NYC activists having big impact on debate over Rikers replacement plan

The group could play a key role as City Council members and the mayor’s office hammer out the details of de Blasio’s plan


By Shant Shahrigian
New York Daily News

NEW YORK CITY — A vocal activist group is having an outsize impact on the debate over Mayor de Blasio’s plan to replace Rikers Island with new lockups in the boroughs.

“Our core argument is that it is fully possible to close Rikers without building new jails,” said Nabil Hassein, an organizer for No New Jails. “If you lock up fewer people, you can close Rikers without building new jails.

“The billions of dollars that they’re planning to spend should be spent on the real needs of the community,” Hassein added.

“Our group is never going to support the construction of new jails. No one is going to change our minds about that.”

No New Jails activists have vexed city officials with their zeal. "They’re really well organized. They’ve shown up at meetings about jails and just drowned everybody out,” a city official who’s worked on the mayor’s plan said of the grassroots movement.

The group could play a key role as City Council members and the mayor’s office hammer out the details of de Blasio’s plan.

But the group’s push to abolish all jails is causing fissures among the groups seeking to reform the city’s correction system.

“There is tension in the movement between people who are talking about reform and people who are talking about abolition,” said Baz Dreisinger, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “That’s dangerous for the movement.”

De Blasio’s plan is moving ahead. The City Planning Commission is expected to vote Tuesday in favor of his proposal, which would close Rikers and build new jails in Downtown Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, central Queens and the South Bronx by 2026. Inmates from Staten Island would be housed elsewhere in the city.

The City Council has 50 days to evaluate the plan, which will cost an estimated $8.7 billion. It plans a hearing on the proposal Thursday.

Activists from No New Jails plan to attend this week’s hearings, where they’ll continue their push to kill the mayor’s plan.

The group gained steam in recent months as members railed against the plan at local meetings, posters in hand. At one community board meeting in Brooklyn, activists reportedly chanted “shame” at a board official.

Reformers who back the mayor’s plan say the No New Jails activists are delusional.

“We did the work and the study and the research,” said Darren Mack of JustLeadershipUSA, which has supported the mayor’s plan. “People who said ‘no new jails’ — they don’t have a detailed, thought-out platform for that.”

Not long ago, lawmakers may have laughed at the idea of shuttering Rikers. But Black Lives Matter and the widely reported 2015 suicide of former Rikers inmate Kalief Browder have helped spur officials to take action.

The city’s declining crime rate is causing a decline in the number or arrests — and thus, the number of people sent to jail. The number of people locked up in the city for a day or longer declined by 20% in the fiscal year that ended June 30, city data shows.

Tiffany Cabán, a public defender who nearly won the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney in June, is a backer of the No New Jails movement. She said the evils of what she called the “prison industrial complex” turned her against building any new jails.

“At some point we have to take this really strong stand and say we are no longer going to invest in carceral systems,” Cabán said.

Tyler Nims, a member of a of a commission headed by former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman that recommended closing Rikers, says the No New Jails movement is well-intended — but that its ideas won’t work.

“I would like to live in a world where no jails are necessary and we wouldn’t have to build new jails," Nims said. "I don’t think that’s where we are at today.”

©2019 New York Daily News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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