Against Reform: Beyond Rikers Island

New York City Department of Correction's Tank New York City Department of Correction's Tank
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There are a couple of things I want to say about the 10 reform bills proposed in the NYC Council this week targeting the Department of Corrections.

First, as I mentioned in my rundown, even if these bills pass, they will be meaningless without rigorous enforcement and oversight by the council. Much of the problem here is not that the city lacks regulations over its jails — it’s that the Department of Corrections seems to follow its own rules and break theirs with impunity. For evidence of this, read pretty much any post I’ve written about Rikers Island.

My next point is more of a confession and a question than anything else. I understand why the council is leading its charge with bills aimed at transparency and reporting. They need this data in order to make well-informed decisions about how to change laws governing incarceration in New York City.

But in the end, I can’t help but think back to the final chapter of Nell Bernstein’s incredible book on ending juvenile incarceration, Burning Down The House.

In the chapter titled, “Against Reform: Beyond the Juvenile Prison,” Bernstein writes:

A great strength of our democracy, our reformist nature is also a critical weakness, blinding us to those occasions when a long-standing institution has a fundamental, conceptual flaw– the kind that demands not a wrench but a wrecking ball. If a reform proves inadequate, we simply try again. Another task force is assembled to supplant a now-defunct commission; new committees are assigned to exhume the wreckage of the old. Sometimes, these efforts pay off, and progress — our national religion — is attained. But there are also occasions when our reformist zeal leaves us patching the roof of a building that lacks a foundation.

Are the Mayor and the City Council approaching their criminal justice crisis with the “wrecking ball” it deserves, or the “wrench?”┬áBy maintaining juvenile incarceration, establishing the ESHU and keeping Corizon (among other things), is New York “patching the roof of a building that lacks a foundation?”

Brian Sonenstein
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein is a Berkeley-based writer, activist and former Campaign Director and Associate Publisher for Firedoglake.com. Learn more at http://briansonenstein.com
Brian Sonenstein
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