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Ocasio-Cortez Criticizes Mayor’s Jail Plan, Calls for ‘No New Jails’

Queens Detention Center Decommissioned in 2002. The building will be demolished and redeveloped under the mayor’s borough-based jail plan (Photo: QueensPost)

Oct. 7, 2019. By Shane O’Brien

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has come out against the Mayor’s borough-based jail plan joining the likes of Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and the advocacy group No New Jails.

Ocasio-Cortez took to Instagram Wednesday to call on the city council to vote against the proposal or to at least delay the vote scheduled for Oct. 17.

“We shouldn’t be building new jails,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in the Instagram post. Ocasio-Cortez endorsed a report published in September by No New Jails NYC, a group of activists who want Rikers to close without any new jails being built.

The No New Jails plan involves reducing the prison population to a level where Rikers Island can be closed and no new jails are necessary.

Van Bramer shared her post on Twitter and told the public to read an op-ed he wrote in the Queens Eagle where he expressed a similar sentiment.

The city and most advocates for closing Rikers Island have condemned Ocasio-Cortez and those who share her views.

They argue that the only way to close Rikers Island is through the construction of borough-based jails since the city doesn’t have enough cells to cater to the prison population.

Excluding Rikers, the city only has enough space for 2,100 inmates. There are currently about 7,000 inmates detained across the city.

The city’s plan to shut Rikers and build borough-based jails is close to becoming a reality. The proposal was recently approved by the City Planning Commission and the last step is for it to be passed by the city council, which is voting on it next week.

The Mayor’s office is fighting back against the advocates for No New Jails, concerned that they could topple its plan.

The debate follows Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement in 2017 that he planned to shut down Rikers and replace it with four equal-sized, borough-based jails in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx. The mayor’s proposal would cost around $11 billion, a sum deemed far too high by Ocasio-Cortez and Van Bramer.

The four jails would house a combined total of about 4,000 inmates and de Blasio’s plan calls for reducing the city’s jail population from 7,000 at present to no more than 4,000 by 2026.

No New Jails Group protesting at a hearing in Kew Gardens earlier this year. (Photo: Meghan Sackman)

No New Jails NYC argued in its report that the city’s jail population could be reduced to 3,000 in the same time period. The group is advocating for Rikers to be shut down without any new jails built in its place and said it is possible to do so if the city reduces the jail population to 3,000 inmates.

The group also argues that the city has given no guarantees that Rikers will close if the four borough jails are built.

The group’s slogan is “if they build it, they will fill it,” and they argue that if the city builds jails capable of holding 4,000 inmates, then it will incarcerate 4,000 people.

Van Bramer contends that the mayor’s proposal is a waste of money and that the city would be better closing Rikers, reducing New York’s jail population and investing the money in services to prevent crime without building any new jails.

“The city’s crime rate continues to decrease dramatically, with fewer than 7,000 people held on Rikers; way down from more than 20,000 in the nineties,” Van Bramer wrote. “So why are we spending billions of dollars to build sky-high cages stacked on top of each other?”

However, the mayor’s office said that closing down Rikers without building any new jails was simply not possible. It said that it does not have space for 3,000 inmates in the non-Rikers prisons and that Rikers would have to remain open if no new jails are built.

Alacia Lauer, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said that the current New York City jail facilities outside of Rikers Island are not sufficient to hold the city’s entire jail population.

She said that the the city has three active jails outside of Rikers Island–with one in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively. She said that they are antiquated and lack adequate programming space. She also said that the current Brooklyn jail has no air conditioning and that the decommissioned Queens Detention Center is not fit to hold any prisoners overnight.

The three facilities are capable of holding a combined 2,100 inmates – 900 less than the population No New Jails forecasts and 1,900 less than what the city predicts.

Lauer said in a statement that the city would be permanently closing Rikers Island and would be replacing outdated jails in the boroughs with modern ones.

“The City’s historic decarceration plan to shutter the 11 active city jails, including the eight jails on Rikers Island, and replace them with four safer, more humane facilities in the boroughs is an opportunity to continue the City’s efforts that have fundamentally reshaped our criminal justice system—efforts born out of the lived experiences and hard work of activists across this city,” Lauer said.

The Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform also said in a statement that it was impossible to house 3,000 inmates when only 2,100 beds were available. It argues that doing so would be illegal and dangerous.

The commission also refutes No New Jails’ slogan that “if they build it, they will fill it.” The commission pointed to Rikers Island, where there are currently about 7,000 empty beds.

It noted that the current borough prisons don’t have units for women, trans or gender non-conforming people, and people with serious mental illnesses and that placing them in an overcrowded jail system would be irresponsible and inhumane.

The commission said that Rikers would have to remain open if the borough-based jails are not built as the city cannot legally or morally cram 3,000 people into 2,100 beds.

Gabriel Sayegh, co-founder of Katal which is part of the #CLOSErikers campaign, said that Ocasio-Cortez’s stance was irresponsible.

Sayegh said that Ocasio-Cortez hadn’t really considered the position she had taken on the borough-based jail proposal.

“She’s obviously a brilliant politician, which leads me to believe that she took a position before fully processing the facts and the implications of the demands,” said Sayegh.

Like No New Jails, #CLOSErikers calls for the city to reduce the jail population to 3,000 by 2026. However, Sayegh said that the plan to replace the aging borough jails was almost as important as the plan to close Rikers.

“I don’t think anyone in their right mind would look at the existing conditions inside the [existing] borough jails and argue that people should be detained there, even people charged with very serious offences,” Sayegh said.

Sayegh said that Rikers remaining open and the borough jails remaining in their current condition was the “worst-case” scenario for the #CLOSErikers campaign.

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23 Comments

Mock duck

Come January you wont need jails everyone makes bail. Glad to see our socialists in govt think about parasites and they’re inalienable rights.

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stop stigmatizing

Just because people have mental health issues does not mean they are forced to commit crimes….people who have depression and bi-polar and even other serious mental issues work hard and struggle to be good citizens….having a mental health issue is not an excuse to be a criminal…maybe it is a contributing factor, but at the end of the day it is their choice to commit crimes…only a small percentage are schizophrenic and severely mentally ill…these people need to pay for their crimes FOR JUSTICE FOR THE VICTIMS…please stop your selective compassion for criminals and ignoring the pain of your fellow law abiding citizens

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No to Kew Gardens Jail

Stop Stigmatizing – That is sure one angry uninformed post. Let us bring you up to speed. Referencing mentally ill “prisoners” within the context of the general population of the entire prison population is not stigmatizing the mentally ill.
My post is not exonerating the mentally ill of crime.
Mentally ill people are disproportionately victimized by violent crime.
The largest crime-reducing benefit of helping persons with mental illness would be in reducing crimes against the mentally ill. (like the 4 murdered men in China Town and the 1 man who woke to find himself being thrown into the river)
Some types of severe mental illness increase the risk that a person will perpetrate a violent crime. Risk varies based on many other factors, such as substance abuse, or unemployment. Untreated severe mental illness is particularly significant in homicide—the extreme end of the criminal spectrum. Such illness is even more significant for mass murders of strangers.
Mental hospital beds per capita in the U.S. are lower than they have been since 1850.
Over the last half-century, mental hospital capacity has dwindled, while prison and jail capacity has vastly expanded. Mentally ill prisoners comprise a large fraction of the jail and prison population.
Compared to imprisonment, treating a mentally ill person in a mental hospital is at least four times as expensive, on month-by-month basis.

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Merman

This is really quite simple. Prison should not be fun. Prison should be…prison. We live in a society with laws that can easily be known and understood. Stay within the lane of the law and you can stay out of prison. Go outside that lane and you’ll land yourself in prison!

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No to Kew Gardens Jail

@Merman – According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over half of all prisoners in US in 2005 had experienced mental illness as identified by “a recent history or symptoms of a mental health problem”; of this population, jail inmates experienced the highest rates of symptoms of mental illness at 60 percent, followed by 49 percent of state prisoners and 40 percent of federal prisoners. Not only do people with recent histories of mental illness end up incarcerated, but many who have no history of mental illness end up developing symptoms while in prison. In 2006, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that a quarter of state prisoners had a history of mental illness, whereas 3 in 10 state prisoners had developed symptoms of mental illness since becoming incarcerated with no recent history of mental illness. To the 2.2 million Americans incarcerated (2016 figures), which means for every 100,000 citizens there are 655 who are currently inmates. Your quote”stay within the lane of the law and you can stay out of prison. Go outside that lane and you’ll land yourself in prison!”, is absolutely meaningless and more than likely cruel. Do you really believe this system is keeping you and your loved ones safe?

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stop stigmatizing

Just because people have mental health issues does not mean they are forced to commit crimes….people who have depression and bi-polar and even other serious mental issues work hard and struggle to be good citizens….having a mental health issue is not an excuse to be a criminal…maybe it is a contributing factor, but at the end of the day it is their choice to commit crimes…only a small percentage are schizophrenic and severely mentally ill…these people need to pay for their crimes FOR JUSTICE FOR THE VICTIMS…please stop your selective compassion for criminals and ignoring the pain of your fellow law abiding citizens

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No to Kew Gardens Jail

Stop Stigmatizing -You should seek some help regarding your anger toward the mentally ill. Prison is an exponentially more expensive way of dealing with the mentally ill. You carry the stigmas of shame anger and ignorance. Enjoy your day cutting and pasting while others discuss and contribute to the conversation stream.

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Never left Astoria

“only a small percentage are schizophrenic and severely mentally ill ” But they make up the greater proportion and actual number of inmates in the prison systems. There are more cost effective and more efficient ways of dealing with crime and mental illness than the system we have in place.

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learn from history

we had a prison population of 20,000 during the last big recession(late 80’s-early 90’s)….when the next inevitable recession hits(22 trillion in debt…grossly overvalued stocks and real estate) in the next two or three years, where will we put all of these dangerous violent criminals? we used to average well over 2,000 murders a year…that’s not even enough jail space to hold just the murderers…why do people no longer have even basic common sense anymore?

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No to Kew Gardens Jail

@Learn from History – There is a difference between jails and prisons. Pasted is the definition in the John Jay Library (CUNY) Jail
Different from state and federal prisons, jails are generally operated at the local city or county level. Jails hold a variety of people, including those being detained before trial who were not granted bail or are unable to afford bail. Jails house offenders convicted of felony criminal charges who are awaiting sentencing of more than one year in a prison, as well as offenders found guilty of misdemeanors sentenced to serve less than one year. Jails also hold offenders convicted of felonies awaiting transfer to a state prison. Given the variety of people housed in jails, they are generally considered more violent than prisons where the populations are relatively stable over time. See also Prison/Prisoner You’re posting misinformation on all the comment streams.

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Thank you!

> where will we put all of these dangerous violent criminals?

AOC said she’d just set everybody free cuz they’d be out of room. You actually believe that.

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Mac

Learn from history- You left out the crack epidemic. Recession rarely kills people, crack does.

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lock em up

yeah these shelters are full of em. The guy who recently assaulted a woman in sunnyside is living in the cityview hotel for 100 single men in Blissville. The guy was released and now hanging out in a local sunnyside park.

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ASensibleMan

Closing Rikers is absurd. Have any of these people ever seen the place? It’s HUGE. And it’s perfectly situated for where you want a prison: away from the public. The notion of opening jails in the boroughs is high on the list of stupid things from this stupid, virtue signalling administration.

There is simply no practical or sensible reason for closing Rikers. It’s a prison, not a resort hotel. All these people are just pathetic virtue signalling show offs who want to “prove” they’re so much better than you.

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People still say "virtue signalling" unironically?

Your argument is “it’s big?” Not a real nuanced understanding of criminal justice reform there, huh?

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ASensibleMan

I have zero interest in a “nuanced” view of “criminal justice reform,” which is just code for decreased punishment and increased crime. Hey, been there, done that in the 1960s and crime exploded for three decades. New York was almost destroyed by it until Giuliani showed up just in time to reverse course. So your “nuanced” idea is let’s do that again, huh?

And yes, I say “virtue signalling” unironically because it’s everywhere you look, including comments at LIC Post. It’s a real thing.

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No to Kew Gardens Jail

@ASensibleMan- WOW the beginning of your post had me then it turned into idiocy.

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jb

Developers want Rikers.
They’ll play any trick they can to get it closed.
The “No Jails & Close Rikers” people are backed by developers.
They know that once Rikers closes, crime catapult, and
jails will have to be built.
But for now, to get Rikers closed, they’re singing a bs lullaby,
and paying for folks to act like they’re weeping tears for
criminals.

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Agreed, developers like Trump are greedy and can't be trusted

Your conspiracy theory that developers are setting prisoners free because…money or something seems totally sound. You are a very stable genius.

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We already have them... they are called Temporary Homeless Shelters

My fear is that closing the jails will only increase the number of convicted criminals being returned to society early and without any rehabilitation. Check the occupants of the temporary homeless shelters that exist in many hotels throughout our borough that are holding criminals who were let go early from the jails. No new jails will equate to only increasing the number of shelter residents in an already over-burdened and broken homeless shelter system.

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