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Lessons of loss from Rikers: Albany politicians must stop gutting bail reform

In August of last year, two guards and a captain on Rikers Island stood by for at least 10 minutes when Michael Nieves, who suffered from mental illness, slit his throat with a razor. Surveillance video showed the guards looking on as the man bled out. Mr. Nieves was eventually placed on life-support, and died shortly after. He had been in jail without a trial or conviction for three years.

This incident was especially upsetting to me. My sister Layleen Polanco died of a seizure in solitary confinement while jailed on bail she couldn’t afford. Then, too, officers looked on and did nothing to help.

In any halfway decent society, Michael’s death would have caused lawmakers to call for an immediate investigation and decisive action to prevent more tragedies. Here in New York, Mr. Nieves’ death, the 13th of 19 jail deaths that year, occurred amid a campaign season focused on jailing more people, not fewer.

Despite a record rate of deaths in the jails, as well as surging overdoses in this supposedly secure environment, Gov. Hochul is using her fleeting political capital to push for more changes to the bail laws in the state budget with the intention of ensuring more people languish in these jails without a trial or conviction, like my sister and Michael did. Fortunately, the Legislature, led by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, have thus far rejected her proposal, but the budget process gives the governor a lot of power and legislative leaders will need strong support to hold the line.

If Hochul gets her way, this will be the third time New York State lawmakers have weakened the critical protections against pre-trial jailing that form the core of the bail laws they enacted in 2019. The prior two changes to weaken the law have neither reduced crime, nor have they extinguished or contained the political firestorm fueled by rampant misinformation. In fact, this year the media spotlight is fixated on so-called “repeat offenders” shoplifting, despite lawmakers having made second misdemeanor theft arrests eligible for bail and pre-trial jailing just last year.

What lawmakers did accomplish was substantially increasing the jail population, causing more suffering and death, and making the city’s commitment to close Rikers Island harder and harder to fulfill.

If lawmakers make this devastating error again this year, then they are the ones we should label “repeat offenders.”

A corrections officer watches monitors at a security post in an enhanced supervision jail unit on Rikers Island in New York, March 12, 2015.

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Let’s be clear: This is not about balancing safety and justice. Expanding pretrial jailing makes our society less just and less safe. Jailing people pretrial destabilizes individuals and families, perpetuates intergenerational poverty and isolation, and distracts from more effective solutions. Why isn’t the governor holding up the budget for deep investments in supportive and re-entry housing? Or strengthening the safety net? Or protections against unfair evictions? Or material support for the predominantly Black and brown crime victims excluded from victim services funds to help heal trauma and stop cycles of violence?

The safest neighborhoods have the greatest resources, not the highest arrest and incarceration rates. Yet Hochul’s only offering, in her budget proposal, for the state’s 90,000 homeless people is more jail.

What most politicians have only seen in their worst nightmares is the daily reality on Rikers Island and other local jails. Human beings strewn about the floor amid their own waste for days in the intake area. People with serious mental illness are locked in shower cages so small they can’t lie down at all. People lighting fires in their cells to get medical attention because officers fail to bring them to appointments or get them life-saving prescriptions. People fighting with every ounce of their mental fortitude to keep from taking their own lives. Jail officers — city employees — so desensitized by the dehumanizing conditions in which they work day after day that they encourage those in their custody to commit suicide and even watch as they do.

The Rikers Island jail complex stands in New York with the Manhattan skyline in the background.

Everyone deserves to be safe. Does this seem like an environment that promotes positive behavior, especially for people with serious needs?

The bail reform law has spared more than 24,000 people being held on bail for misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges, meaning many New Yorkers who had stable housing, jobs, schooling, delicate medical routines, child care responsibilities, pets, and more when they were arrested were able to keep them. Through all this, the rate of rearrest on these charges declined and the percentage of people who made all their court dates actually increased. Why? Promoting stability is good for public safety.

Lawmakers have a choice: Passively allow the governor to take our state backwards or get loud and demand this budget include investments in what really makes communities safe.

Brown, sister of the late Layleen Polanco, is an activist with the #HALTsolitary Campaign.

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