Legal Aid Society


Open Letter from The Legal Aid Society: False Binary of the Close Rikers Plan

For months, as the conversation about the City’s current plan to close Rikers has fractured the Black and Latinx communities directly impacted by mass incarceration, we, at The Legal Aid Society, have grappled with several different perspectives.

We firmly believe that incarceration is a public policy failure. With this principle in mind, we have sought to balance the interests of our clients held in pre-trial detention—none of whom should be detained in the first place—and our clients incarcerated in violent conditions. The binary nature of the public debate—old jails vs. new jails—leaves us with a false choice: acquiesce to our clients being incarcerated in conditions that have been inhumane for decades; or spend billions on new jails that history shows will become torture chambers for the next generation to dismantle. What is sad and infuriating is that the City has placed this false choice squarely on the shoulders of those most impacted – our clients and their communities.

It is no secret that New York City has consistently and persistently failed those it incarcerates, and their communities. This City has been on notice for over four decades that the conditions in its jails are inhumane and must be changed. We have been litigating to fix jail conditions since the early 1970s, when we obtained series of  consent decrees that became Benjamin v. Brann. We have been challenging officer brutality in the City’s jails since the 1980s, and continue to press reform in Nunez v. City of New York, our most recent class action to end this scourge.  One thing we have learned from decades of such deep engagement is that New York City—like this country—has never gotten incarceration “right.” For decades the promise has been to do better, to make reforms, but the outcomes have remained dismal.

The City’s projection that it will incarcerate only 3,300 people, instead of the 5,000 it projected years ago, is undoubtedly a positive shift. But let’s not be fooled. The City may ride on the tailwind created by the bail reform, decarceration, and abolitionist movements, but formerly incarcerated people and their communities are the ones responsible for these changes. The City must continue to respond to these calls for change and must not stop at 3,300. Instead, the City must move rapidly toward zero because history shows that it has never—not for one day—incarcerated people humanely.

The disinvestment in the people held in jails—and over-criminalized communities—is nothing new, and the current plan does not change that. The City’s commitment to spend billions on new jails is inextricably linked to the gentrification that has gutted Black and Latinx communities. That is not a glib sound bite. If it misdirects resources toward an antiquated and inhumane carceral model, the City will further criminalize Black and Latinx people and leech much needed resources from their communities. As the City contemplates building new jails, we know that the larger shift towards decarceration can change at any moment, and communities of color and immigrant communities that have been the hardest hit by over-criminalization are still vulnerable.

By creating this false choice, modest reforms have deeply fragmented communities of impacted people. For that, the City should be ashamed. Only a sustained pressure campaign led by people directly impacted will ensure that Rikers actually closes and resources are properly reinvested. Regardless of the vote, we must push towards a future with zero jails in our city, zero jails in our state, and zero jails in our country.