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Rikers to Close, LA Jails Stopped

A growing trend: Big cities shutter jails and move to decarcerate

Although the number of people in jail and prison in the United States remains stubbornly entrenched at around 2.2 million, an important trend emerged in 2019—big cities fought back against jail expansion and actively voted to shutter jails and decarcerate.For incarceration numbers, see Jacob Kang-Brown, Oliver Hinds, Eital Schattner-Elmaleh, and James Wallace-Lee, People in Jail in 2019 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice 2019), 1, https://perma.cc/S5L9-PQZZ; and Jacob Kang-Brown, Eital Schattner-Elmaleh, and Oliver Hinds, People in Prison in 2018 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice 2019), 1, https://perma.cc/4XK2-TE7E.

The New York City Council voted in October to close Rikers Island, the city’s decaying complex of 10 jails—a place synonymous with violence, isolation, and despair.Matthew Haag, “N.Y.C. Votes to Close Rikers. Now Comes the Hard Part,” New York Times, October 17, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/1....Los Angeles County voted down not one, but two, contracts for new jails—first canceling plans for a new women’s jail in February and then rejecting a nearly $2 billion contract in August to build a mental health facility for incarcerated people that opponents said was just a new jail in disguise.Jill Cowan, “Why Los Angeles Officials Voted to Cancel an Almost $2 Billion Contract,” New York Times, August 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/0....And Atlanta voted in May to close one of its city jails and create a task force to reimagine another purpose for the building before considering demolition.Raisa Habersham, “Atlanta City Jail to Close, Task Force Will Decide Its Future,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 21, 2019, https://www.ajc.com/news/local....Across the country, other fights against new jail construction and against jail expansion were waged—in cities as diverse as New Orleans, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Washington, DC.

Grassroots organizing and advocacy led by formerly incarcerated people created the conditions that made it possible for policymakers and elected officials to vote for decarceration. What would have been unthinkable a few years ago—to resist jail expansion or new jail construction—suddenly became politically feasible, garnering widespread support.

In New York City, just a few years ago the idea of closing Rikers Island was, in the words of Mayor Bill de Blasio, “noble but unrealistic.”J. David Goodman, “De Blasio Says Idea of Closing Rikers Jail Complex Is Unrealistic,” New York Times, February 16, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/0....But in October, after years of advocacy by the #CLOSErikers campaign and other advocates, the New York City Council voted to approve the construction of four new borough-based jails to replace the decaying facilities that currently exist in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens—including closing and decommissioning the notorious Rikers Island complex by 2026 so that jails can no longer operate on the island after that date.See New York City Council, “Rikers to Close,” press release (New York: New York City Council, October 17, 2019), https://perma.cc/KU4Y-3FPP.The plan is forecast to reduce the number of operating jails in the city from 11 to four and cut the city’s jail capacity by 76 percent—from nearly 14,000 beds today to a projected 3,300 in seven years.City of New York, “A Roadmap to Closing Rikers,” 2019, https://perma.cc/BM9Y-RM5X. See also Matthew Haag, “N.Y.C. Is Voting to Close Rikers. Now Comes the Hard Part,” New York Times, October 17, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/1...; and Insha Rahman, “Closing Rikers Island,” Vera Institute of Justice, October 8, 2019, https://perma.cc/EZ77-TBSN. This decrease in capacity is in part possible due to bail reforms passed in April by the New York State Legislature that will eliminate the use of bail and pretrial detention for almost 90 percent of all arrests, require judges to impose the least restrictive nonmonetary conditions of release and, for the limited number of cases in which bail may still be set, require judges to consider ability to pay and to set more affordable forms of bail. Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, “SFY 19-20 Budget Includes Critical Criminal Justice Reform Legislation and Funding,” press release (Albany, NY: New York State Assembly, April 1, 2019), https://perma.cc/Z8QA-X4L7; State of New York Division of the Budget, “Governor Andrew Cuomo Announces Highlights of the FY 2020 State Budget,” press release (Albany, New York: State of New York Division of the Budget, April 1, 2019), https://perma.cc/SS86-H85V; and Insha Rahman, New York, New York: Highlights of the 2019 Bail Reform Law (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2019), https://perma.cc/EP9U-KTG2. For the budget, see New York State Division of the Budget, “FY 2020 Executive Budget,” 2019, https://perma.cc/VC6U-AWNGh. This new law is expected to result in a 25 percent decrease in New York City’s jail population, which currently hovers around 7,100 people on any given day. For the current jail population, see New York City Department of Correction (NYDOC), The Jail Population in NYC: 3,300 by 2026 (Albany, New York: NYDOC, 2019), 1, https://perma.cc/M2PH-5JCZ. Vera conducted an unpublished analysis of county-level jail data to estimate the potential impact of the new law on local jail populations. See also Center for Court Innovation (CCI), Bail Reform in New York: Legislative Provisions and Implications for New York City (New York: CCI, 2019), https://perma.cc/3MG6-PQ2G.New York City already has a jail incarceration rate lower than any big city in the country, at 119 per 100,000 people, compared to 235 per 100,000 in Los Angeles and 453 in Philadelphia.New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (NYC MOCJ), Smaller, Safer, Fairer (New York: NYC MOCJ, 2019), https://perma.cc/N626-T7N3.There are currently 7,000 people in jail in New York City on an average day, compared to a high of 22,000 in the early 1990s.Ibid.By the time the city’s jail population declines to no more than 3,300 people incarcerated on any given day, its jail incarceration rate will be 56 per 100,000 people.Ibid.The last time New York City had a jail population that low was in the 1920s, a century ago.Matthew Haag, “Rikers Would Close in Historic Plan to Remake N.Y. Jail System,” New York Times, October 16, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/1....

The city’s plan for closing Rikers Island was not without dissent, however. A jail abolitionist group, No New Jails NYC, formed in 2018 to oppose the expenditure of over $8 billion in new jail construction—the estimated cost of constructing the four new borough-based jails.Mark Chiusano, “No New Jails and the Bid to Close Rikers,” amNewYork, September 17, 2019, https://perma.cc/K7TD-E3D3.No New Jails’s position was that the jails on Rikers Island should be closed and no new jails in the boroughs should be built.No New Jails NYC, “How We Will Close Rikers with No New Jails,” https://perma.cc/3WJJ-4JH6.Instead, the group argued, the billions of dollars spent on new jail construction should be redirected to community-based resources and services.No New Jails NYC, “How We Got Here,” https://perma.cc/A74E-FRVH.The No New Jails position garnered significant support from several mainstream organizations—and even one of the city’s most influential politicians, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.Jessica McBride, “‘Prison Abolition’: AOC Says Humans Don’t Belong in Cages,” Heavy.com, October 7, 2019, https://perma.cc/BZ22-NW9P; and Jeff Coltin, “No New Jails Now Has AOC On Board, But Opponents See a Fatal Flaw,” City & State New York, October 4, 2019, https://perma.cc/44WK-FR5S.Ultimately, the city council voted for construction of four jails to replace the existing borough-based jails—called the Tombs, the Boat, Queens Detention Complex, and the Brooklyn House of Detention—where conditions are squalid and which have troubled histories of their own.New York City Council, “Rikers to Close,” press release (New York: New York City Council, October 17, 2019), https://perma.cc/KU4Y-3FPP. For conditions in the other facilities, see for example Ray Sanchez and Madeleine Thompson, “A Federal Judge Toured a Troubled New York Jail. What She Found Is Disturbing,” CNN, February 8, 2019, https://perma.cc/3SVC-DGNH. Also see Rahman, “Closing Rikers Island,” 2019.Yet the advocacy of No New Jails, along with other groups, led to many important provisions for decarceration in the final package that was approved as part of the city council vote: a reduction in the number of jail beds planned from 5,000 to 3,300; $391 million allocated in this year’s city budget for alternatives to incarceration and community-based services; a land change provision to prevent the city from using Rikers Island as a jail after 2026; and a commitment to investing in design and culture change to prevent the violence and indignity of Rikers Island from being recreated in the borough-based facilities.See gabriel sayegh, “Making Sense of the Fight Over NYC Jails,” Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, October 10, 2019, https://perma.cc/7YW6-NZEM; Haag, “Rikers Would Close,” 2019; and P.R. Lockhart, “Why a Vote to Close New York’s Rikers Island Is Being Met with Backlash,” Vox, October 18, 2019, https://perma.cc/N5Q4-RENA.

In California, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had already approved at least $2 billion in its 2018 budget for the construction of a new men’s jail in downtown Los Angeles and a women’s jail in Lancaster, about an hour drive outside of the city.Nina Agrawal, “Black Lives Matter, Other Activists Protest to Stop Jail Expansion,” Los Angeles Times, September 26, 2017, https://www.latimes.com/local/....Advocates in Los Angeles formed the JusticeLA Coalition to fight back against the foregone conclusion that billions should be spent in new jail construction in a county that incarcerates 17,000 people on any given day.JusticeLA, “About JusticeLA,” https://perma.cc/S7C2-MQVF.(In comparison, New York City’s average daily jail population hovers at 7,000 and Chicago’s (Cook County) at approximately 6,000.For New York City, see NYC MOCJ, Smaller, Safer, Fairer, 2019. For Chicago’s jail population, see for example Cook County Sheriff’s Office, Daily Report 8/12/2019 (Chicago: Cook County Sheriff’s Office, 2019), https://perma.cc/Z3HU-F582.)

JusticeLA’s campaign promoted community-based solutions instead of jail to address the mental health and treatment needs of people arrested and incarcerated in Los Angeles. It launched a massive campaign against new jail construction, which included teach-ins, public forums, and persistent meetings with county officials.Francisco Aviles Pino, “Los Angeles County Votes to Stop Construction of New Jail-Like Facility, Adding Momentum to National Abolition Movement,” The Intercept, August 22, 2019, https://perma.cc/92HP-UNW7.In February, the board canceled plans to move forward with building the new women’s jail in Lancaster and converted the plan for a new men’s jail into a 4,000-bed “mental health focused jail.”Martin Macias, Jr., “LA County Cancels Mental Health Jail Project in Favor of “Care First” Approach,” Courthouse News Service, August 13, 2019, https://perma.cc/XWX6-GRPZ.Facing continued pressure and opposition to a “mental health jail” from the coalition—as well as #BlackLivesMatter and Reform L.A. Jails—the board scrapped the plan entirely in August and canceled the $1.7 billion construction project in order to pursue community treatment, diversion, and local reinvestment options.Vaidya Gullapalli, “A Huge Victory in L.A. Represents a Shift in Thinking About Public Safety,” The Appeal, August 14, 2019, https://perma.cc/KCK5-BK2H; and Macias, “‘Care First’ Approach,” 2019. For the first alterations to the plan for the new jail, see Maya Lau, “In Landmark Move, L.A. County Will Replace Men’s Central Jail with Mental Health Hospital for Inmates,” Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-jail-construction- 20190212-story.html. In February, the county also established an Alternatives to Incarceration Workgroup intended to focus on creating a robust system of care that provides services first and treats jail as a last resort. Motion by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas, “Developing the Los Angeles County Roadmap for Expanding Alternatives to Custody and Diversion,” Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, February 12, 2019, https://perma.cc/ AC8X-K42Z. Also see Matt Stiles, “’No More Jails,’ Just Mental Health Centers. Is That a Realistic Policy for L.A. County?,” Los Angeles Times, August 26, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/califo...; Elizabeth Marcellino, “LA County Supervisors Scrap $1.7 Billion Contract to Replace Jail: ‘It’s Time to Do the Right Thing,’” Los Angeles Daily News, August 13, 2019, https://www.dailynews.com/2019...; and Sheila Kuehl, Los Angeles County Supervisor, District 3, “LA County Approves Unprecedented Funding for Jail Diversion and Treatment Beds,” press release (Los Angeles: Office of Sheila Kuehl, October 3, 2019), https://perma.cc/YC6M-RDPU.

The momentum for decarceration wasn’t limited to the coasts. Advocates in Atlanta secured a tremendous win in May when the Atlanta City Council voted to close the Atlanta City Detention Center and create a task force to come up with ideas for how to repurpose the building to address the needs of the community.Habersham, “Atlanta City Jail to Close,” 2019.Although the task force’s recommendations aren’t due until February 2020, early ideas have included a health and wellness center, a job training center, or a mental health facility.Raisa Habersham, “Atlanta City Jail Task Force Has 9 Months to Give Bottoms Suggestions,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 16, 2019, https://www.ajc.com/news/local....Key to making the change happen? The groups Women on the Rise and the Racial Justice Action Center, which launched a “Close the Jail ATL” campaign calling for the money spent on the detention center—about $33 million annually—to be reallocated to community programs and services that could help address the root causes of incarceration.Close the Jail ATL, “What We Want,” https://perma.cc/2CLZ-AG38; Habersham, “Atlanta City Jail to Close,” 2019; and Emil Moffatt, “Planning Continues on Overhaul of Atlanta City Detention Center,” WABE, September 11, 2019, https://perma.cc/AAN5-9QPE.

The victories to shutter jails and decarcerate didn’t extend to more rural parts of the country, though. Sobering data released in December showed that while jail populations in urban areas declined in the past five years by 18 percent (36,200 fewer people in jail), they dramatically increased in rural counties by 27 percent (39,000 more people in jail) as a result of new jail construction and expansion.Kang-Brown, Hinds, Schattner-Elmaleh, and Wallace-Lee, People in Jail in 2019, 2019.The momentum for decarceration—against new jail construction and expansion—certainly has champions in rural counties, but their stories haven’t made headline news in the way that the closing of Rikers Island and the canceling of two new jails in Los Angeles did this year.One such example is Cortland County, New York, which postponed a decision to build a new jail after growing opposition from local legislators and advocates. Shenandoah Briere, “Justice, Finances Top Stories,” Cortland Standard, December 24, 2019, https://perma.cc/9NHE-EZ3J.