Closing a prison

How to close a prison

Phil Bowen

Over the weekend, an independent commission, led by a senior judge, recommended the closure of a super prison. It was a move endorsed by the city’s Mayor. Having taken evidence from prosecutors, defence lawyers, prison officers, community advocates, victims groups, ex-prisoners and their families and the public themselves, the report states baldy that more prison “does not equal greater public safety” and that we must replace our current model of… incarceration with something that is more effective and more humane.”

The prison in question is the complex of jails on Rikers Island, the place of reform, New York City. And Judge Lippmann’s report does hold key ingredients that British justice reformers, disturbed by the levels of violence in our prisons and appalled at the ineffectiveness of our prison sentences, should take note of.

First, the Commission’s report sees the nest of humiliation, violence and impersonality that is Rikers Island as the natural consequence of a criminal justice system which itself is in need of dramatic change. By going all the way back to who is arrested and what happens to them, how those cases are processed, how defendants are triaged and assessed and what the evidence-based community sentence alternatives are, the report recognises that the closure of mass incarceration sites must be predicated on a platform of wider humane and effective justice reform.

Second, the Commission’s report roots a substantial part of its argument in dollars and cents. By moving toward smaller, community-based prisons in each of New York City’s five  boroughs, with lower staff to prisoner ratios, the Commission’s report reckons that the city can accrue savings of around $540m each year in reduced operational costs. Ignoring hard, cashable savings in pounds and pence is a recipe for reform which will go nowhere fast in this country.

Third, this is a report about one city’s prison problem. And its solutions are tailored around one city’s assets, one city’s complications and one city’s moral, political, social and economic situation. In finding solutions, the report recognises that reform has to understand and work around and through the existing tapestry of the city— to paint over an already existing mural, a mural whose brush strokes are tiny and intricate and often… quite wonderful…”  This sense of place is so far removed from the meat cleaver of our central government’s prison closure and capacity building programme; the report’s underlying sense is of local, democratic power engaging with communities of practice and place, producing a heady perfume far sweeter than the dank, stagnant pong of many of our government ‘consultations’ and quick fire decisions to close establishments to ship people further away from their families. Instead, what we have here are proposals to set up four smaller, more humane facilities, sensitively located in the boroughs of New York.

Four, and it is an easy one to miss, the closure of Rikers is predicated on falls in the jail population. Earlier last week, prior to the announcement, the New York City mayor’s office put out a cheerleading press release about an 18% fall in the jail population. The whole closure of Rikers is only possible because jail numbers are tumbling down. That itself is the product of wider and long term investment in better community sentence options. And it is perhaps a stark contrast that, in New York, falls in the jail population are heralded by senior politicians, whereas here there remains a stubborn insistence that the population should be whatever it is.

It is easy, as Brits, to be sniffy about justice reform in America—mass incarceration super-sized, racial inequality institutionalised, violence pervasive. And until the last prisoner has left Rikers and the wrecking balls start their work in this ten year plan, no one should count their chickens. But in offering a vision of a different justice system, a different way of punishing and rehabilitating, a justice system closer to and more understanding of its communities, maybe we should stop and learn from New Yorkers about how to close a prison.