Activists Aim to Stop de Blasio’s Plan for New Jails

New Yorkers opposed to the city’s plan to build four new jails by 2027 said Sunday that the facilities would have a high social and economic cost for local communities without keeping the city’s population safer.

Members of the No New Jails campaign, a recently formed network of residents, community members, and activists, voiced their opposition in a town hall at the People’s Forum in midtown Manhattan. The town hall, attended by about 100 people, was part of an ongoing campaign against the jail plan.

“No one wants it but de Blasio,” said Kei Williams, a member of No New Jails and an organizer with Black Lives Matter, during a panel at the event. “We don’t want more jails because the opening of these facilities normalizes incarceration as a localized response to crime without actually increasing the safety of New Yorkers.”

About 100 people attended the No New Jails event at the People’s Forum. (The Ink/Ero Partsakoulaki)

The estimated cost of the “New York City Borough-Based Jail System,” which is part of the city’s plan to close Rikers, is $10.6 billion over 10 years and calls for the construction of four new facilities in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, downtown Brooklyn, Kew Gardens, and Manhattan’s Chinatown. A plan to locate the Manhattan facility atop a nine-story government building at 80 Centre Street was dropped mainly over difficulties relocating all the existing tenants.

“We can think of so many ways that $10 billion worth of city funds can benefit our community,” said Williams. “Imagine spending more money to a restorative justice plan or a welcome home plan for those formerly incarcerated, for affordable housing or the MTA.”

The all-volunteer coalition, which includes a research working group and a strategy building team, urged individuals and community groups to take action, stressing the lack of public engagement in the city’s policies and public review of the proposal.

“All we hear about during the hearings is recommendations,” said Williams. The city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure includes hearings and recommendations by the local community board, borough president, the City Council and the City Planning Commission. “The City has arranged that the only official decision remaining,” Williams said, “is whether the borough-based jail plan is an appropriate use of land and allows people to talk only about land use and how this jail expansion plan affects traffic and pollution, as opposed to discussing the alternatives to criminalization and imprisonment.”

According to the plan’s draft scope of work document, released Aug. 14, each of the new facilities would have about 1,500 beds, which would allow the Department of Corrections to house up to 6,000 incarcerated individuals. Existing facilities in the boroughs can accommodate less than half of that. Part of the city’s goal in closing Rikers is to reduce the number of incarcerated people from the current  8,200 to 5,000.

During the panel discussion, No New Jails members presented their research on the high social and economic cost of jails, providing alternatives to the high policing, courts and incarceration budget that was over $7 billion in 2017. In contrast, the city spent only $3.3 billion for public housing based on the NYCHA budget for 2017 and the Department of Health budget for the same year was only $1.6 billion.

“Until Rikers is closed, of which there’s no guarantee under this jail expansion plan, the city will continue to incarcerate people there for an average yearly cost of over $200,000 per person, when citywide the cost of incarceration per person, per year is $140,000,” Williams said during the panel discussion.

Pilar Maschi, a formerly incarcerated woman, opposed the Mayor’s jail expansion plan. (The Ink/Ero Partsakoulaki)

When the session opened for questions, Raquel Grindley, a teacher based in East New York, asked the organizers whether there is a specific action plan. She did not consider “talking about it” as a response. “Without a plan, the ideas don’t matter,” she said afterwards.

Gaby Ferrell, a No New Jails member, said that the coalition’s timeline uses the city’s timeline as a guide and she was confident that their efforts will manage to stop the new jails. She said that the City Council’s planning has moved back three months but No New Jails will be attending hearings, protesting, organizing community events and town halls until the council’s vote in about a year.

Organizers accused de Blasio of acting in secret. “He had organized everything before the news went ahead to the community,” said Pilar Maschi, 47, a formerly incarcerated woman who now lives in public housing. “The deals in terms of building and locations had been already negotiated.”