We are outraged and disgusted by the result of Thursday’s City Council vote. With an opportunity to take a stand against the centuries-old and universally-failed strategy of fixing jails by building jails, the Council failed miserably. To the very last minute, politicians based their votes on duplicitous claims, outraged lies, and manufactured concern for formerly, currently, and futurly incarcerated people. Several pro-jail councilmembers dared to speak the names of people who have been killed by the Department of Corrections while voting to give the DOC 8–12 new jails. But this fight is not over. These jails are not built, and they will not be built. We are more committed than ever to closing Rikers immediately with no new jails. And, no doubt about it: we will win.
“The City Council voting to build multi-billion dollar new jails is a disgrace. Their lack of moral clarity, their ignorance of history, their inability to process data, research, and analysis on the innate harms of incarceration, and their inability to understand the cruelty of all cages is unforgivable,” says Sophia Gurulé, an immigration public defender and organizer with No New Jails.
Al Saint-Jean, of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and No New Jails, affirms the illegitimacy and fraudulence of the vote: “The politicians who voted yes to spend billions on New Jails in NYC will be haunted by that for the rest of their lives in public service. This was not a vote to guarantee the closure of Rikers.” This was a vote to build new jails.
Who we are, one year in
No New Jails NYC is a multiracial, intergenerational, abolitionist network and campaign that came into existence in September, 2018. Our first public intervention was in the environmental scoping hearings that make up the initial step of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The New York City government rushed through this mandatory process to authorize itself to build the tallest skyscraper jails in the world. We showed up at every step of this anti-democratic process: from the early stages last year; to the Community Boards which uniformly voted “No” in the first half of 2019; through the summer’s mixed recommendations by the Borough Presidents; and on to the unsurprisingly pro-jail decision of the unelected cronies at the City Planning Commission, which has mindlessly rubber stamped the city’s plans for decades.
Finally, in September we arrived at City Council, which holds ultimate power over this process. From the beginning, they have failed to live up to their responsibility to represent the interests of New Yorkers. The City Council instead merely went through the motions for “public input” at its one and only hearing, scheduled for the first day of school.
The 11th-hour amendments to manufacture a belated commitment to closing Rikers, and to spend a tiny fraction of the billions set aside for new jails on “community needs” (mostly routed through the criminal legal system in the form of “jails to jobs,” supervised released, and court-mandated “alternative to incarceration” programs), cannot cover the shame of voting yes on a plan to to lock up tens of thousands of Black and Brown New Yorkers for decades and generations to come.
Nabil Hassein, formerly of The Campaign to Shut Down Rikers and currently with No New Jails, says of this process: “It is disappointing but not surprising that this jail expansion land use proposal was passed by a fraudulent group of self-proclaimed ‘progressives,’ who have always supported police power and impunity, and who have now reiterated their commitment to a future of cages for Black and brown New Yorkers, in an anti-democratic vote filled with backroom deals, which still contains no guarantee to close Rikers.”
As our campaign has reiterated many times, land use processes alone cannot close Rikers. Throughout this process, notwithstanding the urgency of opposing Mayor de Blasio’s plan to rapidly cement a future of incarceration for New York City, we have created the space to engage in mutual aid and build abolitionist community. We have fundraised thousands of dollars for the commissary funds of our incarcerated comrades, corresponded with them and leaned on their wisdom to develop our abolitionist analysis, distributed our literature on the inside, and shown up for folks enduring freezing temperatures and other tortures at MDC — just one of the many modern jails in residential neighborhoods proving that there is no such thing as a humane cage. There has never been any reason to believe that this latest attempt to build “humane” jails will turn out differently than each other time it has failed.
“To say that I’m disappointed by this decision would be an understatement. Knowing that the de Blasio Administration booted Bryanne Hamill [a voice against solitary confinement on the civilian Board of Correction overseeing the DOC] just days before this proposal was introduced let’s me know how much of a coward we’re dealing with,” says Kevin Steele, a formerly-incarcerated organizer with IWOC, The Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, and No New Jails NYC. “The idea of making a ‘safer and friendlier’ jail is like saying there were some slave plantations that were safe: it’s an absurdity. We on the side of justice have to stay focused and prepare to go harder and apply pressure against this fascist and capitalist regime. All power to the people!”
Our work beyond land use
As our collective power grew, seeds of transformative visions blossomed beyond our wildest imaginings. Through generations of wisdom cultivated by movements for Black liberation, Indigenous sovereignty, immigrant justice, trans and queer self-determination, and prison abolition, we already knew that the state can never keep us safe. Only well-resourced communities connecting across the walls can do that. So we started to build safety and community for ourselves, while fighting even harder against jail construction. These two aspects of our work have become inseparable.
While the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars marketing cages and withholding the necessary closure of Rikers as a condition of jail expansion, we developed a comprehensive set of practical demands. We created a working and grounded vision for enacting decarceration, and crunched the numbers to show that even modest divestment from the NYPD can create massive potential for investment in innovative programs for transformative and restorative justice, which would operate outside and against the cyclical violence of racial capitalism. Our plan, Close Rikers Now, We Keep Us Safe, calls on every one of us to mobilize our neighbors in the fight for decarceration, toward the horizon of abolition.
Our mutual aid work has been grounded in our relationship-building with leaders who are currently incarcerated. Since December 2018, we have exchanged hundreds of letters with more than 70 incarcerated supporters voicing their opposition to the carceral status quo while experiencing the brutal conditions of confinement. They inspire us by leading this fight despite active repression, total surveillance, and censorship.
In addition to having bailed out 3 (trans and cis) women and worked to support them in the unbelievably treacherous journey of coming home after incarceration, our communities have responded again and again to support us in moving funds — $15,000 and counting — to incarcerated people’s commissaries. We have released two issues of the No New Jails NYC Zine, uplifting the voices of inside and outside abolitionists dreaming of a New York City without jails and expanding our capacity to respond to each other when we cause harm. Together we are building resilient, community-centered structures for accountability beyond cages.
Our movement will continue to practice everyday abolition. Join us.
Our friends in this struggle
We are forever grateful to our comrades who have helped us throughout the campaign so far. Though this list will never be complete — and we must continue to uplift all our comrades old and new, who we have met on our neighborhood streets and parks, in community events and teach ins, during outreach in NYCHA buildings and outside all the city jails, who instantly understood our vision and believed in our demands — we want to thank our campaign partners: Black Alliance for Just Immigration ,Desis Rising Up and Moving, The Audre Lorde Project, Sylvia Rivera Law Project ,Black and Pink NYC ,New Sanctuary Coalition, Decolonize This Place, Queer Detainee Empowerment Project , Party for Socialism and Liberation NY, National Lawyers Guild — NYC, Take Back The Bronx , ANSWER Coalition, NYC DSA, Media Justice ,Survived & Punished NY, Jahajee Sisters, BYP100 New York Chapter, Graduate Workers of Columbia-UAW, Organizing Committee, GSOC-UAW 2110, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Freedom To Thrive, Equality for Flatbush, Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, Red Bloom Collective, Critical Resistance, Harlem Solidarity Defense Crew , CODE PINK NYC, The Marsha P. Johnson Institute ,PROP — Police Reform Organizing Project, Release Aging People in Prison, NY Books Through Bars ,Parole Preparation Project,DecrimNY, NAWS (Neighbors Against White Supremacy) Central Queens,Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement ,EarthStrike NYC,War Resisters League, Public Bank NYC, Safety Beyond Policing, Dreaming Freedom Practicing Abolition.
In addition to our partners and groups who have endorsed our campaign, we are deeply appreciative of our organizers and comrades in New York, and across the so-called U.S., who have amplified and built on our work. We cannot overstate our gratitude and love for our incarcerated comrades who provided the vision, wisdom, and analysis we needed to remain focused on our commitment to abolition.
We appreciate the members of the legal community, public health community, healthcare workers, urban planners, social workers, and educators who publicly supported our campaign and informed our strategy, along with the Ford Fellows who publicly stood with our campaign, risking retaliation and loss of funding.
The work continues
We’ve always known that our work to shut down Rikers — immediately and permanently, without building any new jails — would go beyond the city’s land use process. We knew when we began this fight that we were not contending with a democratic process. We knew that our demands to close Rikers Island without building more jails would only be met through people power and mass mobilization.
The city council’s vote to build new jails will not be recognized by the stolen land this settler-colonizer government occupies. Despite politicians’ undeserved self-congratulations on closing the jail through a process that does no such thing, the sun will rise on a New York City with Rikers Island still open, and with no clear guarantee for its closure.
“Yesterday was bittersweet,” says Synthia, an intern at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and organizer with No New Jails who spent thirty years incarcerated, “Although Rikers Island may close, new mini Rikers jails are slated to be built. However, the fight has just begun. You build them and we will protest in front of them. We will not go gently into the night. We will continue our fight.”
In addition to forcing the city to close Rikers (and well before 2026), we will make sure that these new jails are never built. We refuse to recognize the pre-packaged, sold-out, ready-made outcome of this violent, anti-democratic and dehumanizing process, as we have from the beginning. It has no legitimacy and this plan has never been about the people.
Jarrod Shanahan, a professor and historian of Rikers who was incarcerated on Rikers in 2016, calls out the so-called experts who are evidently ignorant (willfully or otherwise) of the past centuries of jail reform: “Once again, credentialed experts in urban planning, architecture, social science — and now, ‘social justice’ — have debased themselves and abused the public’s trust by throwing their weight behind new carceral facilities that will soon resemble the old ones. That is, if the city even bothers to close the old ones down.”
Despite this illegitimate and anti-democractic decision, this fight is far from done. The era of jail building is over. And we believe the closure of all jails is nigh. No new jails means no old jails. It means no new investment in cages, and divestment in the existing infrastructure that perpetuates violence. We call for a moratorium on cage construction in New York City — including jails, prisons, and detention centers. We declare a moratorium on all cage construction. The cycle of carceral reforms has us out here, every decade, having the same fight against the same jail plans. Together, we’re going to end the practices of policing and caging permanently, in our city and beyond. A handful of uninformed, careerist politicians with nothing on the line and no sense of responsibility to our communities cannot stop our movement.
Close Rikers Now. No New Jails.
See you in the streets, in community, in the struggle ~ and, one day soon, in a jail-free NYC.