At Yom Kippur services last week, with the vote on closing Rikers and building four borough-based jails looming, I spent some extra time with the haftarah reading. In Isaiah 58:5-6, God rejects the fasts of those who stop eating for the day but allow injustice to continue, saying: “Is not this the fast I desire: To free those who are wrongly-imprisoned; to set the oppressed free; to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:5-6).
As we vote in the City Council today, I’m still wrestling with those words. I don’t like voting to build jails. Of course I’d rather spend that money on housing, schools, and community centers. I know we are not breaking every yoke.
Still, I truly believe that voting for the plan today is our best chance to turn the extraordinary organizing work of the campaign to Close Rikers into tangible, official, City-sponsored, de-carceral policy. That it is the most likely path to incarcerating the fewest people, in the least inhumane conditions. And that voting no would leave far too great a risk that Rikers would stay open.
Sitting in shul, I thought about the imprisoned people that I visited over the past year, those locked in frigid cold cages at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park during the power outage there last winter, and those locked in brutally sweltering heat in cages at the City’s Brooklyn House of Detention during the heatwave this summer.
I grappled with what it means to be a citizen in a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. With what it means to be an elected official in a city where 85% of the people detained in our City’s jails have not been convicted, but instead are awaiting trial. People who are presumed innocent, about half charged with non-violent offenses, over 40% with mental health needs, and overwhelmingly and disproportionately African-American and Latino.
People like Kalief Browder, held pre-trial on the charge (which he contested to his dying day) of stealing a backpack, locked up at Rikers for three years, mostly in solitary confinement, who took his own life in 2015.
Just a few months after Kalief died, I was one of the first City Council Members to join the movement to Close Rikers, led by formerly incarcerated people organizing through Just Leadership USA. I joined them on the steps of City Hall, in a march to Rikers Island, in calling for the creation of the Lippman Commission to develop a plan, and in pressuring the Mayor to close Rikers and dramatically reduce the number of people we incarcerate.
We have made real progress towards reducing the number of people we deprive of their freedom every day: From a peak of over 21,000 people incarcerated daily in the 1990s; down to around 7,200 today; and the plan we are voting on today will cut the number of cells down to 3,300.
Still, the call from Isaiah is to “break every yoke,” not just a lot of them. That call is echoed by the prison abolitionists and activists of No New Jails, DRUM, and other organizations I admire and have long partnered with, who believe we should close Rikers without building the four new borough-based jails.
Because, and there’s no escaping it, voting to build new jails — even with this much smaller number of cells, in far less inhumane conditions — still means holding thousands of people in cages, disproportionately poor and people-of-color, while they await their fair day in court. It sustains a criminal punishment system that too often tightens the cords of the yoke when it could loosen them.
Here’s why — after many conversations with formerly incarcerated people, with advocates, and with community members — I believe that voting yes today is the right thing to do:
This plan, which has been significantly improved thanks to sustained organizing, represents by far the most likely way to close Rikers, to dramatically reduce the number of people we incarcerate pre-trial, and to do so in far less inhumane conditions.
If the Council were to reject the new jails, there is some chance that the vision of prison abolitionists would prevail and that we could close Rikers without building new facilities. It’s a powerful vision, humming with the prophetic energy of Isaiah.
But it seems to me far more likely that if the Council were to reject the plan, Rikers, the Barge (the floating jail in the Bronx), the Tombs, and the Brooklyn House of Detention would remain open indefinitely, with something like 17,500 cages, so many in abominable conditions.
That’s certainly not what prison abolitionists want. But given the challenges of overcoming the status quo even when we have a commitment, the lack of clear policy consensus that would result from a no vote, the division among New Yorkers (many of those voting no today and pushing against the new jails actually want to keep Rikers open and renovate it), and the very real likelihood of backlash (have you watched the videos of New Yorkers opposing homeless shelters?), I honestly think that’s what would be most likely to happen.
No, of course the plan is not perfect. I would have liked to see us get rid of solitary confinement units altogether, more significant community investments, and a firmer and earlier commitment to close the barge.
But we cannot miss this opportunity to cement the closure of Rikers and the brutality it represents. Just ask my friend and mentor Herb Sturz, former NYC deputy mayor for criminal justice, now 90 years old, who began working to close Rikers in the 1980s and has never stopped, and who is with us in the Council chambers today. Voting yes today is the most likely way to make dramatic reductions in incarceration, and the closure of Rikers, into the formal policy of New York City.
Is that, on its own, a guarantee? Of course not. Those of us who want a de-carceral future, and especially those of us who vote for this plan, will have a responsibility to keep organizing to make sure that New York City follows through. To make sure reforms are implemented so that we cut the number of those incarcerated in half (and eventually more). To invest in housing, education, mental health, and healing communities. To make sure Rikers Island is closed to incarceration for good, and put to far better use.
One thing I know for sure: I won’t stop hearing those voices: of the men I met at the Metropolitan Detention Center and the Brooklyn House of Detention. Of Kalief Browder. Of the advocates on all sides of this debate. Sometimes, even of Isaiah, calling us to account, to continue working to break every yoke.