Rikers 2.0: inside the battle to build four new prisons in New York City

Daniel A Medina

On clear days, Kevin Steele would peek through the cracked window of his six-by-eight foot solitary confinement cell on Rikers Island to get a glimpse of his Bronx neighbourhood and mentally escape.

Steele was just 17 years old in June 2010 when he was brought to Rikers Island, arguably America’s most notorious prison and the nation’s largest penal colony. He had been arrested for his involvement in a fight and had no means to pay an assigned $85,000 bail. He spent three years at Rikers awaiting trial, 13 months of that in solitary confinement.

“The conditions I faced on Rikers were really horrendous,” says Steele. “Looking out of that window was my way to survive.”

Steele is today an activist with No New Jails NYC, a grassroots prison abolitionist group formed last year that has become a major player in the campaign to close Rikers. The group has mobilised New Yorkers – including influential Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – against mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial $8.7bn (£6.6bn) plan to close the jail complex and replace it with four new, smaller jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx by 2026. More than 200 New York City public defenders have signed an open letter stating their support for the No New Jails movement.

The mayor’s proposal promises to reduce the city’s jail population from its current level of roughly 7,000 to 3,300, the lowest in a century. No New Jails says the city could shut Rikers by banning pretrial detention, which would leave about 2,000 people in the city’s remaining correctional facilities and eradicate the need to build any new jails. Subsequent phases of their plan would close all remaining jails. The group has called for the money saved to be spent on universal housing, bail vouchers, conflict resolution and restorative justice programmes.

“There are a lot of conversations now about abolition that just weren’t being had before,” says Lauren Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “The No New Jails group is forcing those conversations.”

A solitary confinement cell at New York City’s Rikers Island jail. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

Others have pushed back. Criticism has come both from those on the right, outraged at what they say is a plan that puts public safety at risk at a time of historically low crime in New York City, and from fellow activists on the left who, despite their own misgivings with the mayor, contend that while abolition is a commendable goal, it is not yet a realistic one.

“We don’t trust the mayor. We’ve never trusted him,” says Brandon Holmes, New York City Campaign Coordinator for Just Leadership USA, a national advocacy organisation which calls for cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030 and which supports De Blasio’s bill. “But we recognise that it could be decades before we get another chance like this.”

‘You can’t re-imagine prisons’

Rikers Island, in the East River between the Bronx and Queens, is staggering in size and scope. There are 11 jails on 413 acres, holding an inmate population of 7,000 – down from a historic high of nearly 22,000 in 1991. Most inmates are at Rikers awaiting trial, unable to afford bail. The overwhelming majority are poor and disproportionally black or Latino. For decades, Rikers has been synonymous with brutality.

Calls to close the island complex intensified in 2015 after the death of Kalief Browder, a Bronx teenager who had been sent there accused of stealing a backpack. He spent three years on Rikers without trial – half that time in solitary confinement – and suffered beatings by inmates and jail staff. Browder took his own life at the age of 22 after struggling with severe mental health problems for two years after his release.

The Rikers Island jail complex: 11 jails on 413 acres, holding an inmate population of 7,000. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

His older brother Akeem, who runs the Kalief Browder Foundation to support youths impacted by mass incarceration, says the backpack “became a death sentence for Kalief”. “That was the calling card for everyone to wake up and say ‘enough has been enough.’” Browder’s family joined the Close Rikers movement and led large protests across the city.

On March 31 2017, just two days before the release of a damning report on Rikers from the independent Lippman Commission, De Blasio promised to close Rikers Island within a decade. The timeline was ambitious and details vague. Two months later, he released a road map that outlined how Rikers would be replaced by the four borough-based jails.

New York could close its Rikers Island prison complex by 2026, replacing it with four smaller borough-based jails

For nearly a year, Dana Kaplan studied where to build them. Kaplan, a deputy director at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, recognised proximity to courthouses was the priority. “We did a pretty intensive amount of neighbourhood community engagement and focus groups,” says Kaplan. “We worked to ensure that this [plan] was grounded in the feedback.”

The plan was also centred on decarceration, shrinking the city’s jail population through a set of diversionary programmes such as supervised release. Instituted in 2016, it allows certain offenders to remain out of jail on condition they routinely meet case managers. It has been credited with a 38% reduction in the population at Rikers. Recent progressive bail reforms passed at state level in Albany – set to take effect on 1 January – allowed Kaplan to reduce the proposed inmate population further to 3,300.

Although the designs of the jails remains in the planning stages, Kaplan has promised they will be “humane”. She says that means significant natural light in all facilities and individual cells, educational and cultural programming in every housing unit, ample outdoor recreational space and better visiting spaces for families. It also means a culture change at the troubled Department of Corrections, which will still run the jails.

Aliya Donn (left) and Mia Robbins hold pictures of Kalief Browder (left) and Christopher Robinson, who both died as a result of alleged official misconduct related to Rikers Island prison. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

In September, Kaplan led a team of city officials, criminal justice advocates and former prisoners on a fact-finding mission to Europe. Most of the group’s time was spent in Norway, whose correctional system has become an international model. What they found, Kaplan says, were well-designed facilities adorned with public art that provided ample mental health and educational programming and where corrections officers and inmates often got along – essentially, the antithesis of the American jail. The Department of Corrections has since formed a partnership with its Norwegian counterpart aimed at promoting culture change.

No New Jails, though, argues that Kaplan’s radical plan is merely cosmetic and fails to acknowledge the roots of mass incarceration in the United States that date back to slavery. “You can’t re-imagine prisons,” says Sophia Gurulé, a No New Jails activist. “Prisons are places that were intentionally built to de-humanise people.”

Neighbourhoods mount fierce fightback

In February 2018, the jail sites were revealed. The jails in Manhattan and Brooklyn were selected where detention complexes already exist, and in Queens, next to a subway yard at a facility that would be demolished and re-built. In the Bronx, the city took over an NYPD vehicle tow pound.

The choices generated immediate, fierce backlash from neighbourhoods where the jails would be built, especially the original plan to build so-called “skyscraper jails” in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In Brooklyn’s leafy Cobble Hill neighbourhood, residents shouted down city officials at community board meetings. In Chinatown, the area’s largely working-class residents organised and mounted a furious resistance.

The mayor’s office eventually backtracked on the Chinatown location, opting to redevelop the Manhattan Detention Center close by City Hall. Ultimately, all four community boards representing the areas where the jails would be built rejected the plans.

On 5 September this year the New York City Council Land Use Committee held its first and only hearing on the mayor’s plan to build the jails via the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process. The city had fast-tracked the process so all four proposed jails were bundled into one.

During 10 hours of boisterous debate, members of No New Jails testified to the committee and highlighted the lack of a legal guarantee to close Rikers. “I was stunned when I found out that was a real thing,” says New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams. Despite opposition, the committee approved the measure.

Passage in the full City Council was not at all assured, though, with a number of council members demanding a guarantee that Rikers would be closed as the mayor had promised. An 11th-hour resolution from Speaker Corey Johnson proposed prohibiting the use of the island for incarceration by 2026.

The mood in the council chamber on 17 October was tense. After council members from the affected districts banded together to demand modifications, the De Blasio administration again backpedalled on key details. The skyscraper jails in Manhattan and Brooklyn would not rise above 295 feet, or roughly 29 storeys. And prisoners would be spread equally between them, with each having 886 beds.

Members voted 36-13 to approve the mayor’s plan. Speaker Johnson’s resolution passed but a separate land use application must be voted on before it becomes law. In other words, Rikers remains open.

‘You have to lose part of yourself to survive’

Donna Hylton beams when she talks about her one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighbourhood. For 27 years, all she knew was a jail cell.

In 1985, she was arrested for her alleged role in the case of Thomas Vigliarolo. The Long Island real estate broker was reportedly tortured by a group of seven individuals hired by a business partner who said Vigliarolo had swindled him in a real estate deal. Hylton was sentenced 25 years to life for kidnapping and second-degree murder.

Now 55, she says her 13 months at Rikers “were the hardest of my life”. She remembers the smell. The fights. Corrections officers assaulting inmates. “You have to lose part of yourself to survive on that island,” she says.

Since her release in 2012, Hylton has become a prominent criminal justice activist and her speech at the 2017 Women’s March granted her national prominence. She supports the mayor’s plan. “I would rather that this last penal colony shut down to make the conditions better right now for those inside,” says Hylton. “We have to be at the table.”

For his part, Jumaane Williams has called for up to $10bn in community funding to go alongside the mayor’s bill. He says he met with members of No New Jails but was not convinced they had a concrete plan for what to do with those arrested on an almost nightly basis.

Related: 'By the time you're through security you're almost naked': Rikers Island – a cartoon

Some on the left say Williams values his potential future electoral prospects – specifically, the mayoral election in 2021 – over standing with the movement. “I’m not running for mayor in 2021,” he adds, laughing. “I find that a lot of times these issues cause people to run to their corners.”

The split among community activists, politicians and former prisoners over how to close Rikers and what comes after it is far from over. It is a fight that will determine the future of criminal justice in the nation’s largest city for decades to come.

Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to join the discussion, catch up on our best stories or sign up for our weekly newsletter