Who is No New Jails NYC?
It’s too big, some said of the proposed 395-foot-tall jail.
The Department of Correction should not be in charge, said others.
One group, sitting directly behind community board members, had a different message.
It should not exist at all.
No New Jails NYC was formed in September 2018. Many of its members came from The Campaign to Shut Down Rikers, a grassroots organization that included the brother of Kalief Browder, whose 2015 suicide catalyzed the movement to immediately close the notorious jail complex at Rikers Island.
The group is part of a growing prison abolition movement around the country, with the hashtag #NoNewJails cropping up in California, Michigan, Louisiana, Massachusetts and New Jersey, members said. They believe money spent on incarcerating people should be reinvested in black and brown communities that have historically been disproportionately incarcerated and affected by over-policing.
“As black and brown people, we are inherently seen and deemed as violent and met with violence: Eric Garner, arrests and ticketing for fare evasion, broken windows policing,” said Brittany Williams, a member of No New Jails NYC.
The way America thinks about dealing with people who commit crimes needs to be entirely rethought, Williams said.
The prison system is inherently racist and radical transformation is needed now, she added. “The state has literally invested billions and billions of dollars to jails and prisons for centuries, and it’s time to rethink that — because these things do not heal our people.”
Speaking out — loudly and often
Comprised of about 100 members, No New Jails NYC vehemently opposes the mayor’s borough-based jail plan, proposed in 2017, which seeks to close the jail complex on Rikers Island by 2026 by building, expanding and renovating jails in all New York City’s boroughs, except Staten Island.
Members of No New Jails NYC attend meetings about the plan across the city, disrupting presentations on the jail by the city, handing out fliers and holding signs that say “Close Rikers Now! No New Jails!”
At an April 11 community hearing on the proposed renovations at the Brooklyn Detention Complex, members of No New Jails NYC spoke out passionately against the city’s plan. The same month, the group hosted a community meeting in the Bronx to discuss the borough-based jails. In Queens, too, members condemned the city’s plan at a Community Board 9 public hearing.
When Brooklyn’s Community Board 2 voted on May 8 on whether or not to recommend a modified version of the mayor’s plan for the Boerum Hill jail, No New Jails NYC members packed the auditorium and chanted “shame” as the chair of the Land Use committee presented to the board.
The board voted not to pass the recommendation – by a single vote.
Tres Freeborn, a member of No New Jails NYC, said he thinks the group’s presence at the meeting may have swayed certain board members not to support the recommendation.
“I think No New Jails had a great influence and presence, and also just held us accountable as community board members,” said Sam Johnson, a CB2 member and a No New Jails NYC supporter.
The Queens community board that unanimously voted down the city’s plan in March (before the land use process began), will likely follow the Brooklyn community board in not endorsing the city’s plan on Tuesday at its general meeting.
Proponents of the borough-based jails, meanwhile, see the opposition coming from community boards and community members as a healthy part of the democratic process.
“We are grateful for everyone who participated in today’s meeting, and tonight’s split vote shows there are many Brooklynites who support the proposed plan,” a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice told the Brooklyn Eagle in a statement after the Brooklyn CB2 vote.
Jonathan Lippman, who chaired the independent commission – known as the Lippman Commission – that recommended in 2017 that the city build new community jails in order to close Rikers, said he feels good about the process so far.
“I think everyone should be heard — but the loudest voices shouldn’t necessarily prevail,” Lippman, former chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, told the Eagle when asked about No New Jails NYC. He also said that he does not see a world in which the jail complex at Rikers Island can be shut down without opening new jails throughout the city — even as MOCJ announced that the city’s detainee population is expected to drop from its current 7,500 to 4,000 by 2027. That number is 20 percent lower than their original estimate of 5,000.
“If this ULURP fails, we’ll be stuck with Rikers for generations to come,” said Tyler Nims, the executive director of the Lippman Commission. ULURP, which stands for Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, is the rezoning process that the borough-based jails proposal is currently going through.
“Almost by definition if you’re not going to build new jails, it’s almost an endorsement of the continuation of Rikers,” Lippman said.
Johnson, the CB2 member, does not agree. “We all agree [Rikers] needs to be shut down. But we want to endorse healthier communities where people can have access to resources without being criminalized. We believe that the funding – if you have that much – should go to the people first, not to hold them in cages, but to hold them in homes and in schools.”
‘A cage is a cage’
A common refrain from members of No New Jails NYC is that “better jails” don’t exist.
“There’s no such thing as a humane jail,” Kei Williams, an organizer with the group, told the Eagle. “A cage is a cage. And you can give me as much natural light as you want, but at the end of the day, I don’t have freedom of my body or freedom of movement,” he said.
“I think the current place is a hellhole,” Lippman said of the Brooklyn Detention Complex. “It’s a relic of the past and new jails don’t look like that. I have personally toured [the Brooklyn Detention Complex] with the District Attorney and we both agree it is unsafe. The construction is from another era.”
To members of No New Jails NYC, new buildings would do nothing to change the culture of violence embedded in New York City’s Department of Correction.
The group would rather see the $8.7 billion the city has allocated for modernizing the jails reinvested in the city’s public housing, homeless shelters, public schools, and expanded mental health services for incarcerated people.
No New Jails NYC believes in restorative justice practices, a method in which the injured and perpetrating parties of a crime come together to try to repair and accept accountability for the harm that has been done.
The starkest opposition to No New Jails NYC is a national organization called Just Leadership USA, which runs a New York campaign called #CLOSErikers. The campaign is led by those formerly incarcerated on Rikers Island. Like No New Jails NYC, members of JLUSA show up to public hearings. They share harrowing stories of mistreatment at Rikers Island and fervently support the building of borough-based jails.
Darren Mack has been with the #CLOSErikers campaign since its inception in 2016. He was detained on Rikers Island for 19 months in the early 1990s, where he said he saw inmates killed by staff, beaten to death, and no one held accountable.
Though the #CLOSErikers campaigners and No New Jails NYC often trade barbs at hearings and meetings, they’re not enemies — just pragmatically in disagreement. “We’re both advocating to close Rikers, we just have a totally different vision of how that can be done at this time,” Kei Williams said. “There are organizers in No New Jails who left #CLOSERikers. We always show them love. Their stories are important.”
Their support for the abolition of prisons does not mean that No New Jails NYC does not try to help people currently in jail. On Easter Sunday, months after the heat and power outages ended and the rest of the protesters had gone home, members of No New Jails NYC gathered outside the federally run Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park to host a potluck. Their goal was to raise money for commissary funds for men detained in the jail. Members of No New Jails NYC waved up at prisoners who banged on their windows in response.
More than a dozen people showed up, including Greg, a Catholic school teacher who had only recently joined No New Jails NYC with his wife, Sienna, a public school teacher.
Greg brought up one of No New Jails NYC’s biggest concerns: that Mayor de Blasio will not be in power in 2027, when he says Rikers will be closed. “There’s no promise that it will actually be closed,” Greg said.
As teachers, they both stressed the importance of investing in education, not jails. “I would put money into schools to prevent individuals from entering the prison system,” Sienna said.
To Johnson, No New Jails NYC is just the most recent example of New York City’s progressivism waking up.
She drew a parallel between No New Jails NYC’s ardent opposition to the borough-based jail plan and resistance to Amazon’s planned headquarters in Long Island City – which the company scrapped on Valentine’s Day.
“I see it as very closely related to the Amazon deal. This is the same type of push. And people are realizing it is possible to say no.”
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Correction (5:40 p.m.): A previous version of this article mislabeled the man in first photo in the story as Darren Mack. Darren Mack is not in the photo.
Correction (3:15 p.m., May 17): A previous version of this article misstated the amount of money the city allocated to building the borough-based jails. The correct figure is $8.7 billion, not $11 billion.
Update (11:00 a.m.): This article has been updated with a more accurate rendering of the proposed Brooklyn Detention Complex, courtesy of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.