Do you think we need more jails?” I ask. It’s cold and grey. I’m talking with a cop outside the gates of New York City Hall, where abolition activists from the No New Jails campaign are being blocked by New York Police Department officers from entering a City Council meeting that’s voting on the construction of four new jails across three out of five of the city’s boroughs.
The officer, whose name I didn’t catch, was friendly-ish, seemingly more willing to talk with me than the other cop I approached earlier that afternoon. “I don’t know. Hopefully everything works out for the best.”
For activists and currently-incarcerated people, that’s not happening. On October 17, City Council voted in favor of investing $11 billion to build new cages while closing the jails on Rikers Island, a place notorious for extreme violence, neglect, and incompetence.
“Decades of experience and research show that policing and jailing don’t contribute to community safety or wellbeing, but actually make our families, neighborhoods, and social relationships less secure,” the No New Jails group states in their proposed alternative plan to decarcerating New Yorkers.
Hakim Trent, a person currently incarcerated in a Virginia prison and standing in solidarity with the No New Jails campaign, told the independent investigative news site ShadowProof, that “the prison/jail itself stands as a place of un-human, inhumane punishment” where “the conditions are inhumane, inadequate, dangerous, unsafe, and barbaric.”
It may only be worsening, too. Incidents involving use of force by the city’s Department of Corrections (DOC) officers against incarcerated people increased by 29 percent in fiscal year 2019—all while DOC dodged accountability, referencing “a higher density of violent charges and gang affiliations” to justify its own violence.
Based off of his personal experience, Trent believes jails, like the 10 on Rikers, need to be abolished.
I’m curious what the cop thinks. “What’s your opinion on closing Rikers?”
He shakes his head, smiling. He looks to his fellow officer. They hold their breaths and each others’ gazes.
“It’s not my call,” she lets out.
Some of the city politicians making the “call” are torn. “I don’t like voting to build jails,” tweeted Councilmember Brad Lander a few hours before voting. “But I believe voting yes today is our most likely path to incarcerating the fewest people in the least inhumane conditions.” In a similar vein, Councilmember Stephen Levin told the Brooklyn Eagle before the meeting that he “support[s] the plan, but we still have a long list of issues we need to address.”
Others are more resolute on the issue. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in the meeting that he’s “proud to vote yes.” In contrast, Councilmember Carlos Menchaca voiced vehement opposition to the construction of new jails. “I believe this is not a vote to further the cause of ending mass incarceration by attacking its root causes. Instead, I believe this vote only enriches developers in the short-term while leaving the fate of Rikers in the hands of a future Mayor and a future Council”
My new cop-friend must have a thought on this. “Are you familiar with the plan?”
“Listen, honestly speaking,” he sighs, realizing I’m not going anywhere, “I’ve been in this city for a while, and…” He trails off, likely realizing what he’s about to say, and then pauses.
this is what the city does with our tax dollars instead of investing into schools or housing or healthcare. pigs begin cutting 2nd protestor in an attempt to arrest him. we want $11 billion in our communities, NOT IN MORE CAGES!!! #closerikersnow #nonewjails pic.twitter.com/CGsrqQx309
— No New Jails NYC (@nonewjails_nyc) October 17, 2019
A light bulb seems to go off in his head. He asks me: “Do you think nobody needs to be arrested and put in jail?”
I don’t think anybody should be incarcerated, I said. I agree with the opponents of the new jail construction plan who recognize that the conditions of New Yorkers’ lives—like access to healthcare, education, housing, and employment—are what need to be transformed, not simply where the city cages people. I say something akin to Councilmember Menchaca’s statement in the meeting: “There is nothing in the plan that guarantees investments in our communities to address poverty and insecurity.”
The cop is not satisfied. “I’m not talking about that. I don’t like to use this but—God forbid a woman gets raped, and a cop comes and arrests the guy, where do you put that person?”
His baiting question is contextualized within a system I don’t support—but also within a city that is seeing record-low crime rates, as well as drops in serious crime and incarceration over the past decade.
The cop wants a practical answer to our immediate circumstances, so I answer that I think people who commit incidents of violence need to be contained in a way that prevents further violence, encourages accountability and reflection…
“…Sounds like you’re thinking about a safe place in this world…”
“…but it’s not Rikers or any other jail,” I finished. It shouldn’t inflict more harm, which I, and many others, believe incarceration inherently does. “For me, there’s no situation where caging is going to make it better,” one No New Jails member later tells me from behind the metal fencing used to corral the activists. “Adding violence to that is not going to do anything to end these cycles of harm.”
The cop might actually agree with this activist. “Listen, I’ve read about a lot of things going on [at Rikers]. Seen a lot of things,” he admits to me. “I think it’s bad. I really do. But I’m not the person in charge.”
“But you’re involved,” I remind him.
“NO! How?” he exclaimed, shocked at a banal fact.
“You’re a cop. You arrest people.”
He laughs. He looks at his fellow officer. “Are you involved?” he poses, amused at the question. “No comment,” she smirks. I remind him that it’s literally in his job description. “No, I don’t arrest people.”
I try to rephrase it, but my tongue slips, accidentally asking if he’s ever been arrested. He cackles.
“He just asked me if I’ve ever been arrested!” I’m a woman, I wanted to say. I don’t. I swat the misapplied pronoun away.
I’m surprised by his denial, but expected his mockery. I get it; he probably realized, once we started chatting, that he wasn’t supposed to be talking to me, or about a cause that would make his job obsolete. I’m sure he’s been trained to chant no comment.
But our conversation reminded me of how the people who are intimately intertwined in a system that devastates and traumatizes black and brown New Yorkers, like law enforcement officers and politicians, don’t want to accept responsibility for the power that they exercise on a daily basis. It’s you; not me.
“Do you ever feel bad when you arrest someone? That you’re sending them to Rikers?”
“I don’t know. If someone’s done something bad, they have to think about the consequences of them doing something wrong. God forbid, if someone hurt you, you want something done about that situation, right? So you give me an answer to that.”
Photo of a No New Jails protester outside of the City Hall gates guarded by New York Police Department officers; by No New Jails via Twitter