Skip to content Skip to navigation


Mainstream reform efforts are simply evolving, not ending, mass incarceration

Borough jails graphic
     Photo: AFSC

The past decade has seen a handful of significant victories for the criminal justice reform movement, including the election of so-called progressive prosecutors across the country, a proposed overhaul of California’s cash bail system, the elimination of Jim Crow jury laws in Louisiana, and the passage of Amendment 4 in Florida. And yet, the United States still remains the most incarcerated nation in the world. In fact, while both our prison and jail populations have dropped by 10 percent since 2007, experts predict that, at the current rate of decarceration, it will take another 75 years to cut the currently incarcerated population in half.

From this macro-view, it is understandable why the criminal justice reform movement is undergoing a larger identity crisis. There are deep questions about creating a sustainable impact against the behemoth of mass incarceration.

The frontlines of this tension recently played out in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his $8.7 billion plan to replace the infamous Rikers Island with four new “community-based” jails. Despite the broad appeal of closing a jail steeped in a history of violence, profound and fundamental disagreements have arisen between grassroots and institutional reform advocates about what the end goals of the movement to close Rikers should be: To support its replacement with modern, humane or hybrid jails? Or to push for deeper decarceration efforts that would make new facilities unnecessary?

From major cities to border towns, this same debate is taking place across the US in communities where proponents of hybrid jails have championed them as either humane alternatives or, simply, repurposed facilities from the carceral state of yore. But without more intentionality around what constitutes legitimate criminal justice reform and a re-imagining of what the long-term future holds for directly-impacted communities, hybrid jails are merely helping to evolve mass incarceration rather than reducing the size and scope of the system in any substantive or impactful way.

We must all recognize that a cage by any other name is still a cage, and mass incarceration will not end until we vision more boldly.

The Modern Softer Jail
Built almost a century ago, Rikers Island has the capacity to detain up to 15,000 people at any given time, making it the second-largest jail in the US. Notorious for its pervasive violence and inhumane conditions, it’s where 16-year-old Kalief Browder spent three brutal years in pre-trial detention for allegedly stealing a backpack. After his case was dismissed and he was finally released, Browder succumbed to the traumas of incarceration and took his own life in 2015 at the age of 22. In the wake of Kalief’s death, and as an indictment of a system that has victimized generations of Black and brown New Yorkers, the campaign to #CLOSErikers was launched, inspiring prison abolitionists to boldly advocate for closing down one of the worst jails in America. And still, it took a year of intense public pressure before de Blasio eventually committed to close Rikers, stipulating that doing so would be tough.

De Blasio revealed that the closure would only happen in tandem with his plan to “modernize the city’s corrections” by replacing Rikers with new community-based jails in four of NYC’s five boroughs. The NYC Planning Commission, meanwhile, held open hearings with community boards of the impacted boroughs.

As the planning for these community-based jails progressed, a deeper fissure within the criminal justice reform movement began to reveal itself, especially once $8.7 billion in projected costs became public knowledge. On one side, grassroots abolitionists formed the No New Jails (NNJ) Coalition, who demanded that the projected costs be invested directly into under-resourced communities, rather than replacing Rikers Island. On the other side, the #CLOSErikers campaign, representing prominent foundations and non-profits including JustLeadershipUSA and the Vera Institute, stood in full support of the mayor’s plan, arguing that community-based, hybrid jails are the most humane approach to address inhumane jail conditions, providing a “realistic” pathway to closing the penal colony.

As the debate amongst advocates waged on, the Mayor’s Office spent considerable effort marketing de Blasio’s vision for “humane upgrades” and multi-purpose community spaces for the new jail facilities. In one example, the facility proposed in Queens’ Kew Gardens – for the city’s relatively small population of incarcerated women – would include a maternity ward and nursery, plus “a large lobby with retail space that [could] be rented to community organizations [and have] an abundance of natural lighting.” Members of the No New Jails Coalition argued that “humane” is also a relative term.

In an op-ed published earlier this year, NNJ members Justin C. Cohen and Kei Williams added: “If the city can find tens of billions of dollars to criminalize and isolate our most marginalized neighbors in cages, why can’t we figure out a way to invest in the improvements that our communities need to thrive?”

Repurposed Cages: Hybrid Jails for Migrants
As part of a wave of decarceration efforts across the country, another kind of hybrid is also taking shape: the repurposed jail. On the surface, repurposing formerly carceral spaces sounds in-line with the progressive tone of most criminal justice reform campaigns that have sought to reduce the size and financial burden of mass incarceration. However, these spaces have proven to be nothing more than backdoor efforts to preserve the prison industrial complex.

The trend has, for example, alarmed reform advocates in Louisiana, where–after the passage of several criminal justice reform bills in 2017–many felt that the state was well on its way to losing its title as the most incarcerated state in the country. When Oklahoma bumped Louisiana as the top incarcerator in the US in 2018, it appeared progress was on the horizon. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), however, saw the state’s reform efforts as an opportunity to “repurpose” Louisiana’s newly-underutilized jails to meet its ever-growing need for more immigrant detention sites.

According to Mother Jones, “Louisiana’s jail population dropped by about 2,700 between October 2017 and December 2018. ICE’s new contracts let it send about 2,800 people to [three] jails.” As of October of 2019, that number has skyrocketed to eight jails across Louisiana, which are now detaining over 8,000 migrants. According to The Associated Press:

ICE has stepped into the void [created by criminal justice reform measures in Lousiana]. At Winn [jail], which started detaining migrants in May, employee salaries have risen from $10 an hour to $18.50. Local officials have signed contracts that guarantee millions in payments to the local government, the state, and a private prison company based in the state, while still allowing ICE to detain migrants at a daily cost well below its national average.

Louisiana now has a larger incarcerated population than it had prior to the passage of criminal justice reform legislation in 2017. But, because the numbers include two differently tracked populations, this fact has been obfuscated from a public who thinks that criminal justice reform is winning.

Just one hour from the US-Mexico border here in Tucson, Arizona, a more altruistic migrant hybrid jail took shape this past summer. The detention wing of Pima County’s Juvenile Court Center was constructed in 2000 with room to detain up to 306 children, based on false projections of increased crime rates. However, the implementation of more progressive reforms around juvenile justice, coupled with decreased crime rates, has meant that the facility has held no more than 100 children at any given time over the past decade. With nearly two-thirds of the active juvenile facility unused, Pima County’s Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to allow a Catholic nonprofit to sublease three detention pods for its temporary migrant shelter for asylee families being released from Border Patrol custody.

Proponents of the migrant shelter project pointed out that renovations would remove the more carceral features of the detention pods and that a new “non-securitized” entrance would be built. Tucson City Councilmember Steve Kozachik added that “The county facility will be a welcoming place of respite. People need to get over what it used to be and live in the present.” But this dangerous precedent of repurposing specifically lies in the details of shared costs that are, in essence, propping up the prison industrial complex. For example, the migrant shelter currently shares the costs of electricity ($8,000 per month) and food services ($59,400 per month) with the juvenile detention center. The migrant shelter, then, is yet another hybrid that is replacing incarcerated children with a revolving door of asylee migrant families.

But, of course, it’s all much more humane.

The Next Generation
On October 17, 2019, the New York City Council approved the final plans to construct Bill de Blasio’s borough-based jails. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson stated: “What we are doing today will reshape the city for generations to come and impact the lives of every New Yorker.”

Rikers Island historian Jarrod Shanahan has pointedly disagreed, stating:

“Once again, credentialed experts in…‘social justice’ have debased themselves and abused the public’s trust by throwing their weight behind new carceral facilities that will soon resemble the old ones. That is, if the city even bothers to close the old ones down.”

To be fair, there are a few examples of communities working to decarcerate and repurpose jail facilities in wholly successful ways, including the Atlanta City Detention Center. But this trend of hybrid jails is being baked into criminal justice reform victories.

The Reform L.A. Jails Coalition, for instance, managed to shut down the L.A. Sheriff’s Department’s plans to build its own $938-million hybrid mental-health jail. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors then agreed to divert $277 million of the defunct project into mental-health treatment services. However, $20 million of those funds will instead be invested into 2,200 carceral supportive housing beds that will be managed directly by the L.A. Sheriff’s Department of Re-entry, effectively funding an alternative incarceration that is not only being overseen by the police but is also allowing them to co-opt the role of “service providers.”

Therein lies the struggle: As altruism and progressive ideals around criminal justice reform become more mainstream, they are often co-opted to camouflage a system that is still operating in its full glory. If most advocates can agree that mass incarceration is not making communities safer, getting people out of cages simply isn’t enough. As we’ve seen in Louisiana, partially-decarcerated facilities are detaining new populations ensnared in the punishment system. Or in other cases, improving the aesthetics of incarceration with nurseries and bay windows is distracting our gaze from the people who remain deprived of their freedom.

The legacy of this hybrid jails trend remains to be seen. But we must all recognize that a cage by any other name is still a cage, and mass incarceration will not end until we vision more boldly.

About the Author

Tiera Rainey is a Program Coordinator with AFSC-AZ, where she advocates and organizes against the use of alternative forms of carceral control, including electronic monitoring and surveillance. A graduate of Vassar College and George Washington University, she is an abolitionist and proud Black second-generation Tucsonan.