Borough Jails Must Move Forward, With Guidance From Impacted People

“When the state takes away a person’s liberty, it bears a serious obligation to provide them proper care, and the built environment is a big part of that. Cutting our jail population significantly and overhauling the material conditions that people live in will be a massive victory.”

Borough Jails Must Move Forward, With Guidance From Impacted People

Gerardo Romo/NYC Council

Protestors hold signs calling for the closure of Rikers Island jails at a rally in 2019.

Last fall, I attended a community design guidelines meeting for the Manhattan borough-based jail that will replace “the Tombs” as part of the plan to close Rikers. At the time, my nephew had just been transferred upstate after spending two hellish years on Rikers Island. For me, my sisters, and my mom, that also meant two hellish years struggling to support him in an environment that was designed to banish him out of sight and disconnect him from his community. As someone who knows the strain that Rikers puts on families, and as an organizer with Freedom Agenda working to shut it down, I knew that I had the exact insights needed to shape this design process.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to do that. Instead, I was subjected to hours of people shouting that the replacement jail shouldn’t be built at all. They complained about noise, costs, parking, and sometimes very openly about the people who would be held there and people, like me, who would visit them. Some people expressed outrage over the Department of Correction’s failure to keep trees outside The Tombs alive, but made no mention of the dozens of people who have died on Rikers Island since 2021.

At one point a graduate student sitting in front of me, who later told me she was an abolitionist, rolled her eyes and said mockingly, “Oh how nice, you’re gonna make a visiting room…in a jail.” I thought about the multiple buses and hours-long wait I had to endure to sit in a cramped, decrepit Rikers visiting room and look at my nephew through glass so scratched I could barely see him.

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