Op-Ed: New York should not close its jails and prisons

Rows of prison cells, prison interior.
Rows of prison cells, prison interior. Stock Photo from 123rf

Within the State of New York, there are many jails and prisons; some are local jails owned and operated by New York City; some are owned by County Governments outside NYC. There are dozens of New York State Prisons and there are several federal prisons operated by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) spread across the State of New York.

Due to declining crime rates and changing criminal justice policies, there has been a very substantial drop in the numbers of people being admitted to NYC jails and NYS prisons. NYC jails in 2000 held 19,000 people in custody and today the number is about 5,000. And, in 2000 NYS prisons held 71,000 people in custody; today that number is 31,000.

As a result of these two prison systems’ marked decrease in people in custody, there have been many calls to close the empty or near empty facilities. And, there have been major expose of fraud, corruption and violence in these correctional facilities. Protesters have argued that ‘Closing Rikers’ and tearing down the three existing boro-based jails–and building up ‘smaller’ boro-based jails was the answer to jail violence. The absurdity of that argument is manifest on its face. The same correction officer and inmates who were violent on Rikers will be doing the same misdeeds in these newly built boro-based jails. It’s the height of foolishness to claim that these people will suddenly make nice because their location changed.

Under now-former Mayor de Blasio, contracts to tear down Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan Detention Complexes were issued. Demolition costs to tear down Brooklyn House of Detention alone is roughly $40 million alone. This is a huge waste of money; these three jails were okay as it was. We are told the whole “close-Rikers-and-build-new smaller-boro-based jails” scam is costing about $10 billion–more waste of taxpayers money. No talk of the disruption to the surrounding neighborhoods and the coming traffic nightmares during the demolition and later construction either. There has been no talk at all of what will happen to Rikers once the NYC Department of Correction pulls out. Elected officials have failed us.

Recently the governor announced plans to close six NYS prisons. This announcement comes as the Governor appeases voters as Election Day fast approaches that the closure of these six prisons will save $142 million dollars. The governor does not tell us where that money will go–just like we still do not know what will happen to Rikers Island once the DOC pulls out. Furthermore, the governor offers NO plan for what will happen to these six NYS prisons upon closure. Well, here is a good plan–do not close them–keep them open and functioning as prisons.

States across the nation are struggling with massive prison overcrowding. Those states include New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Texas and California. Moreover, the federal prison system is bulging at its seams with 150,000 people in custody. Thousands of New York residents are currently serving prison sentences in federal prisons across the USA.

It’s time to develop a plan where these New York residents can serve their federal or state prison sentences in these near-empty NYS prisons. Such a plan to rent out these NYS prisons would attain multiple worthy goals. 1) it would raise very large sums of money for the NYS economy 2) it would create employment opportunities for NYS residents to work at these facilities and for others who have businesses that are near the prisons. 3) it would reduce the severe overcrowding at these aforementioned facilities and 4) it would give criminal justice advocates just what they have been seeking for years. That is moving New Yorkers out of prisons located in distant locales and closer to the Metropolitan New York City region where most of them come from. Ask the Brooklyn resident serving time in a federal prison in Texas would he gladly accept a transfer to an NYS prison–the answer is likely ‘yes’.

It’s time to keep those six NYS prisons OPEN and rent them out to overcrowded federal and state prisons around the country with first preference to New York Residents.

Joe Gonzalez is a Community Activist who lives and works in Brooklyn NY