Is Rikers Island Really Closing? Or is De Blasio Misrepresenting the NYC Council Vote?
Eddie Conway spoke with organizer Albert Saint-Jean from Just Immigration about the impact of the NYC Council borough-based jail vote, about nonprofits that are funding more incarceration, and the misreporting of Rikers Jail closing.
EDDIE CONWAY: Thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars. On October 17, the New York City Council voted for four new jails to be built.
NO NEW JAILS: No new jails! No new jails! You’re on the wrong side of history. No new jails! Stop the plantation expansion. No new jails!
EDDIE CONWAY: After that vote on October the 17 on the jails, Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference praising the New York City Council.
BILL DE BLASIO: Everybody: today we made history. The era of mass incarceration is over. It’s over.
EDDIE CONWAY: We are talking with an organizer for Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Albert Saint Jean. Albert, thank you for joining me.
ALBERT SAINT JEAN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, Albert. What do you make of this statement, and why is it so problematic?
ALBERT SAINT JEAN: The statement to me reminds me of when George Bush stood on that battleship and said “mission accomplished” at the beginning of what we came to know as the Iraq war. That’s pretty much what Bill de Blasio did here. It’s problematic because what the city council voted on was a plan to build four new jails. This still is no guarantee, no legal binding guarantee to close Rikers out.
EDDIE CONWAY: According to the New York state law, the New York City Council doesn’t have the authorization to close Rikers. That falls in the hands of the state government. Can you talk more about what that vote last week was really about?
ALBERT SAINT JEAN: So basically, what the resolution to close Rikers Island… Which is what it was. It was just a resolution. It wasn’t anything binding with teeth. It has to go through a long process, which I believe that at the end of the day, the state has to be the one to say that Rikers Island closes or not. So basically, what they voted on was to approve the construction of the four new jails and the resolution to close Rikers Island does not have any teeth. Counselor Stephen Levin himself said that they could… In order to enforce it, they would have to litigate, which is a very long process in of itself. And once again, just no guarantee that Rikers Island will close.
EDDIE CONWAY: I understand that most of the major newspapers in New York have been reporting that Rikers is going to close at a certain time and all this right now is misinformation. Why is that going on?
ALBERT SAINT JEAN: The media in New York City tends to favor the establishment. They rarely really ever challenge the political establishment in New York City. So even when they were talking about this before there was a supposed promise or legal guarantee to close Rikers Island, they had always framed this plan as a plan to close Rikers Island when it was only a plan for four new jails. And it still is. They are not reporting that this is a resolution. They’ve even been in rooms where the majority of the people in the rooms were chanting, “Close Rikers now, no new jails,” and they would completely gloss over the presence of the people who were dominating those community meetings. So the media in New York has always been complicit in making sure that this plan goes through, that it’s something that’s digestible to the public.
EDDIE CONWAY: It seems that during the vote, hundreds of nonprofit organizations were involved in supporting this effort. What is the impact of seemingly progressive organization supporting new prisons rather than alternative to incarceration? Can you talk about some of the main nonprofits like Vera Institute that are benefiting from having new jails, and how will they benefit?
ALBERT SAINT JEAN: The way that they’re benefiting is originally in exchange for this yes vote in city council, originally there was a pot of $100 million that we’re going to go to these nonprofits from folks like the Ford foundation, AECOM and L3 Technologies. So AECOM was contracted to build this jail and they were also the same ones who were contracted to build the new cop Academy in Chicago that people were fighting against. And also the bit about L3 Technologies, them and Ford foundation are providing a pool of money for nonprofits to push this jail plan. L3 Technologies also funds these really military specifically for their ground assaults in Gaza and in Lebanon as well as also security technology on the U.S.-Mexico border.
So this is basically Trump’s infrastructure being done locally, so there is no… While these local politicians talk about the disdain for Trump, they’re aiding and abetting in his legacy. Because when you expand the police state in a city like New York, we have so many black and brown folks who are undocumented. That police contact is the main driver for deportation. Is particularly 80% or more of Caribbean folks are deported because of police contact. So we just want to make it clear that this is an extension of the Trump agenda. These are the profiteers. They were offering a pool of money, which was initially $100 million and according to a city council member who I heard testify on the floor. Now that pie has went up to $390 million to folks such as JustLeadership.
The reason why it’s problematic is because a lot of these nonprofits tend to hire people who are directly impacted, who been formally incarcerated, but they use them in their narratives in order to justify the construction of these new jails. It gives people the impression that, hey well if these folks that actually went through it are for this plan, then it must be a good thing when in fact it’s not because it’s not a plan that addresses mass incarceration at its heart, at its root. It’s really talking about conditions in jails. It’s not really addressing the conditions in the communities that we come from that often land people in the jail such as policing, the divestment of communities, rampant gentrification and so forth.
EDDIE CONWAY: So there was some pushback, obviously, on the ground around the support of these jail things over the weekend. No New Jails and the Chinese Art Brigade held protests outside of several major profiteers of the new jail plan.
SPEAKER: We are here today because AECOM has a contract worth $100 million to design and build four new jails that will lock up black and brown communities. Our fucking communities.
SPEAKER 2: We are organizers, we are artists, and we are here to say that MoMA is complicit in genocide; is complicit in war crimes; is complicit is mass incarceration.
SPEAKER 3: …Asian American identity and history, but MOCA has betrayed our values of centering the community and have dishonored histories of resistance here. We want to express solidarity with all of you today and all those will be displaced and incarcerated by these actions. MOCA’s despicable collusion opposes the ideas of resistance to white supremacy and the carceral state. We believe deeply in the idea of art making as regeneration; and supporting the building of a prison is the opposite of resistance over generations.
EDDIE CONWAY: So, Albert, and I know you talked about how they were using former incarcerated people to present their strategy, but how are these major art institutions involved in the jail plan? Who pulled them together and exactly what kind of damage are they doing?
ALBERT SAINT JEAN: Well, there’s a long history of local art institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum and MoMA often getting funding from places like AECOM and other people who are involved with the Real Estate Board of New York and the prison industry, the prison industrial complex, namely private prisons. So yeah, they have a long history of that and it’s very evident that especially with the relationship to the Real Estate Board of New York and other institutions take out to gentrified communities, that they are in league with the same people that are pushing for this jail plan ended up also investing in private prisons and further gentrifying our committee.
EDDIE CONWAY: You know, some of the protestors mentioned that this plan is genocide. How can people think of this plan as genocide?
ALBERT SAINT JEAN: One of the main targets was AECOM, which I mentioned just now on the Real Estate Board of New York. AECOM also through an organization called the Taxpayers for an Affordable New York fund, means people that are sitting on city council right now that voted yes, and so through policy through these types of means, they further gentrification displacement of people and now they’re pushing for the construction of new jails. So basically displacing us or locking us up, basically purging us out of the city and limiting our presence, our mobility within New York City, investing in the expansion of the police state, all these things just spell the beginnings, the early steps of genocide.
EDDIE CONWAY: So Kalief Browder… And before you answer this, explain who that is. His brother came out in opposition to the New York jails, to the new jails. How were the members of the city council using Kalief Browder’s legacy to get this vote passed?
ALBERT SAINT JEAN: Well for those that don’t know, Kalief Browder… When he was 16, he was detained because he was falsely accused of stealing a purse. Now the theft of the purse, of the stealing of the purse, was considered to be a violent felony. Kalief probably then spent almost three years on Rikers Island fighting for his freedom because he was detained pretrial. He was released, he advocated, and he eventually took his own life because of the trauma that he faced while incarcerated. So the city council members, they were evoking his name in some of the most disingenuous ways. Before explaining their yes vote, many of them evoked his name by saying, “I thought of Kalief Browder, and basically I would have liked for him to be in better conditions,” not “basically maybe Kalief should’ve been at home being able to fight his case from home instead of being in jail in the first place.”
SPEAKER 4: I think it’s really important that we remember those who died. So let me start with Kalief Browder, the child who was tortured to the point of suicide. Kalief Browder died in our name, but I believe that his death was not in vain. I will not stop hearing the voices of those folks I met at MDC or the Brooklyn House of Detention or of Kalief Browder. Today, I’m reminded of a 19 year old young black man who couldn’t make bail, who languished on Riker’s Island for three years over accusations of stealing a book bag. And while Kalief Browder isn’t here to witness this vote, I want his mother to know that his death was not in vain.
ALBERT SAINT JEAN: So they didn’t have an issue with Kalief Browder being detained for pretrial. They just wanted him to be in a better place while being detained for pretrial.
EDDIE CONWAY: And what can the public do to support this effort in New York to stop the building of these new jail, which you said previously are only now 30 and 40 stories high. That’s huge. But explain what the public can do and what should be happening.
ALBERT SAINT JEAN: The public can call on governor Cuomo in the state legislature to actually start pushing forward legislation that already is going through the state legislation right now to close Rikers out. At one point the governor had the ability to close a jail or prison in New York state with a year’s notice. Now he can do it with 90 days notice, which is what he did with two jails, two prisons in this state this year. And it only makes sense that if they are going to close jails in upstate New York that they should close the jail, which is the source of all those upstate prisons. I would say the public should call on the governor to close this jail, the state legislature to close this jail. And also, I would say that the public research, all the names of the council members who voted yes on this plan. Find out who’s funding their campaigns cause there’s going to be elections in 2020 in 2021 and we got to start the process of cleaning these people out.
Because if you look at their history–if you look at who’s funding them, their voting records–they have had a history of voting for more policing for our communities. And they have had a history of furthering the displacement of black and brown people in New York City. One example would be Farah Louis. She’s running for office November 5 in the 45th district in East Flatbush. Her donors were the PBA, other police benevolent association who said that NYP should stand shoulder to shoulder with ICE, and the Department of Corrections Union were her funders, some of her funders, not to mention the many real estate interests. So trying to figure out why she voted yes for a new jails plan is not very hard. So if you live in the 45th district in Brooklyn on November 5th do not vote for Farah Louis. If you have a problem with new jails being built in New York City.
EDDIE CONWAY: Albert, would you share with me what’s the steps to getting Rikers Island closed?
ALBERT SAINT JEAN: The steps to getting Rikers Island closed with no new jails is number one, letting the state level reforms go through, which would free up 3000 or more people by ending cash bail. And then secondly allowing people who aren’t remanded to be able to fight their remands. So about 40% of the people on Rikers Island get remanded. These decisions are done within two to five minutes most of the time by judges. But if we allow people to fight that remands, we find the majority of people could get off on ROR, which is released on own recognizance. Also by ending broken windows policing, by addressing the parity, that’s the difference between what the DA’s office gets for prosecutors and what defense attorneys get.
There’s basically $100 million gap there.
And what we’re seeing is that if you give at least $50 million of that or just make that equal that and give the defense attorneys the resources that they need, we start to see less and less people ending up in jail. And then through attrition we can close Rikers Island a lot quicker than 2026. Cause already with the local reforms that were passed, you saw the population of Rikers went down a lot further than expected. They didn’t think they would reach 7,000 so fast. They thought it would take three years to get down to 7,000 from 8,000 last year. And they reached that in six months. So imagine just wait, letting the reforms go through, allowing people to fight their remands, making property investments in community to reduce recidivism. There’s no justification for building four new jails at the cost of 10 plus billion dollars.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. So we will revisit this again. So thank you for joining me Albert.
ALBERT SAINT JEAN: Thank you.
EDDIE CONWAY: And thank you for joining me for this segment of Rattling the Bars.