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Testimony for NYC City Council Committee on Criminal Justice Oversight Hearing – Alternatives to Detention and Incarceration in New York City

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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Thank you Chair Carlina Rivera for holding this hearing and inviting our testimony. My name is Yonah Zeitz, I’m the director of advocacy at the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. We’re based in Brooklyn, and our members come from across the city and state. Our members include people who have been incarcerated in city jails and state prisons, family members of currently and formerly incarcerated people, and more. Many of our members know from personal experience exactly how horrific Rikers really is.

New Yorkers – including our members at Katal — are deeply concerned about the ongoing crisis on Rikers Island. The conditions at New York City’s massive jail complex are horrific and life-threatening for human beings – the people incarcerated and those who work there.[i] Violence is rampant.[ii] Racism and other types of bias are deeply entrenched.[iii] And though Black and Latinx people constitute about half of the city’s population, they represent almost 90 percent of jail admissions.[iv]

Most people on Rikers Island haven’t been convicted: They’re being held in jail pretrial while considered innocent because, unlike those who have money, they can’t afford bail.[v] This is wrong.          

Rikers has become the city’s largest mental health facility. More than 50 percent of people incarcerated there have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, yet they have little or no access to meaningful care while they are locked up.[vi]

Under Mayor Eric Adams, conditions at Rikers have gotten worse. Violence at Rikers is out of control. At least 28 people have died in the city jail system since Adams became mayor in 2022.[vii] But the actual number of deaths is unknown, because under this administration, the Department of Correction (DOC) has become less transparent and at one point even declared that they would stop reporting deaths to the public.[viii]

Under Mayor Adams, the crises and scandals within the Department of Correction have also gotten worse.  DOC is plagued by dysfunction, exacerbating harms to people in its jails. This has only gotten worse under Mayor Adams. Now the DOC is attempting to hide its extraordinary dysfunction by refusing to release information to the public.[ix] In response to this disaster, the federal monitor, appointed by the federal courts in 2015, has sounded the alarm about “imminent risk of harm” for everyone at Rikers – the people incarcerated and those who work there.[x]       

Under Mayor Adams, the city is no longer on track to shut Rikers down. In 2017, under pressure by community groups and advocates who organized for many years, Bill de Blasio, then mayor, announced that New York City would close Rikers. In 2019, the city council passed a package of related bills to shutter the jail complex by 2027.[xi]

Today, the 2019 closure plan is effectively dead. Mayor Adams has simply ignored the legal and process benchmarks of the 2019 plan. Or worse, the mayor has worked to undermine core tenets of the 2019 plan, particularly with regard to reducing the jail population.

As you know, the 2019 plan requires the population to be brought down to less than 4,000. This is entirely feasible: for more than two decades, the population at Rikers was generally, on a downward trend along with crime rates in our city—we showed that, reducing incarceration and reducing crime went hand in hand. But since his first day in office, Mayor Adams has worked to reverse that trend. There were about 5,000 people in city jails when Adams became mayor. Today, there are about 6,000 people in city jails.[xii] And the mayor and his team aren’t done. Last December, DOC Commissioner Louis Molina told this very committee that they are planning for the city’s jail population to go up to 7000.[xiii] That means jailing nearly 1,000 more people – pretrial.

Meanwhile, Adams has cut budgets for essential services across the city and at Rikers, including vital alternatives to incarceration and reentry programming, while maintaining billions in funding for police and jails.[xiv]

In June, the eleven organizations in the vital ATI/Reentry coalition sent a letter to the mayor and this city council outlining the urgency of the situation: the constellation of ATI programs in our city, which have proven to make our communities safer while reducing jail populations, have faced devastating budget cuts. These cuts are contributing to the increase in the jail population, which, in turn, means that the goal of closing Rikers is moving further away from our grasp. The ATI/Reentry Coalition highlighted that while they are facing budget cuts, even the existing mechanism to reduce the jail population—the 6-A Early Release program, which right now could divert approximately 450 people from city jails into ATI programs — is instead lying dormant and unused by this mayor. Meanwhile, news broke last week that the DOC Commissioner and members of his team just returned from a taxpayer-funded trip to London and Paris. The trip cost our city $40,000. According to the NY Daily News, no report has been publicly released to let us know what, exactly, the commissioner and his team learned on this extravagant trip.[xv] But we know that the commissioner and his team got to visit Big Ben in London.

Speaking of extravagant costs, in fiscal year 2023, the DOC budget cost city taxpayers $1.36 billion; the cost of incarceration at Rikers was $556,539 a person per year, which is $1,525 a day.[xvi] The forecast reported for the DOC budget in fiscal year 2024 is nearly $1.2 billion.[xvii] Why are libraries and educational programs and other essential services being cut when we know ATI’s work, ATI”s are cheaper, and diversion options are available right now to reduce the jail population.

The urgent need for immediate action to reduce the jail population is clear. For years, the federal monitor has filed reports documenting the outrageous levels of violence and dysfunction at Rikers.[xviii] Under Mayor Eric Adams, the levels of violence and dysfunction at Rikers are so egregious that in April 2023, federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York wrote, “Incarcerated people and corrections staff continue to face an imminent risk of harm on a daily basis.”[xix]

People impacted by Rikers, community organizations such as Katal, and advocates have worked to shut down Rikers and hold Adams accountable while demanding action by the city, state, and federal government to save lives. After years of foot-dragging by the courts, in August 2023, federal Judge Laura T. Swain finally opened the door for the appointment of a federal receiver, acknowledging that “people incarcerated at Rikers are at a grave risk of immediate harm” and that “the current state of affairs is tragic and unacceptable.”[xx]

While calls for a federal receiver have circulated for some time, substantial, widespread support for a federal receiver has grown dramatically since 2022 when community groups began demanding actions by the federal court. Today, more than 50 community, advocacy, and faith-based organizations have joined the call for a federal receiver to take over at Rikers. In June, Katal and other community groups worked with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams to introduce city council Resolution 669, which calls for federal receivership.[xxi] Today, nearly 20 council member have co-sponsored the resolution. Earlier this month, the Legal Aid Society and the U.S Attorney for the SDNY filed motions in federal court formally calling for the appointment of an independent federal receiver.

To be clear, Rikers must be shut down. And this Council must aggressively advance and support every possible initiative to expand ATIs in our city.

But as we have seen, this mayor is a roadblock to closing Rikers. His actions show he does not support ATI programming. And under this mayor, the conditions at Riker have become so severe that a growing chorus of community and political leaders – including former correctional officials – are calling for the federal courts to take a drastic step and appoint an independent receiver to take over at Rikers.

While the council continues its work on fighting for ATI’s, we urge this committee to take immediate action to relieve suffering at Rikers by passing Resolution 669. Until Rikers is shut down, there must be immediate action to improve conditions and save lives, and the DOC is both unwilling and incapable of achieving that task.

 

Citations
[i] Erica Bryant. “[It’s] a Torture Chamber: Stories from Rikers Island.” Vera Institute of Justice. February 2022. vera.org/its-a-torture-chamber.
[ii] Jonah E. Bromwich and Jan Ransom. “Rikers Still ‘Unstable and Unsafe’ Under New Jails Chief, Watchdog Says.” The New York Times. March 16, 2022. nytimes.com/2022/03/16/nyregion/rikers-jail-violence-report.html.
[iii] Black and Latino people are far more likely to be incarcerated at Rikers than white people facing similar charges. Young, LGBQTI, and gender nonconforming people face higher rates of violence. Concerns about young people and about transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and intersex (TGNCNBI) people on Rikers Island and in other jails and prisons have long warranted attention. To read more about issues for young people in the city’s jails, see “Case: Nunez and United States v. City of New York.” Nunez and United States v. City of New York 1:11-Cv-05845 (S.D.N.Y.), Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse, July 10, 2023. clearinghouse.net/case/12072. To read more about issues for TGNCNBI people in the city’s jails, see New York City Board of Correction. “Task Force on Issues Faced by TGNCNBI People in Custody.” Updated 2023. www1.nyc.gov/site/boc/jail-regulations/task-force-on-issues-faced-by-tgncbi.page
[iv] United States Census Bureau. “Quick Facts: New York City, New York.” July 1, 2021. census.gov/quickfacts/newyorkcitynewyork; Bruce Western, Jaclyn Davis, Flavien Ganter, and Natalie Smith. “The Cumulative Risk of Jail Incarceration.” PNAS 118, No. 16. (2021). pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2023429118; Reuven Blau. “Racial Gap in City Jails Has Only Gotten Worse, John Jay Study Finds.” The City. March 2, 2023. https://www.thecity.nyc/2023/3/2/23621862/racial-gap-nyc-jails-got-worse
[v] Michael Rempel. Decarceration in the Bail Reform Era: New York City’s Changing Jail Population Since 2019. Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College. December 2022. 2. https://datacollaborativeforjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Decarceration_Reform_Era_NYC7.pdf
[vi] Jan Ransom and Jonah E. Bromwich. “ ‘I Just Want to Be Normal’: A Mentally Ill Man’s Death at Rikers.” The New York Times. September 27, 2021. nytimes.com/2021/09/27/nyregion/rikers-island-esias-johnson.html, citing Anthony Shorris and Mindy Tarlow. Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, February 2016. 62. https://www.nyc.gov/assets/operations/downloads/pdf/pmmr2016/2016_pmmr.pdf
[vii] Jan Ransom and Jonah E. Bromwich. “Tracking the Deaths in New York City’s Jail System.” The New York Times. February 4, 2023. www.nytimes.com/article/rikers-deaths-jail.html
[viii] Reuven Blau. “City Jails No Longer Announcing Deaths Behind Bars, Angering Watchdogs.” The City. May 31, 2023. https://www.thecity.nyc/2023/5/31/23744666/correction-jails-not-announcing-deaths-rikers
[ix] Hurubie Meko. “N.Y.C. Jails Chief Is Hiding Dysfunction at Rikers, Federal Monitor Says.” The New York Times. June 8, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/08/nyregion/rikers-island-jail-report.html; Matt Katz. “Judge Will Consider Federal Takeover of NYC Jails, Including Rikers, This Summer.” Gothamist. June 13, 2023. https://gothamist.com/news/judge-will-consider-federal-takeover-of-nyc-jails-including-rikers-this-summer
[x] Meko, “N.Y.C. Jails Chief”; Reuven Blau. “Secrecy on Severe Jail Injuries Spurs Rikers Monitor to Sound Alarm.” The City. May 29, 2023. https://www.thecity.nyc/2023/5/29/23741411/rikers-jail-injuries-secrecy-corrections-monitor; Matt Katz, “Rikers Detainees at ‘Imminent Risk’ of Harm; Federal Monitor Alleges Five New ‘Disturbing’ Incidents.” Gothamist. May 30, 2023. https://gothamist.com/news/rikers-detainees-at-imminent-risk-of-harm-federal-monitor-alleges-five-new-disturbing-incidents
[xi] Matthew Haag. “N.Y.C. Votes to Close Rikers. Now Comes the Hard Part.” The New York Times. October 17, 2019. nytimes.com/2019/10/17/nyregion/rikers-island-closing-vote.html
[xii] For the 2023 data, see Vera Institute for Justice. “JailVizNYC.” November 28, 2023. https://greaterjusticeny.vera.org/nycjail.
[xiii] Courtney Gross. “Rikers closure plan not on track, commissioner says”. Spectrum News 1. 2023. Retrieved from  https://ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2022/12/14/rikers-closure-plan-not-on-track–commissioner-says
[xiv] Dana Rubinstein and Emma G. Fitzsimmons. “Libraries Spared but Rikers Suffers in $107 Billion N.Y.C. Budget Deal.” The New York Times. June 29, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/29/nyregion/new-york-mayor-city-council-budget-deal.html; Michael Gartland. “NYC Council Approves Mayor Adams’ New Budget, but 12 Lawmakers Dissent.” New York Daily News. June 30, 2023. https://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/new-york-elections-government/ny-city-council-approves-adams-new-budget-20230630-labuyztiarhvddw7uggerzgysi-story.html; Katie Honan. “Council Agrees to $107 Billion Budget Handshake Just Before Deadline.” The City. June 29, 2023. https://www.thecity.nyc/2023/6/29/23778920/city-council-budget-107-billion; Vera Institute of Justice. A Look Inside the Fiscal Year 2024 New York City Department of Correction Budget. March 2023. https://www.vera.org/downloads/publications/A-Look-Inside-the-Fiscal-Year-2024-New-York-City-Department-of-Correction-Budget.pdf
[xv] Graham Rayman. “Amid NYC budget cuts, Correction Commissioner Louis Molina’s trip to London and Paris with 7 aides cost taxpayers $40K”. NY Daily News. 2023. Retrieved: https://www.nydailynews.com/2023/11/28/amid-nyc-budget-cuts-correction-commissioner-louis-molinas-trip-to-london-and-paris-with-7-aides-cost-taxpayers-40k/
[xvi] New York City Comptroller. “Comptroller Stringer: Cost of Incarceration per Person in New York City Skyrockets to All-Time High.” December 6, 2021. comptroller.nyc.gov/newsroom/comptroller-stringer-cost-of-incarceration-per-person-in-new-york-city-skyrockets-to-all-time-high-2
[xvii] New York City Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget. “Expense Budget: Agency Budget Forecast” for the Department of Correction. Updated June 2023. https://www.nyc.gov/site/omb/publications/agency-budgets-projections.page?projection=072
[xviii] For links to the reports, see Tillid. “What Is the Nunez Monitorship?” https://tillidgroup.com/projects/nunez-monitorship
[xix] Steve J. Martin, Kelly Dedel, Anna E. Friedberg, Dennis O. Gonzalez, Patrick Hurley, Alycia M. Karlovich, Emmitt Sparkman, and Christina Bucci Vanderveer. Status Report on DOC’s Action Plan by the Nunez Independent Monitor. April 24, 2023. 27. https://tillidgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/2023-04-24-Status-Report-of-Action-Plan.pdf
[xx] Reuven Blau. “Judge Says ‘Transformative Change’ Needed, Laying Groundwork for a Possible Rikers Takeover”.” The City. August 10, 2023. https://www.thecity.nyc/2023/8/10/23827946/rikers-takeover-judge-receiver
[xxi] New York City Council Resolution 0669-2023. “Resolution Calling on the President of the United States to Immediately Place New York City Jails in Federal Receivership. June 8, 2023. https://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=6252835&GUID=6538B8E0-7680-4612-8D2F-4A62BE2E0F62&Options=&Search=; Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. “Citywide Elected Officials and Community Groups Rally Outside Rikers to Call for Closure of Jail Complex.” June 7, 2023. https://katalcenter.org/city-wide-elected-officials-and-community-groups-rally-outside-rikers-to-call-for-closure-of-jail-complex; Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. “Katal New York Update – June 29, 2023.” https://katalcenter.org/katal-new-york-update-june-29-2023/

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