Several years ago, I was speaking on a panel alongside a New York state senator, a Black man, who chided me for my comments about the need to take the closing of Rikers Island, New York City’s notoriously abusive prison, seriously. This was during the time when former presidential candidate and current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was adamant that closing Rikers was impractical and unrealistic. Their arguments were that there were too many people on Rikers to imagine the city without the jail.
One year later, in 2017, de Blasio had a change of heart, and decided that he would propose a plan to close Rikers within 10 years and build four new jails across the city in its place. Members of the #CloseRikers campaign, many of whom are formerly incarcerated, have supported the building of four new jails to replace Rikers, too.
Close one jail to build four new ones was the limit of their imagination. But it should not be the limit of imagination for people of color and especially people who spent as much as one day in jail.
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The move towards opening more humane jails and state of the art “jail centers” is happening all around the country, from Sioux City, Iowa, to Spokane, Washington, to Oahu, Hawai’i. But that’s just the latest euphemism in the history of prison reform. From plantations to convict lease gangs to penitentiaries to correctional facilities, we have a collective conditioning to center confinement, even when the numbers provide a different narrative.
Reductions in the New York City jail population because of bail reform and other policy changes has made the once unrealistic idea of closing Rikers one of political pragmatism. According to statistics provided by the New York Police Department, New York City’s overall crime rate is continuing a downward trend. In fact, the homicide rate is at the lowest since the 1950s.
There is no Batman with a neverending utility-belt of crime-fighting tools intimidating the city’s underworld. Community-based programs aimed at prevention and intervention are the Caped Crusader. Crime in New York City declined at the same time that policy shifts forced the NYPD to stop using stop and frisk as its main policing tool.
The imaginations of activists, most of whom spent time on Rikers, is now being actualized.
This next step should not include the construction of another cage. If you build it, you will fill it, and according to scholar, Angela Davis, “jails and prisons always become overcrowded.” America’s prisons are already running at 103.9 percent capacity. The ACLU has been suing the state of Hawai’i since 1984 for its prison overcrowding; prisons there are now at an average of 167 percent capacity.
Prisons and jails, especially in America, are direct descendants of slave plantations. Laureates such as Ava DuVernay and Michelle Alexander have plainly made the case for this nexus. Convict-leasing gangs were created after formerly enslaved Africans fought for their freedom in the Civil War, which were the precursors to the modern-day penitentiaries and jails.
Speaking at the Smart on Crime Conference at John Jay College earlier this month, Darren Mack, a formerly incarcerated leader and member of #CloseRikers, said that a part of the plan to close Rikers and open four new jails is to have social service providers run the new facilities instead of the Department of Corrections. But replacing correctional staff with any other kind of a professional is a jail with lipstick. Los Angeles residents fought against similar cosmetic changes by winning the battle to halt the construction of $2.2 billion jail-like mental facility.
If advocates, especially those who have lived in jails, don’t use this moment to close jails, 20 or 30 years from now prison reformers will be thinking of ways to improve these same jail centers. In 1979, the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, wrote on the subject of prison reform: “One should recall that the movement for reforming the prisons, for controlling their functioning is not a recent phenomenon. It does not even seem to have originated in a recognition of failure. Prison ‘reform’ is virtually contemporary with the prison itself: it constitutes, as it were, its program.”
Now, I appreciate that the voices of formerly incarcerated are loud and numerous on both sides of this debate. Homogeneity in any movement is a myth at worse and unrealistic at best.
So here we are. We are at a moment when we can push, prod, and perform the dreams of the abolitionists of old: freedom. The upcoming biopic of Harriet Tubman, already getting Oscar buzz, will hopefully remind us that her first goal and hurdle was to convince caged human-beings that they were not free; that a plantation with better amenities was still a plantation committed to the peculiar institution of trampling Black souls to build a greater America. Dr. Tubman, as I like to call her, left us a vital lesson to remember.
Better conditions of confinement, though a necessary touchpoint of our humanity, is not freedom. Building new jails in a moment when it is becoming vogue to reduce the prison population is a cognitive dissonance that will likely result in creative ways to suggest Black and Brown people belong in them. America always finds a way to imagine confinement for people of color. Look at how kids are caged at the Mexican-American border.
We, especially those of us committed to implementing solutions that eradicate the need for jails and prisons, should not limit our expertise and our imaginations to soluble solutions that create more cages to be filled.
We can Harriet this moment.