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Imagining a World Without Prisons

On Thursday, the New York City Council will vote on shutting down the jails on Rikers Island. Should new ones replace them, or is it time to reform criminal justice more broadly?

John Moore/Getty Images

If you’re part of the ballroom scene in New York, you may have known the name of the young, trans, Afro-Latina performer Layleen Cubilette-Polanco Xtravaganza, even before her death at Rikers Island in June. Her name has traveled far now, from New York City’s Pride season, to presidential candidate forums, as a cry against abuse in prisons. Polanco died of a seizure in solitary confinement after she couldn’t pay $500 in bail connected to two-year-old misdemeanor sex work and drug possession charges. Her death—and the mourning and organizing that followed—made national news, with activists asking why Department of Corrections officials, who had known of her seizure history, had placed her in such dangerous conditions. When Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren introduced her LGBTQ rights plan last week, she mentioned Polanco by name, among other trans women who “should be alive today.” 

This Thursday, the New York City Council will vote on legislation which could close the jail complex on Rikers Island. And while that on its own represents a tremendous victory for the criminal justice reform movement, it has also opened up a powerful debate about what exactly reform means in practice. Razing the jail would be both humane and symbolic: For more than a century, it has borne the name of a New York legal official once responsible for deporting enslaved and free black people back to the South before they could challenge him in court. But the question, for some reformers, is whether simply moving the people who are incarcerated at Rikers to newer, purportedly more humane facilities, is enough. Most of these people, reformers say, should never have been incarcerated in the first place. 

Last Friday, outside the Chelsea home of Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council, advocates gathered in Polanco’s memory. Speaker Johnson has echoed Warren, saying solitary confinement should be ended, and that Polanco should never have been held over bail money: “A woman’s freedom shouldn’t depend on the amount of money she has in her pocket,” as Johnson put it this past summer. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed that Polanco should not have been sent to Rikers. Both called for the jail where Polanco died to be closed.

But marching through the streets that afternoon, activists had a sharper and more specific message for Johnson: Not only should Polanco never have been in Rikers in the first place, and not only should the notorious, aging, remote jail complex be shuttered, but plans for new jails to replace Rikers, spread across four boroughs, should be abandoned as well.

Until fairly recently, closing Rikers was considered impossible. Where would the people locked up in the island’s nine jails go, some city officials asked? What would it cost? Could the city really ask its people to let go of this institution without something better in its place?

The current urgency and momentum to close Rikers can be traced to Kalief Browder. Browder was arrested at 16, accused of stealing a backpack. He spent three years jailed at Rikers without being convicted of a crime because he couldn’t afford bail. He died two years after his release by suicide—something he had attempted inside, as a teenager in solitary confinement. A few months after Browder’s death in 2015, activists disrupted a Board of Correction meeting, unfurling a banner reading “Campaign to Shut Down Rikers”—a new grassroots effort which won support from Browder’s brother Akeem. In February 2016, then-city council speaker (and current congressional candidate) Melissa Mark-Viverito announced her “dream” to eliminate Rikers’ nine jails. In addition to the Shut Down Rikers campaign, the nonprofits JustLeadershipUSA and the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice launched another group, the #CLOSERikers campaign in April of 2016 with the support of the Ford Foundation.

Mayor de Blasio initially called closing Rikers a “noble concept,” but unrealistic. Over the course of the next year, protests expanded and an independent commission was formed by Mark-Viverito and led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to explore the idea. De Blasio has since changed his mind on the issue, announcing in March 2017 that he now supports closing Rikers.

“The central challenge involved in closing Rikers Island is reducing the complex’s jail population to a number that can be safely and effectively accommodated elsewhere,” Anakwa Dwamena wrote this month at The New York Review of Books. “And while it might not appear that way, the number of people we keep in jail is almost entirely up to us as a city.” In order to decide what to do with Rikers, the city has been pushed to consider a far more fundamental question: Should it jail people at all?

The city has proposed a plan to move incarcerated people from the aging jail complex to “modern, well-designed facilities.” But first, they say, those facilities must be constructed, in some cases from scratch, and in other cases by retrofitting or reconstructing on the site of existing jails. Those currently locked in the jails to be “modernized” will be diverted to Rikers during construction, a process that may take up to ten years and cost $8.7 billion to complete.

Back in 2016, leaders of the #CLOSERikers campaign, like Glenn E. Martin of JustLeadershipUSA, were inclined to accept new jails. But grassroots group like Shut Down Rikers have long rejected this plan. “We were always very clear and explicit about [opposing new jails] from the beginning,” Nabil Hassein, an organizer who worked on the Shut Down Rikers campaign, said in 2018.

Last September, the No New Jails NYC coalition formed, drawing members from the Shut Down Rikers campaign. They seek to close Rikers without building any new jails, and to redirect the billions planned for new jails to “community-driven services, harm reduction, poverty and homelessness eradication, and transformative justice,” according to their alternative plan.

The coalition has drawn some significant support, for example from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in whose district Rikers sits. More than 200 public defenders (including Tiffany Cabán, former candidate for Queens District Attorney) have signed onto the No New Jails plan. They argue that Rikers can be closed without any replacement because their incarceration could be handled in other ways: Two-thirds of the city’s overall jail population is merely awaiting trial, and could be released on bail. As for the rest, another 20 percent are jailed for parole violations—in other words, people who have already been punished. Very few people in New York City jails are serving a sentence: around 12 percent. “Their convictions are minor and should not require incarceration,” the defenders’ open letter states. Beyond just the goal of emptying Rikers, they continue, “Confronting mass incarceration requires decriminalizing more offenses and eliminating or reducing more sentences.” The Lippman Commission, in fact, when it recommended closing Rikers, recommended decriminalizing sex work as well.

What’s playing out now in New York City, ahead of this week’s vote on new jails to replace Rikers, will reverberate across the criminal justice reform movement. Though various reform groups are aligned in many ways, they diverge regarding the directness and urgency with which they confront the structural cruelty of the American carceral system, which imprisons the poor and people of color in disproportionate numbers, in inhumane conditions, facing violence and abuse.

One response to jails and prisons—represented in New York City right now by the No New Jails coalition—is abolitionist; rather than attempt to repair what some regard as a well-intended but broken system, they see the system itself as the problem. They ask people to commit to abolishing imprisonment altogether, rather than simply ending “mass” or particularly inhumane forms of incarceration. It’s an approach some deride as unrealistic, even to the point of pathology: In September, Ford Foundation president and Lippman commission member Darren Walker compared the “no new jails” position to climate change denialism. (His statement was rebuked by more than 300 Ford Foundation fellows and their allies, who back No New Jails.) Others see abolishing all prisons and jails as noble, but unimaginable. Not too long ago, this was precisely what many said about closing Rikers.

Abolitionists say any plan which replaces old, crumbling jails with new ones just creates newer jails for the city to fill. Other criminal justice reformers urge those who oppose any new jails to take what the city is offering. “Because people will still be detained in New York City after Rikers is shut down, conditions of confinement must go hand in hand with the fight for decarceration,” wrote gabriel sayegh of the Katal Center. “For people who are subject to detention, the conditions of confinement must be more humane. Rikers must be shut down, and so long as there is detention here, the City’s other decrepit jails must be replaced.”

Some advocates even cast the No New Jails plan as a disservice to incarcerated people. “Apparently [No New Jails NYC] would rather oppose the city’s efforts to provide more humane care for these individuals and leave them in dangerous jail settings instead,” wrote Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Alliance of Families of Justice.

These people are all considered criminal justice reform advocates. Their conflict is itself rooted in broad agreement: the current American practice of mass incarceration must be ended. But  these groups, at times, are telling different stories about what a world without incarceration looks like.

In one version of Layleen Polanco’s story, she arrives at Rikers and finds corrections officers who respond to her serious health needs and accept her as a transgender woman. In another version, Polanco never set foot in Rikers, because she was never assigned bail, and could return to her court appearance of her own free will. Or perhaps a warrant was never issued for Polanco’s arrest after she missed a court-appointed diversion program session. Perhaps in this New York, the police never arrest Polanco to begin with, because sex work is not a crime.

As New York now faces the newly imaginable, practical dimensions of closing a jail complex, the competing plans before the city give a glimpse into what future debates over criminal justice reform will look like. The movement is nearing the mainstream, and with that, the tension between reform and abolition remains. Advocates can agree that no person belongs in a cage on Rikers Island. But releasing them from a cage is not the same thing as freedom. The abolitionists say the goal is to get people free. They don’t intend to stop at the prison walls.