This is an open letter from clinical, mezzo and macro social work practitioners, researchers, and professors in support of the No New Jails NYC campaign. If you would like to sign on to this letter, please fill out the form below.

October 1, 2019

As social workers, professionals in the field of social work, researchers, advocates and organizers, we urge the New York City Council to reject the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice’s borough-based jail plan. We also call on New York City Council to begin the immediate closure of the jails on Rikers Island. The City’s borough-based plan would open four new detention centers in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. The plan would also open 3-6 hospital-based jails. These jails would supposedly be more “humane,” and “modern,” compared to Rikers Island where Layleen Polanco was killed just this year. The city’s plan would also delay the closure of Rikers until 2026, despite the fact that Rikers is home to a culture which perpetuates unending cycles of violence.

In addition to rejecting the borough-based jail plan, we ask that the City adopt a plan that closes Rikers immediately without building new jails. Unlike the City’s plan, No New Jail’s plan focuses resources exactly where they need to be: through investing in community safety and wellness by increasing support and funding for transformative justice, mental health services, decent affordable housing, public benefits, public education and transportation, harm reduction approaches to drug use, and access to job training and employment. We endorse this plan and urge everyone to distribute it widely.

Given the clear and unconscionable violence that the criminal legal system inflicts, we, as social workers, have a moral and professional obligation to resist it daily and to advance just, equitable and decarceral pathways to community safety and wellness. Jails fracture communities and families, and the very real fear of incarceration plagues those who are targeted by law enforcement and state violence: Black, brown, poor, disabled, transgender, gender non-conforming people and people who have immigrant status, or are engaged in sex work. Incarceration fosters economic inequality and poverty. Prisons and jails dehumanize some of the most vulnerable communities in order to maintain social control by isolating people from their communities, traumatizing them and their families, and denying them autonomy and their humanity.

As social workers we must oppose policies that perpetuate structural violence and racism and further harm. In our profession, we regularly come face to face with the realities of incarceration and the criminal legal system. We recognize both from research and practice that incarceration does little to provide healing for survivors of harm, does not provide avenues for accountability for those who cause harm (who are more often than not survivors themselves), and does not address the roots of inequality, poverty and violence. Instead, it exacerbates them.

While we all engage in social work in different ways and a diverse array of professional spaces, adherence to the core values listed in the National Association of Social Work’s code of ethics is what knits our profession together. These core values include social justice, dignity and worth of the person, and the importance of human relationships. In fighting for social justice, we are committed to the pursuit of “social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people" (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2017). The criminal legal system and incarceration stand in direct opposition to our core values and code of ethics. From the racialized criminalization of poverty, to the continued legacy of slavery and colonialism, from the breaking apart of families, and to the degradation of human dignity, incarceration is in direct opposition to the values and practices of social work. Prison abolition seeks to actualize the vision of social work values and ethics, through abolishing the interlocking oppressions of racism, classism, homophobia, and ableism, and the systems that bolster them, and through building life affirming institutions and practices. We as social workers must stand on the side of abolition.

Throughout history, the social work profession has been deeply intertwined with policing, prisons, and the carceral state. Through engaging in mandated reporting without the consideration of community-lead transformative justice processes, to the overlap between the foster care/child welfare system and the juvenile justice system, social workers have often aided in the dehumanization of our clients and communities. Social workers have also been complicit in the school to prison pipeline which is responsible for the incarceration of young people in ever increasing numbers, primarily Black and brown youth. Too often, social workers are in positions of gatekeeping. Our obligation is to make sure that we do not perpetuate mass incarceration by “feeding” people into the system, or supporting punitive and carceral interventions. Instead, we must fight against oppressive systems and practices and advance just, human-centered alternatives .

Those of us on the outside have a responsibility to show up for, and take leadership direction from incarcerated and formerly incarcerated organizers who have first-hand experience with the horrors of New York’s incarceration system. This is an important opportunity to stand in solidarity with our clients, our colleagues, and our friends and loved ones who have been oppressed and harmed by incarceration by forcefully naming the harm and violence caused by jails and prisons and advocating for community-based supports. These community-based supports can be found in the No New Jails plan which was developed through significant research, consultation with a diverse array of experts and the input of community and people impacted by mass incarceration, unlike the City’s borough-based jail plan, which only received one public city council hearing and closed-door meetings with groups whose financials are heavily intertwined with the state .

Language and theory from our profession has been co-opted and used as justification for expanding the suffering of our friends who are incarcerated. Even now, the City’s proposed plan aims to gain community support by promising “therapeutic” services and increased connection to community. Despite the City’s claim that the borough based jails will be “built upon a foundation of dignity and respect,” jails do nothing to honor and value the dignity and worth of the person. Jails serve as sites for sexual, gender, and race-based violence, with people enduring trauma from their first interaction with the cops. Jails routinely re-traumatize survivors of gender violence and other survivors who are criminalized through incarceration and policing. By relying on jails to provide mental health services, even through the proposed “outposted therapeutic” centers, this plan will expose those living with mental illnesses to more torture and decreased positive health outcomes. In reality, jails do not provide mental health services that we should deem tolerable. Instead, jails warehouse people with mental health issues who are often misdiagnosed and medicated incorrectly. The number of people incarcerated with mental illnesses has dramatically increased over the past 40 years. People can not get well in cages and we cannot sit by and silently observe as the City prepares to use billions of tax payer dollars to further fund this health crisis.

The Mayor is using the far-off and supposed closure of Rikers as justification for building new and "better" jails. Yet, Rikers itself was originally envisioned as a “humane” alternative to prisons. The same Department of Corrections that currently runs Rikers would also be tasked with running the borough-based jails. As with most oppressive systems, the problems and culture of violence that exist within the Rikers Island jails, and those before them, will be replicated in any jail, built anywhere, at any time. This is because a jail is still a jail. Changing the colors of cells, claiming to be “gender-responsive,” or even adding more social workers will not change the fact that as long as incarceration exist, humans will still wrongfully suffer. Social workers who base their practice in jails, work within a system which requires them to perpetuate harm. Employing more social workers will not alleviate this problem. The entire system needs to be eradicated and by closing Rikers and rejecting the borough-based jail plan, the New York city council would be able to focus their efforts on real decarceration.

The carceral state seeks to gain legitimacy by relying on research and practice provided by mental health professionals. Jails and prisons act with more impunity if they continue to incarcerate people under the guise of providing adequate or affirming mental health care. In addition to emphasizing faux “therapeutic” settings, reformers who claim to care about incarcerated people’s long-term mental health, now lift up trauma-informed care as a popular talking point. What these reformers fail to realize is that the best way to address harm in communities and prevent the trauma caused by incarceration is by providing community support to lessen the likelihood of people’s interactions with policing in the first place. Access to mental health services, housing, and other forms of actual care should be prioritized instead of a plan for the construction of new jails.

A realistic look at the numbers will show that the City does not need to open new jails if they instead focused on advancing actual innovation rather than short sighted reforms that re-create the same problems. By fast-tracking implementation of the new bail law, and going further by ending pretrial detention or eliminating cash bail for everyone, the City could send home people who are incarcerated right now. The city could work to decriminalize sex work, and quality of life charges, and stop wasting money on fare evasion campaigns.

Mayor de Blasio's previous attempts at a borough-based jail plan--the move of youth from Rikers to Horizons and Crossroads--only led to increased violence against youth detained in jail. Time and time again the Mayor has shown himself to be someone who is not concerned about the well-being poor, Black, and Brown New Yorkers. His jail plan is just another example of his administration ignoring the voices of community members to push a political agenda that is not reflective of their needs. Therefore, if the City decides to support the Mayor's plan and invest $11 billion in new jails, it is simply unrealistic to anticipate that MOCJ will not do everything in their power to earn a return on their investment. To put it simply: “if they build it, they will fill it.” This means that more time and resources will be spent on locking people up for minor offenses, and cutting people off from much-needed mental health resources. Continued incarceration is an inevitability under this plan.

Though the City claims that the jails will provide useful community amenities, we argue that community cannot be effectively built in a facility that cages our loved ones while keeping them isolated and at extreme risk for harm. Community is built through managing harm and conflict through transformative and restorative processes, while honoring the humanity of all those involved. Community is also built through increased access to social services, which could be funded using the $11 billion the City hopes to spend on their jail plan. Increased access to affordable housing, education, and harm-reduction services would improve the quality of life for thousands of New Yorkers. Improving public transportation and making it free and accessible should be a main priority of the City, who instead focuses on criminalizing people for being Black. As detailed in the No New Jails plan the city could “devote $220 million per year to establish and staff a comprehensive city-wide transformative justice project.” The city could also “devote $157 million per year to comprehensive harm reduction programming, including expanding access to low threshold syringe exchange, MAT, and recovery programs; and establishing and staffing safer injection facilities in existing community-based harm reduction programs.”

As abolitionist social workers, we fight daily against the racist and classist origins of our profession and choose to resist furthering the surveillance and division of Black and Brown communities. While we push for the immediate closure of Rikers, we do so with the awareness that Rikers is one facet of an expansive anti-Black system that will never truly keep us safe. Building community and providing affirming and sustainable mental-health care is central to the work that we do, and this cannot exist in Rikers, just as much as it cannot exist in the proposed borough-based jails. With care for our clients and their communities, our families, friends and loved ones in mind, we call on City Council to close Rikers immediately, reject the Mayor’s plan, and focus on allocating funds to programs that actually affirm the dignity and worth of those we work to serve.

  1. Kristina Agbebiyi, MSW, Survived and Punished NY Chapter
  2. Juli Kempner
  3. Cameron Rasmussen, LMSW, Columbia School of Social Work / CUNY Graduate Center
  4. Lawrielle West, University of Michigan School of Social Work
  5. Krystal Kavita Jagoo, MSW, RSW
  6. Caitlin Cull
  7. Lara Tobin
  8. Jennifer Goldberg, Hunter College
  9. Ruthana Wilson, Kennesaw State University
  10. Sarah Hamza
  11. Ashley Edwards, LBSW, MSW
  12. Jasmeen Nijjar
  13. Natasha Pasternack, LMSW
  14. Jill Friedman, retired social worker and lawyer
  15. Naz Seenauth
  16. Marian Billet, LMSW
  17. Meg Hines
  18. Samantha Catalanotto, Columbia University
  19. Francesca Barjon, Reclaim Pride Coalition
  20. Amanda Freedman, Silberman School of Social Work
  21. Kathleen McIntyre, LCSW, Columbia University Medical Center
  22. Hawa Hassan
  23. Eleni Zimiles, LMSW
  24. Maya Edery, MSW, Jewish Voice for Peace
  25. Abigail Allman
  26. Chantanae Singletary, MSW, Hunter College
  27. Alexandra Cogan, LMSW
  28. Priya Judge, University of Michigan Ann Arbor
  29. Talia Gruber, Hunter College
  30. Michael Dunn, LMSW, University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration
  31. Claire Leonard
  32. Samuel Embry
  33. Christian Marinos
  34. Nicole Lopez, Columbia School of Social Work Alumni
  35. Matt Dietrichson, University of Texas at Austin
  36. D'Angelo Johnson
  37. Maureen Silverman, Hunter Silberman School of Social Work
  38. aruna krishnakumar
  39. Julie Novas
  40. Shana Salzberg
  41. Wendy Scher
  42. Alison Brokke, University of Michigan School of Social Work
  43. Herberth Chacon, Rutgers-Newark School of Social Work
  44. Shazzia Hines, Release Aging People in Prison
  45. Ambra-Maya Parker
  46. Sarah Gettel, MSW, One Love Global
  47. Andie Markowitz, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College
  48. Shanni Liang
  49. Zakya Warkeno, Hunter College
  50. Kelsey Woida
  51. Ximena Frankel, Hunter Silberman School of Social Work
  52. Rebecca Mitnik
  53. Ella Tutlis
  54. Caroline DeLuca, CAMBA
  55. Ariana Viscione, LCSW
  56. Maria Alejandra Salas-Baltuano, MSW
  57. Chloe Murtagh
  58. Emily Weinrebe, LMSW
  59. lauren clapp, msw
  60. Martha Larson, LMSW, Hunter Silberman School of Social Work
  61. Tobi Erner, LCSW
  62. Chase Shiflet
  63. Jenny Crawford, Columbia School of Social Work
  64. Ian Johnson, LCSW
  65. Kyle Mabb, LMSW
  66. Michael Erwin, LCSW, CASAC-T
  67. Keith Peterkin MSW, Hunter College School of Social Work
  68. Jack Pacelle
  69. Erin George
  70. Kirk “Jae” James, NYU Silver School of Social Work
  71. Greg Hetmeyer, Columbia School of Social Work
  72. William Frey, Columbia School of Social Work
  73. Durrell Malik Washington Sr. MSW
  74. Carlynn Sharpe-Ehui
  75. Eddie DeGrand, LMSW
  76. Mae Smith, LMSW
  77. Danielle Karwowski
  78. Ali Mateo Belen
  79. Diane Stein
  80. Jack Ori, MSW, Columbia University School of Social Work
  81. Lindsay Darnell
  82. Brian Romero, LMSW
  83. Meredith Kornfeind
  84. Rachel Isreeli
  85. Mikayla Carignan
  86. Jamila Hammami, MSW, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College
  87. Tania Varga, LMSW
  88. Stefanie M. Alleyne, MSW, Silberman School of Social Work
  89. Mannya Acosta-Duque, MSw
  90. claudia chika, LMSW
  91. Nanda Prabhakar, LCSW
  92. Claire Solomon Nisen, Columbia School of Social Work
  93. Naethra Sreekrishna, LCSW
  94. Margaret Stenger, LCSW
  95. Jessica LaHood, LCSW
  96. Violeta Donawa, MSW Candidate
  97. Krista Green, Columbia University School of Social Work
  98. Arielle Bonne, LCSW
  99. Taylan Stulting
  100. Ariana Beers, Columbia University School of Social Work
  101. Elise Jayakar, MSW
  102. Audrey Pallmeyer, MSW
  103. Elwin Wu, Columbia University School of Social Work
  104. Hannah Green
  105. Sydnee Corriders, Columbia School of Social Work
  106. Letticia Rosa, MSW
  107. Sophia Mysel, Columbia School of Social Work
  108. Uzoma Chibundu
  109. Nnenna Onyema
  110. Bailey Krestakos, MSW, Planned Parenthood of MI
  111. Dave George
  112. Emely Santiago
  113. Donyel Byrd, MSW, LCSW Indiana University School of Social Work
  114. Marjorie Isaacs
  115. Alex Kime, MSW
  116. Aaisha
  117. Ren Lee
  118. Hadley Kleinschmidt
  119. Kayla Cisero LMSW
  120. Alivia Curl, LMSW, Columbia School of Social Work
  121. Adeline Medeiros, LMSW
  122. Nnemoma Chukwumerije, Columbia University
  123. Rebecca Weston, JD, LCSW
  124. Chauntel R Gerdes
  125. Michele Paolella
  126. Giselle Regalado
  127. Zazu Tauber
  128. Alexis Rubenstein, LMSW
  129. Ben Sher
  130. Destinye McGill, Columbia University
  131. Teresa Shen, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College
  132. Charlotte Selous
  133. Sophia P. Sarantakos
  134. Yajaira Hernandez Trejo, Columbia School of Social Work
  135. Emely Guzman, Columbia School of Social Work
  136. Stacy Amador, Columbia School of Social Work
  137. Carlee Watley, Columbia University School of Social Work
  138. Caitlin Krenn, NASW PACE
  139. Claire Raizen, Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work
  140. Hillary Hersh, Columbia University School of Social Work
  141. Selenah Martin, Columbia University
  142. Heena Sharma
  143. Shuronia Johnson, LCSW, Columbia University
  144. Demetrius Hicks
  145. Kristen Slack
  146. Desirée
  147. Monica Castro, Columbia University School of Social Work
  148. Katherine Irani
  149. Rachel Smith, Columbia Univerisity
  150. Helianis Quijada Salazar, Urban Justice Center
  151. Olivia Smith, Columbia University
  152. Luis Roberto Machuca, LMSW
  153. Terceira Molnar
  154. Jasmine Gibson, Henry Street Settlement
  155. Courtney Cogburn
  156. Yasmine Wallace
  157. Mikayla Lee
  158. Micki Duran, Teachers College
  159. Danielle London, Columbia University
  160. Mal Johnson, LCSW, New York University
  161. Cornelius Baker, Columbia School of Social Work
  162. Taryn Crosby, LCSW
  163. Chelsea Mullen, LMSW
  164. Bailey Barrett, BSW
  165. Kelsey Reeder, LCSW, Harlem Children’s Zone
  166. Fatima Mabrouk
  167. Caroline Sheahan
  168. Axel Chiappori, BSW
  169. Teresa Shen, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College
  170. Jesse Ortiz, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College
  171. Kayla Hartman LMSW
  172. Kit Ginzky
  173. Sophie Majteles, MSW, Columbia University School of Social Work
  174. Matthew Palumbo
  175. Rufina
  176. Devon Simpson, MSW, RSW
  177. Maggie Bender, LCSW
  178. Gretchen Begley, LMSW
  179. Rhoda Smith
  180. Mileti Afuhaamango
  181. Shoshana Salzberg, Hunter Silberman School of Social Work
  182. Ayesha Kamal, Hunter Silberman School of Social Work
  183. Michelle Cameo, MSW
  184. Emily Scott
  185. Mark Plassmeyer, PhD, MSW
  186. Kimberly Wirt, MSW, Silberman School of Social Work
  187. Lauren Osoria
  188. Amanda Anger, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem
  189. Madeline Berry, BSW, Columbia University School of Social work
  190. Esther Lee, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem
  191. Yichu Xu
  192. Matthew Chen, LMSW
  193. Vileti Akolo
  194. Riley Marcano, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College
  195. Frances Whiting, Columbia University School of Social Work
  196. Josie Brown, Columbia University School of Social Work
  197. Imani Wood-Rodriguez, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College
  198. Seth Hoffman, Columbia University School of Social Work
  199. Caroline Chapman
  200. Shira Hecht
  201. Dora Gonzalez
  202. Jaclyn O'Connell
  203. Sheryl Lo
  204. Mistee Denson
  205. Evelyn Milford, Columbia University
  206. Liana Petruzzi, LCSW
  207. Nicole Seigel, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem
  208. Pauline Pisano, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College
  209. Jonathan Brown, MSW
  210. Sukey Bernard
  211. McLean Zauner, Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work
  212. McKenna Talley, ACSW
  213. Naina Ramrakhani
  214. Elena Callahan, MSW
  215. Iliana Panameno, MSW
  216. Mallie Froehlich, Columbia University School of Social Work
  217. Hope Beaver BSW, Columbia University
  218. Jondean Walwyn, LMSW, Hunter-Silberman School of Social Work
  219. Margaret Horwitz
  220. Ilona Joseph-Gabriel
  221. Priya Sikerwar
  222. Margaret Horwitz, MSW
  223. Jessica J Phippen, MSW
  224. Shreya Mandal, LCSW
  225. Beatrice Segal, LCSW
  226. Lauren Spencer, LCSW
  227. Jazmine Russell
  228. Jessie Roth
  229. Catherine Gobel
  230. Rhea Saini, Columbia University
  231. Bailey Bruce, Columbia School of Social Work
  232. Ian Bell, LMSW
  233. Ryan Peter
  234. Ruth Eiss
  235. Sarah T Diaz
  236. Desiree Caro, MSW, Columbia School of Social Work
  237. Mindy Holmes
  238. Mary Catherine Benge, Silberman School of Social Work
  239. Jessica Jacob, Columbia University
  240. Sara Eldridge
  241. Rebecca Logue, LSWAIC
  242. Kelly Merdinger, MSW
  243. Angela Jacobs
  244. Kelly Merdinger, MSW
  245. Amanda Maisel
  246. Ellen Line, LMSW
  247. Katrina Michelle, LCSW
  248. Sadie, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem