With Eddie Conway

With Rikers Island Jail to Close, Activists Fight Against Four New Jails

Eddie Conway speaks to Brittany Williams and Ngozi Alston from No New Jails NYC about the four new jails planned for construction in New York in 2020, which have $11 billion earmarked for their construction and will be the tallest jails in the world. They say these will continue the legacy of mass incarceration.

Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY: In 2017, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would close the Rikers Island Jail complex within 10 years. It’s common knowledge that Rikers is riddled with inhumane conditions, rampant abuse, and that 80% of the population there are just there awaiting trials, and some of them for many years. And the majority of the people in the prison itself are people of color.

So he’s closing it and that sounds good, but there’s a catch. And the catch is the plan to replace the jail comes with a new plan to institute new prisons in every borough in New York except Staten Island. Prison abolition activists have mobilized in protest of the Ford Foundation and other financial backers and supporters against creating new prisons to replace Rikers Island. They have gathered a budget of over $10 billion for these new jails. Activists say this will continue the legacy of mass incarceration.

We welcome Brittany.

BRITTANY WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

EDDIE CONWAY: And we welcome Ngozi.

NGOZI ALSTON: Thank you for having me.

EDDIE CONWAY: To the Real News. And they are going to explain to us what’s going on around the closing of Rikers and the building of new prisons. Brittany, can you give us a background? How did this actually come about?

BRITTANY WILLIAMS: Yes. S I would say thank you again for having us here. The call for closure of Rikers Island has spanned over 30 years. In 2016, Glen Martin, who is an advocate, called for the closure of Rikers Island immediately. I also worked on the closing of Rikers Island with him. And I would say the call did not come from Mayor Bill de Blasio, it came from community members directly impacted and allies across New York City that originally said Rikers Island needed to close.

And so in 2019–we’re here–Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “Hey, I’m going to close Rikers Island and I’m going to build four new jails in replacement.” But the catch is there is no legal binding agreement to close Rikers Island, but there is a legal binding agreement through this process that’s happening to build four new jails. So they’re asking community members to take risk that will lead us in having the same amount of cages in New York City when the war on drugs is at its highest.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Ngozi, can you kind of give us exactly where we are today with this whole struggle?

NGOZI ALSTON: Currently it’s September 30. There is a City Council public meeting on the second, and we are currently trying to just push City Council members to have more public meetings so that they can hear feedback from community members. There was only one public meeting, on September 5, to discuss the jail plan after community board hearings.

It’s just something that City Council members aren’t exactly being transparent about. The fact that it’s going to cost $11 billion. The fact that community members in all of these boroughs have been asking for improvements to public transportation, for childcare, for decades. And there’s always an excuse of, “We don’t have that money. But here, we have $11 billion for these jails and it’s good for your community. This is what you wanted, right?” And so there is a call to action with activists, organizers, community members, to say, “Is this really what you want?” And it’s not what we want. We’re just trying to get City Council to hear us and vote on this plan.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, so the Ford Foundation is putting up some of this money. What other large nonprofit institutions or foundations are working with this?

BRITTANY WILLIAMS: Yeah, so I can take that. Open Society Foundation, the Tow Foundation, the JM Kaplan Fund are all supporting. They support it. The Lippman Commission, which was a commission that was set up in 2017 that basically will report back to City Council to say whether or not Rikers Island should have closed, they funded that commission. They went along after funding the Lippman Commission, the nonprofits who are now supporting the mayor’s plan and who also sat on a Mayor Bill de Blasio’s taskforce to close Rikers Island.

So when we’re talking about the role of these nonprofits and these foundations, we were having these community meetings when the community just for the last couple of months are finding out about this jail plan. These nonprofits were literally sitting on the same side as the city, basically telling community members who are impacted by incarceration, who need housing, who support homeless folks, “You need to get on board with this plan because it’s going to happen regardless.”

EDDIE CONWAY: Ngozi, can you tell me… You said there’s no real written contract about the closing of Rikers, but there’s a contract for building these new prisons. What’s going to happen to the people in Rikers? Is there any plan to start transferring them out? I noticed it’s a ten year process. So this jail could be in existence for the next ten years while the other jails come online, and all five of them could be online. What’s the situation with that?

NGOZI ALSTON: I think you nailed it right there. Basically, they’ve already started moving people from Brooklyn Detention Center back to Rikers, into other facilities on Rikers that they haven’t really been using. They’ve been moving men to Rosie’s, which is a women’s facility. And so they’re saying, “We’re going to close Rikers.” There’s no legal binding, anything. So in all likelihood, if they do pass this, they’re going to open these four new jails that are going to be hundreds of feet high, and then they might not close Rikers. Whoever is the mayor, whoever is in City Council at that point in time, has no legal obligation to seeing the closure of Rikers.

We’re really pushing council members to vote no, because there’s no transparency. There’s no actual design plans there. There’s a lot of issues. People shouldn’t be in cages regardless, but they’re voting on approving this thing that they don’t have much information about. We don’t even know how DOC is going to reduce the numbers of staff that they have. They have not laid out anything.

EDDIE CONWAY: So, you’re saying a vote… Somebody just mentioned the 2nd, October. The 2nd, is that what I’m hearing, that this Wednesday there’s going to be a vote that’s going to decide to push this forward?

NGOZI ALSTON: No. So the bill, to hopefully not push it forward, is happening on October 17. This Wednesday… Brittany, could you say more about that?

BRITTANY WILLIAMS: This Wednesday, basically City Council just introduced three new bills to try to work the vote from City Council members. There’s one more thing that I would like to say before I go into that. This plan is supposed to close Rikers Island, but it will require, out of Department of Corrections mouth, at a city commission meeting said that the entire jail population has to be moved to Rikers Island while these jails are being built, and there’s no legal binding agreement for Rikers Island to close. We know that ICE is in our communities really, really deep. There’s no analysis around the impact of immigration, when we know that ICE is expanding.

The vote on October 2 is in relationship to these three bills that basically say, “Hey, here are a little bit of community investments so that City Council can hush their mouths and vote yes for the plan,” versus saying, “You all have been thinking about building jails for two years and you have not, in these two years, thought about community investment at all, and you wait three weeks for the vote to say, this is the time we’re going to give you what you want.” It’s a negotiation of black and brown people being caged.

EDDIE CONWAY: The organization Ford Foundation and other organizations that’s behind this have, up to this point, had been acting as if they were in support of the community, but they were really doing this against the community. Is there anybody, activists or so on, that’s advocating for alternative methods, a better way of spending that money, a better way of dealing with the criminal justice system? Ngozi, you want to take that?

NGOZI ALSTON: I would say that we are. We have an abolition plan, it’s 55 pages long. We list out everything that the city can do with $11 billion for communities without taking money from these huge organizations that have always been complicit in government surveillance. They’re essentially another branch doing the work of the government when it comes to negotiating black and brown communities. They are funding a lot of criminal justice organizations that are advocating for new jails, but also calling their selves abolitionists and co-opting the abolition movement. What we’re proposing is that where we will bail people out ourselves kind of thing like mutual aid, is what we’re practicing and we don’t have to rely on the state or the government, to do the work we know that we’re capable of doing.

That is what we’re proposing. We don’t want to rely on that anymore, even though we have a plan. They can do that. We’ve laid everything out for them, and we don’t get paid for this. It’s their job to figure that out. It’s their job and they aren’t willing. So they’re throwing $100 million into for negotiating community investments and when there’s $11 billion on the line, it doesn’t make sense.

EDDIE CONWAY: Brittany, can you tell me… Now these jails is supposed to be 50 stories tall. They are going to be the highest, tallest jails in the world. I was under the impression that there was a decrease in crime and criminal activities in New York state and that they wasn’t locking up as many people. Why all of a sudden four 50 story high jails? It seems to be a conflict with the facts on the ground. Is this some economic thing or what?

BRITTANY WILLIAMS: We actually believe it’s a economic issue. One, I just want to uplift these largest jails in the world we know are equivalent to slave dungeons if you look at exactly what they’re trying to do. When we are talking about this, the one thing we have to say is it’s a fire hazard to have the largest jails in the world, and not have a plan for if a fire happens in a building, how are all of the people that will be incarcerated will actually get out of the jails? We know at the same time that this is happening, Mayor Bill de Blasio is basically selling out one third of NYCHA. NYCHA is affordable housing and the largest affordable housing in the world. What he’s proposing with RED, and other ways to fix NYCHA, which they are actually living in horrible conditions, will require them to move out and possibly there are a lot of people being evicted through this process.

Also, they’re trying to give people section eight to move out of these buildings. So these are Mayor Bill de Blasio’s way of giving back to his real estate developers that actually helped him run for office. The same with Cory Johnson, who will also be running for mayor 2021, and so in New York City we know across the country. We’re not naive. I’m not naive to say the pay to play in politics, but they have created a whole monopoly of pay a play, where anyone who wants to get something done, or something from the state, has to pay their cash up front.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Ngozi, can you tell me what can happen between now and October 16 and 17 to maybe have some impact on that vote? What can activists do? What can supporters do? Et cetera.

NGOZI ALSTON: People can call their local City Council members. I believe they can submit written comments still also to the City Council. We are out here in mobilizing. We have events with community members all the time. Right now we’re just planning different events for indigenous peoples today. We’re planning events for communities in each borough so that they can stay in the loop and engaged because all hands on deck October 16th and 17th, and we are going to be really making some noise and letting people know. People, council members are like, “I don’t know,” but are also receiving pressure from the speaker, from council member 11, to vote yes. So that their district can get $1 million. We need the people to push back and say, “We’re not up for negotiation. We don’t negotiate with people that try to leverage us for pennies, for breadcrumbs.”

I highly encourage folks to go on NoNewJails.nyc, look at our abolition plan, reach out to us on email, Instagram, Twitter. We are always looking for people to make phone calls to City Council members. Because they’re scared, and we want them to continue to receive information that this is not acceptable. And the entire country is watching. There have been jail fights in Atlanta and LA, and people are looking at us to see what’s going to happen here.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. So, we’re going to revisit this. We’ll probably get back together probably in a couple of weeks after this vote and we’ll have some more discussion on this. I thank both of you for joining me, Brittany and Ngozi. Thank you both for joining me for this episode of Rattling the Bars. And thank you for joining The Real News Network.