Over 360 Health Care Providers and Public Health Professionals Demand City Council Reject Plan to Build New Jails

Oct 7 · 5 min read

Open letter from leading clinicians, academics, and community public health advocates says jails are harmful to human health and do not have a place in New York and its public hospitals.

No New Jails NYC today announced that over 360 health care providers, public health professionals, researchers, and community health advocates are calling on the City Council to close Rikers and reject jail expansion in New York and its hospitals. The Mayor’s $11 billion jail expansion plan includes the construction of three to six hospital-based jail units, which it refers to as “Outpatient Therapeutic Housing Units.” The hospital jails, managed by Department of Correction guards, would be locked units within or adjacent to the City’s acute care public hospital.

From decades of experience caring and advocating for patients with complex medical and mental health needs, many of whom have been incarcerated, these leading experts find that the Mayor’s new jails will only deepen the public health crises of criminalization and incarceration. Jails, they write, “isolate people from their families and communities, deprive people of control and agency over their bodies, subject people to physical and psychological violence and other jail-specific health risks, and cause long-lasting trauma.” The letter cites ten of the dozens of people who have been killed in City jails in recent years, including Judy Jean, Jason Echeverria, Bradley Ballard, Carlos Mercado, Ronald Spear, Layleen Polanco, Jerome Murdoch, Jairo Polanco Munoz, Jose Rivera, and Rolando Perez.

via Truthout (Daniel Arauz / flickr)

Instead of building the infrastructure of incarceration for generations to come, No New Jails NYC demands investment in the community-based, trauma-informed, low-threshold clinical, therapeutic, harm reduction, and housing programs that allow all their patients and community members to thrive and live with dignity.

Kamini Doobay, MD, MS, Emergency Medicine Resident Physician, NYU/Bellevue (not speaking on behalf of NYU/Bellevue) and Founder, NYC Coalition to Dismantle Racism in the Health System said: “As public health officials, we work to prevent disease and promote the complete physical, mental and social well-being of people and communities where they live, work, learn and play. Jails are harmful to human health, and jails do not have a place in our hospitals. The criminalization of mental illness is a public health crisis, and there is nothing about jails that have been or will ever be therapeutic.”

Signers of the letter include well respected scholars in public health and social justice, including Nancy Krieger, Leo Betelsky, Stephanie Woolhandler, and David Himmelstein. These health and mental health experts join their colleagues across disciplines in calling for no new jails, including countless organizers and engaged New Yorkers inside and outside of jails and prisons, over 300 lawyers and legal workers, and 200 urban planning and policy experts.

Seth J. Prins, PhD MPH, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Sociomedical Sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health (not speaking on behalf of Columbia University), said: “Rikers Island is a site of atrocities against the health, well-being, and humanity of the individuals incarcerated there, as well as their families and communities. It should be closed immediately. Building any new jails in the name of improving health or access to care is a perversion of the mission and values of the public health community. Why would the city invest in new places to cage people, when it could invest directly in the social infrastructure and community services that enable New Yorkers to live healthy, stable, and secure lives?”

“A large and growing body of public health research shows that jail is a health hazard both for the people who experience incarceration and for their communities. Additionally, there are existing, effective public health approaches that can address drug use, homelessness, and violence without relying on prison or jail,” said Justin Feldman, Assistant Professor at NYU School of Medicine (not speaking on behalf of NYU)

“As a primary care doctor, I frequently witness how incarceration has directly harmed the health of my patients and their loved ones. At the same time I’ve too often seen how jails have inappropriately been used to address poverty, homelessness, substance use, and mental health needs while real solutions are neglected. Morally and medically, I believe this must stop, and so I hope the medical community will ally with community activists and vocally demand an end to incarceration, oppose new jail construction, and champion the real solutions that justice and public health require,” said Andrew Goldstein, a medical doctor in the New York City who also holds a Masters in Public Health.

No New Jails NYC formed in September 2018, shortly after the Mayor launched the formal land-use approval process for the jail expansion plan. A direct continuation of the grassroots efforts to close Rikers immediately, No New Jails NYC also draws on the success of previous of jail construction fights in NYC. Overwhelmingly, New Yorkers agree that all efforts should be dedicated now to closing all jails on Rikers Island, that there is no need to build any more jails, and that the billions of dollars budgeted for new jails should be redirected instead to community-based resources that will support permanent decarceration. In September 2019, No New Jails released a comprehensive plan to building community care and safety by closing Rikers with no new jails.

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