OPINION: The Brooklyn jail is falling apart, with my people inside

October 17, 2019 Robert Cornegy
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For years, before running for office or representing District 36, I worked on Rikers Island in the Department of Social Services.

I remember fighting for access to the housing units, and trying to get out of my office and provide direct support to people who were incarcerated. Years later, I hear the stories of the nightmare that people in detention still face in any of the 12 jails that currently exist in this city.

Among the most decrepit facilities is the Brooklyn Detention Complex. Many of my constituents have experienced the inside of that place – whether they were detained or visiting loved ones inside.

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The impact of that trauma on generations of black and brown families in Brooklyn cannot be understated. Rikers Island and the Brooklyn jail, together with the Tombs and the Barge, are a stain on the heart of NYC — and the nation at large. It is not lost on others that New York City is home to one of the most devastatingly egregious penal systems in the United States.

While there are jails and prisons across the country that must be closed, we know that these 12, with Rikers chief among them, have been a symbol of torture, trauma and extreme violence. As an elected representative of one of the most incarcerated communities in New York City, I recognize the urgency of ending mass incarceration and the massive overhaul of our pre-trial detention system that the closure of Rikers Island requires — an overhaul that advocates were able to bring into fruition in this year’s state legislative session.

As a child of Brooklyn and a former service provider, I know that there is not a single facility in this city that is capable of providing access to care, social supports and programming necessary to prepare people to return home or reduce their likelihood of returning to jail or prison.

As a City Council member, in 2016, I introduced legislation that legally required the city to provide access to education and social services to people awaiting trial. I worked on Rikers Island and continue to connect to others who work or are detained there now. I know firsthand how important it is to improve access to resources and improve conditions, both inside future facilities and outside, in our communities.

The Brooklyn Detention Complex on Atlantic Avenue has been standing since the 1950s — and has already been closed and reopened once, with minor renovations in 2012. Yet this summer, seven years after those renovations, my colleagues in the City Council and I are shocked to see that this jail does not contain a single air conditioning unit and does not allow detainees to control the temperature of their showers. This building, by design, has stripped my neighbors, family, friends, and past clients of their dignity and subjected them to inhumane conditions. Because this building was built for one purpose: warehousing bodies.

The reality is there will be no “new” jail in Brooklyn even after the City Council approves the Uniform Land Use Review Process petition on Oct. 17, which we must do.

We have had a borough-based facility in this borough since before I was born. In approving that ULURP, we have an opportunity to pass several pieces of legislation and set us on a path to close all 12 jails and their 13,000 available beds across New York City. Due to the advocacy of survivors of Rikers Island, and my own lived experience, I have a clear set of priorities and values that are aligned with this plan to ensure the permanent closure of Rikers Island.

We must shrink the system and forever limit this city’s capacity to detain and harm people. In addition to going from 12 jails to four facilities with improved conditions and proximity to people’s communities, we must also limit the number of people who can be detained to no more than 3,000. We must continue to demand permanent decarceration by supporting the implementation of the pretrial reforms that were passed this year while also pushing our legislature to do more — particularly parole reform. And we must realign our budget priorities with community needs by divesting from legal punishment systems and investing, instead, into community-based services and in the people who have been directly harmed by Rikers.

The transformative, systemic change we seek to achieve in making these choices will not happen overnight. But delaying any further will only insure the inevitable, continued existence of Rikers, the Tombs, the Brooklyn jail and the Barge. The status quo is unacceptable and a better future is within our reach.

That is what I am voting for by voting yes on Oct. 17.

Councilmember Robert Cornegy represents the 36th Council District of Brooklyn.

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