and divided by a foot-high plexiglass barrier that demarcates the space between visitors and imprisoned people. On one visit, I’m told by another visitor that all the furniture was made by incarcerated people upstate—from the linoleum tile to the oversized plastic purple armchairs that appear in the waiting room one week and then disappear the next (to be jumbled in the back of the visiting room, unused, in front of the “mother and child” play area).

Sometimes I am there to see Lady J, a Black trans woman who was held in de facto solitary when the guards placed her in an empty housing wing on lockdown. Or sometimes, Ms. T, a Black woman with a 9-year-old son held on $5,000 bail and facing felony charges from being assaulted by correctional officers (C.O.s). Ms. T tells me that, as we head into a summer heatwave, that her cell has no air conditioning, no fan, and no ventilation, and that if they tell her to “lock in”—referring to the routine times of day when prisoners are confined to their cells—she’s going to refuse. “What happens when you refuse?” I ask. “Six of them come at you with those shields and drag you in,” she says with a shrug. “I’m still not gonna let them lock me in.” And sometimes I talk to Lady K, who awaits an interview to determine the authenticity of her gender before she can be sent to a women’s prison instead of a men’s prison, to serve less than four months before she can return home. 

Most often, I’m sitting with Kitty. She’s stately at nearly six feet, seven inches tall, with blond hair neatly scraped back into a ponytail and wispy bangs falling gently over her eyes. Kitty flits as she talks between telling me about the ball scene and the prisons where she has spent the majority of the last 35 years. “There are prisons that are better and worse for us girls, but accountability in the penitentiary is nil. Upstate prisons and city jails do not in any way protect anyone who is identified as a LGBTQI person from harm, phobias, violence, or rape by NYC and NYS corrections officers.” The contrast between Kitty free and Kitty caged is alarming. Outside, she is all bouncy, flirtatious energy, planning and scheming and dreaming. Inside, she is sedate, sedated, resigned, glossy eyed; tears coming quickly and lingering at the edges of her face as she changes the subject so I don’t cry, too. 

Like all corrections departments nationally,  the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) is subject to numerous regulations for the “humane” treatment of incarcerated people. But it has been persistently out of compliance for decades. Court cases and monitors, minimum standards and Board of Correction reports: nothing has yet prevented the DOC from abusing and murdering people in their custody. These relentless horrors and the false prospect of their reformation were used to sell Mayor Bill de Blasio’s jails construction plan and construe those who opposed it as indifferent to the lives of people inside. But because correctional officers and the prison industrial complex carry with them the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, the NYC DOC, like corrections departments across the country, flouts these laws—and others—with an impunity that no amount of oversight has been able to curtail.  

A New Deal for Prison Life

Political pressure to do something about Rikers had been mounting since 2015, when Kalief Browder, who as a teenager had spent three years detained pretrial, died by suicide. Browder had spent 2/3 of his time on Rikers in solitary confinement, and after the charges against him were dropped and he was released, he continued to try to live in the wake of the trauma and violence of his incarceration, until he couldn’t. 

Less than a month after Browder’s death, the City finally settled the class action lawsuit Nunez v. City of New York, documenting a “culture of routine and institutionalized staff violence against [incarcerated people].” The settlement established an independent monitor to enforce the “principles of sound correctional practice” on Rikers; namely, to reduce the use of “illegitimate” or excessive corrections officer violence against incarcerated people. (Nearly eight years on, as the Nunez reports dutifully tally escalating rates of violence on Rikers, one might be tempted to challenge the efficacy of the independent monitor). 

In 2017, Mayor de Blasio affirmed the Lippman Commission’s recommendation to replace Rikers with four new jails. Hitching his putatively progressive wagon to jail construction, he hailed the plan as a multigenerational and durable investment in New York City’s future, promising that new jails could be “used productively to lay a foundation that can prevent” further incarceration. (To the chagrin of criminology, which has spent nearly its entire disciplinary history attempting to prove otherwise, there’s no evidence that jailing prevents incarceration. In fact, the building of jails presupposes an incarcerated populus: if they build it; they will fill it.)

Although De Blasio is fond of saying that New York City didn’t invent mass incarceration, in some ways, New York did invent mass incarceration. From the late-19th-to-mid-20th century mania for jail construction that proceeded hand-in-hand with the abolition of slavery, to the 1973 passage of the Rockefeller Drug Laws that ratcheted up incarceration across the state, and the law-and-order policing regime that surged NYC’s annual jail intake above 110,00 in the 1990s: jailing and New York City go hand in hand. The city’s geography—from African Burial Grounds marked and unmarked, to redlining maps of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, to the former sites of jails, workhouses and almshouses built over and un-memorialized—is fundamentally a carceral geography. 

Abolition requires reckoning with how the material benefits of being white are intimately tethered to the violence of others’ unfreedom. As Barnard professor Marisa Solomon says, “we are all living in the shadow of the prison, but we’re not all equally captured by it.” The way that jail reformers shed light on this problem keeps casting the same shadow over and again: nearly everything about Mayor de Blasio’s jail plan is recycled.

A precursor to the modern jail, New York’s first city-run “charitable” institution charged with “caring for the poor, the beggars, and the dependent sick” was a workhouse established in 1736. An almshouse, Bellevue, Blackwell’s Island, and Ward’s Island all followed suit in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Department of Public Charities and Correction was established in 1860 to oversee the city’s institutions of social welfare and crime control. The city designated Rikers a carceral island in 1884, one year before the Department of Correction split from the Department of Public Charity under pressure from reformers who wanted a clearer division between the “deserving,” virtuous poor and the “vicious,” “criminal” poor. 

The project to open Rikers finally came to fruition a half-century later in part because conditions in the city’s existing workhouses and jails had been deteriorating for at least twenty years, generating numerous reports on the poor conditions in which incarcerated people languished. In 1930, the Department of Correction announced it was:

 installing a social service department to maintain a human and humane contact with prisoners[;] conducting a prison keepers’ school in order to teach its guards…  a more tolerant and sympathetic point of view; [and] is endeavoring to secure a psychiatric clinic with a view to the scientific segregation of the inmates[,] and…  is working at top speed to carry out the Mayor’s orders to give New York City the most modern penal system in the United States. 

Rikers was the crown jewel of this project. As Correction Commissioner Austin MacCormick said in 1934 on the eve of Rikers’ opening, “My job is to try to turn the institution into something preventing of crime… a job for medical officers, educators, engineers and industrial experts, and the human engineers, the parole officers.” Lest MacCormick’s old-fashioned language befuddle, his confidence in “human engineers” and “medical officers” is recapitulated in contemporary jail reformers’ ahistorical faith in modern, humane, rehabilitative jails. 

A mural, funded by the precursor to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) though never installed, illustrated how the Rikers Island Penitentiary would model the newest penological methods, orientated toward rehabilitation and re-entry. In sketches, artists Ben Shahn and Lou Block, in the social realist style associated with New Deal public art, depicted blue-jumper-clad prisoners learning trades, picking fruit in an orchard, and visiting with women and children. In representing prisoners as reformable not irredeemable, productive not idle, and embedded in respectable family life not drifting outside the social fabric, reformers accentuated the new jail’s contrast with the antiquated, decrepit, draconian, and inhumane conditions in existing institutions. Rikers held out the promise of a modern and civilized New York City. It was likened to a “‘New Deal’ in prison life”: a jail that promised to eradicate the engines of incarceration. 

Although no jail can eradicate the engines of incarceration (which are produced outside, not within, the jail) there’s an uncomfortable truth to the analogy. Just as FDR’s New Deal saved capitalism by quelling social movements and constructing a new geography of white property through Black dispossession via segregationist mandates (colloquially known as “redlining”) built into the Federal Housing Administration, New York City jails perpetually rig the game in favor of white people and against Black working class life and rebellion. 

For months in the summer and early fall of 1970, people in jails across New York City joined a nationwide surge in jail and prison uprisings. Incarcerated people organized themselves as the “Inmates Liberation Front,” with a list of demands linked to broader struggles for community self-determination. Just as the jail rebellion was reaching a crescendo, Young Lord Julio Roldan, detained pretrial on $1,500 bail for participating in a Garbage Protest, was found hanged in a cell in The Tombs, aka the notorious Manhattan Detention Complex. As with Browder’s death almost fifty years later—when grassroots organizers pushed for radical change as frantic politicians fought to maintain their hegemony—Young Lords continued to organize in Roldan’s memory by staging an armed occupation of the People’s Church in East Harlem, while politicians scrambled  to construct an ameliorative jail reform consensus. Litigation eventually compelled the closure and rebuilding of The Tombs. When the Manhattan jail reopened in 1983, the new warden hailed it as “the most modern jail in the city of New York.” The pendulum of repression and rebellion produces cyclical crises of incarceration, as seen in the 1930s, the 1970s, and today. Every time, elites attempt to subdue the discontent with jail reform. That jails are continuously enrolled in these projects should come as no surprise. As historians of the penitentiary remind us, imprisonment is inseparable from the politics of reform: after all, the institution itself was seen as humane progress over corporal punishment. 

Regardless of the political conjunction of the moment, the reformist impulse is always the same: new jails. Like the liberal fantasy of police reform hurriedly coalescing in the wake of the uprisings sparked by the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks, New York City’s jail reform consensus is a reactionary response, masquerading as progress, to re-establish the legitimacy of a liberal law-and-order regime in crisis. These reforms operate to ameliorate moral crises outside the prison, without ever touching the structural function of prison violence.

“Reforms are a fallacy,” wrote Lee Doane, from Elmira Correctional Facility in a letter I received in August, “They are inconsequential concessions that they roll out with much fanfare in order to avoid answering the bigger question.” Lee’s handwriting is meticulous, all-caps in ramrod straight lines, yet open and fluid. He goes on to say:

A person is either languishing in a solitary confinement cell, or they are not. There is no in between. Introducing more reforms is the equivalent of prescribing aspirin for a course of cancer; and the question of solitary confinement grows terminal in the interim. Reforms largely fail because they are meant to. Prison is a system based on the management of lesser and greater failures… the machine continues to cycle uninterrupted.

Over the past two years, I have sat with formerly and currently incarcerated people, in coffee shops across Manhattan and jail and prison visiting rooms from Rikers to Sing Sing to Eastern, asking what abolition means for people whose freedom depends upon it. But as prisons produce structural and geographic disappearance and displacement, the act of sitting together is stolen from organizers working across prison walls. And so, most often, I have learned about abolition from exchanging letters with prisoners I may never meet, caged nearby as the Metropolitan Detention Complex in Sunset Park, far away as Clinton Correctional Facility (on the Canadian border), learning how to prefigure the story of a post-Rikers New York City.  

A Post-Rikers NYC

“We can’t wish for prisons to go away,” explains José Saldaña, a former Young Lord who served 38 years in prison and is currently the director of the Release Aging People from Prison Campaign. “We aren’t going to wake up tomorrow and they’ve all gone. But delaying climbing a mountain isn’t going to make it any smaller. It’s going to stay just as big, and pretty soon, it’s going to be coming after you.” After decades of political struggle inside and outside prison, Saldaña is hopeful. “I understand why some people think prison abolition is never going to happen: they aren’t in the struggle. If you were in the movement, you would never say that. We’ve got to chip away, and chip away, and keep chipping, and pass the tools to the next generation.”

For those who’ve never been intimately touched by incarceration, prisons are often opaque and unthinkable. Although the prison industrial complex shapes all of us, those of us who live at a distance from it do not have to think about how our daily lives are undergirded by the prison and its political, economic, and affective structures. Prisons function in part by disappearing people in order to hide social problems, as Angela Davis elucidates: “Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.” This intentional “black box” effect can result in the liberal mirage that exposing suffering inside, as a form of moral exhortation, is our most powerful abolitionist tool. But my incarcerated comrades have taught me that abolition isn’t won by exposing incarceration’s horrors: they’ve been known and known again—and, more importantly, the brutality is the point. The liberal pendulum of concealment and revelation is unceasing: more often than not, the horrors of jails and prisons, converted into the impulse to reform, have resulted in carceral expansion, thus inaugurating the cycle anew. And thus, abolitionist tools are not forged through descriptions of prisoners’ suffering; but rather, forged in visions of liberation, revolution. 

So, what does abolition look like from inside a prison? It looks like what Alvin McLean wrote to me from Sullivan Correctional, a “maximum security” prison built in 1980

It is the organized movement to build and establish communities that have no need for police, prosecutors, and prisons. It is putting in the work to ensure that future generations can live in a society free of the plantation based slave economy and the prison industrial complex. It is the implementation of restorative justice principles to solve social problems while holding those community members who cause harm accountable through truth, reflection, and reconciliation. Caging human beings promote[s] supremacist ideologies and logic, which legitimizes state violence against marginalized groups. 

It looks like what Kitty writes when I ask her what safety means to her: “the space to be myself, move freely, without fear or confinement.” It looks like what she writes when I ask what a New York City without jails would be like: “It would be full of animals. And human beings interacting as one, helping each other out, holding each other down. I also picture a world where children have a say in the everyday decisions that adults make and adults respect what children have to say.” 

Abolition is a “verb; it denotes action,” writes Lee in his careful hand, “Abolition means not ever having to be in a cell again.” And yet, he continues, “It’s difficult to envision a world without prisons when you’ve spent your entire life inside them. I honestly can’t see that far; maybe these bars hamper my ability to imagine utopia.”

Perhaps. But in my most pessimistic moments, I return to the first thing Kevin ever said to me, as we talked on that bench near Wall Street. Sitting in prison, Kevin would ask himself, “‘What would I do if the wall broke?’ I’d say to myself, ‘Why would I stay enslaved? I don’t care if I have a day left, if I could have freedom then and there, I’m running. What do we have to lose?’” 

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