Bronx Defenders’ Revised Statement on the Closing of Rikers Island and the Creation of Borough-Based Jails

The Bronx Defenders strongly supports closing Rikers Island and the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center (“the Boat”). The conditions within these facilities are inhumane and there is no solution but to permanently close them.

We, nevertheless, retract our original statement that supported replacing Rikers and the Boat with borough-based jails and have decided that we will not lend our voice to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) application for the borough-based jail plan.  The ULURP process requires us to ask what is the right location, size, and capacity for new jails. As public defenders, our role is not to answer these questions; our role is to prevent our clients from being caged and minimize the harm caused by the carceral state.

The Bronx Defenders defends approximately 21,000 people each year in the criminal, family, immigration, and civil legal systems.  While providing legal defense describes what we do, it does not explain why we do it. Our mission is to transform the way low-income people are represented in the legal system and our vision is to transform the system itself.  With respect to our criminal legal system, our mission and vision come from a deep awareness of the fundamental cruelty of the carceral system and the social, financial, and political forces that keep it in place as well as an acknowledgement that it is our clients and their families who bear the brunt of that cruelty.  The transformation we seek is not easy. It is not incremental. And it is not small. It is bold, radical, and ambitious. When it comes to the problem of mass incarceration, what we are seeking is total liberty.  

We do not believe anyone belongs locked up in a cage.  We believe that caging people pre-trial is fundamentally at odds with the presumption of innocence.  We believe all incarceration is inherently violent, oppressive, racist, and destroys human dignity. The suffering caused by the caging of a single human being extends far beyond the individual.  It traumatizes children and inflicts pain on loved ones. It causes economic hardship for families and weakens communities. At every level, we see first hand how our system of punishment enforces and perpetuates deeply entrenched systems of oppression and structural racism.

And so, as public defenders, we fight against all incarceration and for total liberty.

Our vision for total liberty is not based on a utopian ideal. This current political moment offers a unique opportunity to rethink the nature of our criminal legal system, including how to meaningfully address the root causes of arrests and incarceration in New York City.  Meaningfully addressing the root causes requires robust community investment that centers the experiences and addresses the needs of those most impacted by our criminal legal system. It requires that community reinvestment not be located in or contingent on the building of jails.  It requires that we end the over-policing of communities of color and create alternative responses to people in crisis. It requires providing accessible resources and services for those experiencing mental health issues and addiction rather than responding with carceral strategies. It requires addressing the displacement and lack of affordable housing that disproportionately impacts poor Black and brown people. It requires a robust investment in public education. It requires providing reentry services and programs that are not under the control of jails.  It requires embracing a goal of reducing the New York City incarceration population to zero by eliminating all pre-trial detention, creating alternatives to city sentences, and reforming our parole system.

At the same time, we know that while we fight to make total liberty a reality, our clients, their families, and their communities are suffering.  As public defenders our role is to fight alongside our clients for what they need today as well as to strive for a bolder vision of justice tomorrow.  For us, that means that as long as jails do exist, we will fight to reduce the harm they cause. We will fight to close Rikers and the Boat. We will fight to limit the Department of Correction’s total authority over our clients and the culture of violence it fosters across New York City’s jails. We will fight to improve conditions of confinement, end solitary confinement, increase access to healthcare services, and ensure better maintenance and proper ventilation, plumbing, heating, and air conditioning.  We will also fight to ensure that as improvements are made, nobody is left believing that these upgrades make incarceration acceptable. And we will fight to elevate and center our clients’ voices in what the future can and should hold. We know that we are not alone in our fight and look forward to partnering with lawmakers, allies, and most importantly our clients, their families and communities to achieve our shared goals.

As public defenders, we will advocate for our clients, for the freedom they deserve, and for the futures they seek regardless of the outcome of the ULURP application. We remain firm in our dedication to fight for our clients wherever they need our support, to always strive for better outcomes, and to champion reforms and practices that make total liberty a reality.