Erich Hartmann

Could Our Jails Be a Civic Asset?

Elizabeth Glazer and Greg Berman

March 12, 2024

An editors' note

An editors' note

Let’s be honest. The backbeat loop playing in every New Yorker’s head is: “Who’s better than us?” You can hear the echo of this refrain in the iconic tagline of the New York Post’s columnist Cindy Adams: “Only in New York, kids, only in New York.” Or at the end of Mayor Adams’ press conferences, where the sound of his recorded voice pipes him out: “There are only two types of Americans: those who live in New York, and those who wish they could.” 

But. There is at least one notable exception to the perhaps obnoxious dance of self-celebration New Yorkers do: The city’s jail system is in every way the opposite of “Who’s better than us?”

It is not simply a piece of rhetoric but a quantifiable reality how unspeakably bad the conditions in the jails are, how poorly run and overseen and, now, how much more they resemble banana republics — in governance (or chaos), opacity and brutality — than the ideals of a pluralistic and democratic society.  But that is where we are. 

In the past couple of years, the city’s jails have seen the highest rates of death and violence in decades and the effective walk-out of a third of its workforce. It is now generally accepted that the jails must be rebuilt — both physically and in management — in order to control the violence. Just last week, a federal judge, overseeing a consent decree aimed at the violence, said this to the City: “The level of danger posed to individuals in custody and employees at Rikers island is still unacceptable….[I]t remains essential that the Department continues to work towards structural transformation.” 

Why is it so bad? A failure of governance and operations? Accountability? Imagination? And what can be done to fix it?

Vital City is launching a special series that takes a deeper look at why the jail system is stuck in a morass. Our goal is to articulate not just what New York should be aspiring to, but how to get there. We begin by focusing on the population in the city’s jails.

Jails don’t need to be a horror show. In Norway, for example, the entire apparatus is oriented towards ensuring that people are better situated to be productive members of society upon leaving than they were coming in. Life inside is intended to be “normal,” with incarcerated  people living in units where they cook together, in facilities where they are trained and connected to work upon release. The architecture is world-famous and the competition to become a corrections officer is intense, with only about one in 10 making it into the two-year training. In Pennsylvania, this model is being used in a portion of the prison system, called Little Scandinavia. There are examples to draw from in Montgomery County, Maryland, Travis County, Texas, among other places. Why can’t New York aspire to a similar ideal? Why are the jails left out of New Yorkers’ vision of themselves and their city as the best on earth?

Vital City is launching a special series that takes a deeper look at why the jail system is stuck in a morass. Our goal is to articulate not just what New York should be aspiring to, but how to get there. We begin by focusing on the population in the city’s jails:  How many people should the jails hold? What kinds of conduct should merit entry? And how long should people be held? 

In subsequent releases, Vital City will examine the conditions inside, asking how violence can be quelled. We will also address that most quintessential of New York questions — What about the real estate? — looking at what kinds of facilities can be built or rehabbed, where they should be sited, and at what cost. We will also explore the future of Rikers Island itself. 

In addressing these issues, we will hew closely to the data to try to understand what is driving the persistent dysfunction. And we will seek out solutions across an array of viewpoints, without ruling out any particular option that might get New York City to what we believe is an initial irreducible minimum: jails that perform their function — the detention of those awaiting trial and those serving short sentences — with the highest commitment to safety, dignity and well-being of all those incarcerated, staffing and visiting the jails.  

Some history

We do not write on a blank slate. The problems that bedevil the jails today were familiar to the reformers who built the jails on Rikers Island in the 1930s believing that the fresh air and access to recreation would be a significant improvement on the dank and crowded jails lodged in city streets. In the 1950s, Anna M. Cross, the pioneering commissioner of correction, implemented an array of programs for people incarcerated, intended to both reduce violence inside and increase the likelihood that people leaving jail would not return. In the 1970s, Herb Sturz, the legendary public servant who was then serving as the Mayor’s Criminal Justice Coordinator, advanced a plan to sell Rikers Island to the state and build jails within the boroughs, only to see it founder upon the rocks of local politics.

Since then the city has been revisiting, but not advancing, the rock up the mountain. The location of the jails on an island seems a metaphor for a forgotten population. But it is a not-so-metaphorical fact that the island’s isolation tends to hide wrong-doing from the natural surveillance that family, lawyers and others might otherwise provide if they had easy access to those incarcerated. The island’s isolation also makes jail operations susceptible to the kind of strong-arm politics that come with having the power to “close the bridge,” disrupting court proceedings until demands are met. The jails themselves are physically dilapidated, with deteriorating walls and fixtures transformed into weapons for those who seek them. Lack of sufficient air conditioning in summer and heating in winter further aggravate the misery and tension that contribute to the uncontrolled violence. 

In the 1990s, the New York City Police Department made the stunning announcement that they would hold themselves responsible for controlling crime. Similarly, the size of the jail population also can be controlled.

Five years ago, a vigorous campaign to “Close Rikers,” led by formerly incarcerated people and taken up by a commission appointed by the then-City Council speaker and chaired by a former chief judge of the New York State court system, pushed the mayor and the City Council to bring to fruition a plan to build jails in four of the five boroughs. The idea behind the move was that jails closer to family and to courts, and designed in a way that would promote a safer and more dignified environment for those incarcerated and those who work and visit the jails. The capstone of the plan was to reduce the jail population to 3,300 from the 7,000 that it was at the time of passage of the plan, and to fix the culture of the jails, a codeword for reducing violence, through improved training of staff and better programming for those incarcerated, among other things. The City Council approved the plan along with passage of a land use agreement that both greenlit the city sites for the four jails and also forbade the use of the island for incarceration after 2027.

Since then, the plan appears to be falling further and further behind schedule, with an announcement just this week that the jails will not be done until 2029. The number of people incarcerated has steadily risen from a low in April 2020 of under 4,000 to over 6,000 today. The building plan seems in limbo, with sitework and the demolition of the jails underway but only the contract to build the Brooklyn jail awarded. Information about the status of the jail build, the total cost of the construction or the anticipated size of the buildings and the number of people they will hold is learned not by examining the capital budget or other public government data, but by snippets of information gleaned from meetings, documents passed samizdat-style among policy wonks or extracted by FOILs revealing, for example, the “napkin math” that apparently guides the City’s actions. The latest indications are that the total cost has exploded well past the original eye-watering $8 billion price tag. The population is now anticipated to be anywhere between 7,000 and over 10,000, with each facility now planned to hold 1,040 beds, up from the original plan of 886. Meanwhile, the “culture” in the existing jails continues to go backward, to the extent that the federal judge overseeing the  consent decree intended to quell the violence has invited briefing on whether the conditions merit the appointment of a “receiver,” who would take over operations and the executive function of the department from the current administration.  

What’s in this issue?

How many people go in and how long they stay is the foundation stone for any plan to improve the operations of the jails. In the 1990s, the New York City Police Department made the stunning announcement that they would hold themselves responsible for controlling crime. Today, we take for granted that crime can, in fact, be controlled (even if we also know that police are not the only reason why crime drops). Similarly, the jail population also can be controlled if we focus the attention of government on this question. We know this because we have seen it happen: As “Pick a Number, Any Number,” recounts, it was this kind of discipline that led to the lowest jail population since the 1940s alongside the lowest crime numbers in recorded history in the years preceding the pandemic. How that happens and why is wrapped up in a confusing mix of science, politics, inertia, and action often well-larded with ideology.

Alex Piquero, the former head of the National Bureau of Justice Statistics, points out that prediction is essential to governance, permitting planning for the housing and care of people in custody and upon release. Two scholars of incarceration, one a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, underscore Piquero’s point, adding that careful prediction can help keep government on track to ensure that policies are well executed and that transparency, about both the numbers and the assumptions that lie behind them, is crucial to this process.

Mike Rempel and Charles Fain Lehman, both of whom have thought long and hard about the issue of incarceration, approach jail population estimates from different perspectives with different results, both of which deserve serious consideration. Rempel looks hard at some calculations by type of population as to what the impact of various policies might be, depending on how they are implemented. Lehman makes a powerful case against hopium — noting some of the realities and uncertainties the city must address, not least of which are whether crime can be controlled or reduced and how incarceration can contribute to safety. 

Is there a way forward? A major impediment is the increasing amount of time that people are needlessly spending in jail. Solving this problem could offer a path toward closing Rikers that does not trip partisan political wires.  Just as there is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the trash, building a more efficient justice system is not a matter of ideological contention. Ensuring that cases move with fair dispatch to their conclusion (whatever that may be) sidesteps the fraught politics around, for example,  pretrial release, which requires a judgment to be made about who poses a risk and who doesn’t that is often contested.

New York State’s chief administrative judge calls out this problem, noting how the law and practice can amp up time in custody and what the judiciary can do to control it. Stunningly, simply by getting back to the lengths of stay of a few years ago, the jail population would fall to well below the 3,300 targeted for the jail plan. But, of course, doing that is not so easy. It will require many different decision makers — judges, prosecutors, defenders — to do the hard work of collectively overseeing operations together, as two veterans of the city’s operations teams tell us in an interview with Vital City. Other pieces look at the people incarcerated, the pretrial options available to judges, and the unique challenge of mental illness.

The obstacles to New York having a jail system that delivers on its commitments and, even, becomes a model for the best, frankly, enormous. We are not naive about this. But we are also New Yorkers. We have lived through remarkable transformations in the city, which saved the lives of thousands and transformed the life trajectories of thousands more. Reach back to your history books and you will find countless other examples of New York achieving remarkable things — engineering marvels, absorbing new immigrants from around the world, and many more. To have the jails we deserve will require only two things: vision and execution. At Vital City, we hope to help with both.

As always, we look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Liz Glazer and Greg Berman