Eric Adams at church (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
Throughout his campaign, Mayor Eric Adams spoke about the dysfunction that plagues our city, stemming from a failure to go ‘upstream’ to address the problems we face. There is no more tragic example of this than Rikers Island, where conditions are so dire that hundreds of incarcerated people have launched a hunger strike.
The moral costs of this stain on our city outweigh even the outrageous financial ones. Our so-called progressive city continues to respond to crime rather than prevent it; to allow freedom to be determined by wealth and racial bias; to tear people away from their communities without due process and subject them to abuse, increasing their chances of future criminal legal system involvement rather than reducing them; and to spend lavishly to do it, at more than $556,000 per incarcerated person per year.
But we can stop.
New York City’s incarceration rates have been reduced in response to decades of grassroots organizing, but we have a long way to go. Rikers Island is still full of people who have been failed by our society, time and again. Just look at the obituaries of people who died in the hellish conditions on Rikers over the past year. Among them were people who struggled with bipolar disorder, addiction, schizophrenia, homelessness, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, and job loss. In addition to their individual challenges, they were all Black and brown men, growing up in a society that has starved our communities of resources and then punished us in our struggle to survive.
Growing up in Brooklyn, I saw this firsthand. In the 1970s, New York faced a fiscal crisis. Education, health, and social services were placed on the city’s budget chopping block, disproportionately impacting already neglected communities like Brownsville, East New York, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. The criminalization and incarceration of people of color intensified in the ‘80s. By this time, all my older brothers were impacted by the criminal legal system.
In the early ‘90s, at the age of 16, I was sent to Rikers when the daily average incarcerated population reached over 21,000 and more than 100,000 people annually. This was the consequence of austerity guided mostly by a particular ideology and racism rather than fiscal necessity. Since then, the New York City jail population has been reduced by almost 75% and our city is much safer, but much of the same misguided thinking still drives our policy responses - for example, calls for more incarceration when people with prior convictions are arrested. Shouldn’t that show us that the criminal legal system didn’t address the root cause of their behaviors, and we need to do something different?
Luckily, we have so many examples of what does strengthen our communities and make them safer. This month, the commission on reinvestment in communities impacted by Rikers Island, established by Local Law 193, will issue its first set of recommendations. Mayor Adams has said that he wants to close the pipeline that feeds Rikers, and we could not agree more. We will be sharing a blueprint to do it, developed by a commission packed with both lived experience and technical expertise, of which I’ve been a member.
We will be calling on the new administration to invest in the things that work – youth employment, career training, supportive and affordable housing, quality treatment, mentoring, and more. We look forward to seeing these recommendations included in the mayor’s first Executive Budget. And we know exactly how we can pay for it.
New York City spends $2.6 billion per year to operate its grossly dysfunctional jails. Decades of corruption have created the shocking reality that New York City runs the most richly staffed jail system in the country (with about five guards for every three incarcerated people - seven times more than the national average ratio), but habitually fails to meet the most basic standards, including providing people in their custody with recreation, bringing them to their court dates, and protecting them from illness, injury, and death.
Data compiled by the Vera Institute shows that if the New York City Department of Correction’s staff were scaled down by 50% (to match the more than 50% reduction in the jail population since 2014), we could save $1.1 billion each year – money that could be reinvested in all the upstream supports that prevent crime, rather than responding to it.
When the number of people in New York City jails is reduced to below 3,300 – as required by the plan to close the Rikers jail complex — and DOC’s budget is reduced proportionately, we can unlock $1.8 billion each year to invest in housing, education, healthcare, job creation, and more. Just by reinstituting a hiring freeze for DOC and limiting overtime, New York City can save and reinvest hundreds of millions in the next year.
To fully recoup and redirect the funds wasted on the bloated DOC budget, we’ll need a plan to significantly reduce the DOC workforce. This will undoubtedly require leadership, but to resist or delay doing it would be to double down on dysfunction.
It’s not only incarcerated people who are miserable on Rikers Island. Guards often talk about how much they dislike their jobs, and that it may even have negatively affected their health and their family. But they stay because it’s the best salary and benefits they can get without an advanced degree or other training. Why wouldn’t we prepare this workforce of mostly Black and brown people for new careers that move our city forward, instead of leaving them to cling to jobs that depend on the failed approaches that we know we must leave behind?
A broad coalition of advocates across the city has worked hard to expose the absurdity of Rikers Island and bring about a plan for its closure. We look forward to working with the new administration to realize the entirety of that vision, and truly turn the page on Rikers Island and everything it represents.
Darren Mack is Co-Director of Freedom Agenda, one of the organizations leading the Campaign to Close Rikers. On Twitter @iamdarrenmack.