The Path Forward After Rikers: Decarcerate New York City?

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that the city plans to close carceral facilities on Rikers Island within ten years and instead create a system of new jails throughout the five boroughs. While the decision to shutter Rikers is commendable due to the horrific systemic abuses documented on the island, little has been elaborated about where the new facilities will be located.

An independent commission formed by the city to examine the issue recommended the construction of one jail in each borough. Broadly, the commission called for the jails to be located near the boroughs’ criminal courts. No specific site recommendations, however, were made.

Regardless of location, such facilities will lock New York into another generation of prisons. Inherent within the call to close Rikers was the assumption that it would be replaced by new carceral facilities. But the construction of new cells brings with it the as-yet undiscussed consequences of ensuring that incarceration continues to be a dominant force in the city’s justice systems.

The problem being confronted by New York is also playing out across the country. What to do when the need for reform comes into conflict with the progressive push to not create new carceral capacity?

No New Prisons?

For decades, prison abolitionists and more left-leaning policy thinkers have embraced the idea of no new prison construction. Groups in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are actively organizing against proposed new local facilities. Similar efforts will doubtlessly arise in New York.

The question of how to decarcerate the United States is a complicated one. At the crux of the issue is the relationship between the supply of jail cells and the demand for prison spaces from the policing, prosecution, and sentencing aspects of the justice system. Many argue that constraints on capacity force police and prosecutors to prioritize who they want to lock up. Conversely, if new capacity is created, such theories hold, committals will rise. Teasing apart the direction of this causality is difficult.

(The one exception to this complex causality is private prisons. Quotas in which jurisdictions require a certain level of prison occupancy in private facilities intentionally maintain to high incarceration rates. But less than 10% of those incarcerated across the US are held in private prisons, so for the purpose of this argument let’s assume that there is no legal requirement to fill prison beds.)

I am persuaded by the argument that the best long-term method through which to lower the number of incarcerated individuals in the United States is through closing jails and prisons. In the short-term, however, I worry what the constraint of prison beds can lead to overcrowding—already rife in many states—and the various negative repercussions including higher recidivism associated with such stuffing of already damaging carceral spaces.

Continuing an Incarceration-Centric Justice System

As such, it is necessary for jurisdictions to seek to reduce committals alongside any efforts to close prisons. Alternative approaches to criminal justice beyond incarceration are emphasized in the independent commission’s report on the future of Rikers and New York City’s jails. It remains to be seen, however, if such recommendations for diversion programs and other community-based restorative justice measures will be adopted.

In the meanwhile, New York faces tough decisions about where to build new facilities. In this case, it seems as though new jails may be warranted. Nonetheless, building new facilities will lock the city into an incarceration-led approach to criminal justice for the next many decades. Here, the conundrum of how to dealing with aging infrastructure becomes clear.

The #CLOSErikers campaign had success in pushing for an end to the island facility and its many abuses. Now, coming to a governing consensus will be much more difficult. How to balance the desire for improved prison conditions with the desire to decarcerate the city?

Pressure to close Rikers was successful: but now what? Source: Popular Resistance