Throughout this election season, I have talked to thousands of voters in my district. During our conversations, people almost always ask about my thoughts on the Kew Gardens jail. I oppose this project, not just because of its location, but because I don’t want new jails. Period. Any proposal that seeks to pour more money into our carceral system, rather than into our communities, is counter-productive. I have no doubt our city would be safer, healthier and more just if we invested the $8.2 billion construction costs into mental health services, education, supportive housing units, addiction treatment, workforce investment and parks instead.
For those who believe closing Rikers and building new jails will usher in a new, more humane era of criminal justice, I encourage you to consider the history. We have been here before. The first penitentiary in Manhattan was considered an “embarrassment” in the late 1700’s, and the solution was to close it and build a new one on what is now Roosevelt Island. Over the next century, that penitentiary became consumed with allegations of sexual assault, corruption, abuse and the overuse of solitary confinement. By the 1930’s, the City demolished it and built a new jail on a different island. When it opened, Rikers was said to be a model penitentiary that exemplified the rehabilitative ideal.
The point of history is to learn from it. We cannot expect different outcomes if we are just changing locations while retaining the same systems and solutions.
Some colleagues of mine argue that instead of building new jails, we should invest in improving conditions on Rikers. This ignores the fact that we currently spend a whopping $337,000 a year per person on Rikers Island. By comparison, we spend $28,808, a year per public school student. Pouring more resources into reforming Rikers is clearly not the answer. Doing so would be an insult to the memories of Kalief Browder, Layleen Polanco and many others who have suffered unspeakable torture there.
This begs the question: Is closing Rikers and not building new jails realistic? The answer is yes. When the new jails proposal came out in 2017, the average daily NYC jail population was around 9,400 people. Four years later, our average daily jail population is approximately 5,500 people, far below the initial projections. Based on these numbers combined with the ways that criminal justice reforms reduce incarceration levels, the Mayor’s office adjusted its goal to a daily jail population of 3,300 by 2026, when the new jails are slated for completion.
Our current jail capacity outside of Rikers is 2,300 beds. Given a difference of just 1,000 beds, why would we build four new jails instead of aim to decarcerate, and use our public resources on solutions that divert people from ending up in jail at all? The majority of arrests in NYC are for non-violent offenses. Since a whopping 85% of people in NYC jails in 2020 were there simply awaiting trial (and therefore, technically innocent), and with the opportunities that diversion and decriminalization pose, closing Rikers and not building new jails is entirely realistic so long as the political will exists.
As for the Kew Gardens jail specifically, I think it’s important to take stock of where we are. I have heard colleagues of mine making campaign promises to stop the Kew Gardens jail if elected. While I agree with the sentiment, I know it is not that simple, and I am weary of over-promising and under-delivering on an issue which so deeply impacts people’s lives. In the name of transparency, I want to comment on where we currently are in the fight to stop the new jail and what options District 29’s next council member will likely have.
In September 2020, two community groups filed a last ditch effort lawsuit to stop the Kew Gardens jail. Since all four jails were housed under the same application, their main argument was that the City had conducted an improper land use process. In April, the lawsuit was thrown out by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Eileen Rakower. Though the community groups can appeal, judges have also thrown out similar lawsuits in Manhattan and the Bronx, so it is unlikely we will be able to stop this jail via the courts.
Who we elect as our next mayor is likely the biggest factor in stopping the jails. The new mayor will have the authority to halt the plan by deciding whether to include the necessary funds in the capital budget to advance the project, and by following through (or not) on the project’s contracts.
As a council member, I would vote down any budget that includes funding for new jails. Yet, it’s important to acknowledge this too will take work; unless I successfully convince a majority of other council members to do the same, a single no vote out of 51 won’t result in material change. Thus, NYC needs to elect council candidates who are willing to reimagine public safety, and end mass-incarceration, all over NYC, not just in District 29.
This election, the stakes are incredibly high. Just from the history of this one issue, we see how important it is to elect the right person. Karen Koslowitz, District 29’s current council member, openly voted in favor of this jail. She thought it was appropriate to spend billions on incarcerating our neighbors instead of housing them. This level of cruelty keeps me awake at night. We cannot keep electing the same career politicians and expect different results. This election provides us with the opportunity of a generation to choose candidates who proactively choose care instead of incarceration to solve our problems.