She Wants New York City to Stop Building Jails

November 5, 2019

Ph.D. candidate Marlene Nava Ramos, an immigration justice activist, is taking aim at the city’s plan to replace Rikers Island

Marlene Nava Ramos
Photo credit: Alex Irklievski

In a move that was hailed by many criminal justice advocates, New York City lawmakers voted last month to shut down Rikers Island, the prison complex notorious for corruption and cruelty, and replace it with four smaller, borough-based jails. 

But Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Marlene Nava Ramos (Earth and Environmental Sciences) believes that the city isn’t going far enough. She is one of a number of activists advocating that the city shutter Rikers before 2026 without building new jails.

“Rather than police communities that have been neglected, we need to invest in them,” says Ramos.

The daughter of parents who immigrated from Mexico in the 1970s, Ramos has long been involved in the immigration justice movement. She is a member of Critical Resistance NYC, an organization aimed at abolishing police, jails, and prisons. Last fall when Mayor Bill de Blasio initiated an environmental review process to assess the feasibility of replacing Rikers with four new jails, Ramos joined about 60 other penal abolitionists to start No New Jails NYC.

She has since become a vocal advocate for the grassroots campaign, intervening in the city’s planning process and giving media interviews. “The idea is to begin actually decarcerating New York City instead of building new jails,” Ramos said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Rather than spending billions of dollars on new jails and “criminalizing poverty,” she and fellow advocates call for investing in services including accessible public transportation and improved housing, education, and mental health programs. While they praise the bail reform bill that passed in Albany, they call for increased remand and sentencing reforms that would reduce or eliminate jail time. They also want Rikers Island shut down before 2026, when neither de Blasio nor many other New York City lawmakers will still be in office.

Growing up in California, Ramos watched her mother, who had been an undocumented immigrant until the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, fight against efforts to restrict immigrants’ rights, such as California Proposition 187.

Ramos moved to New York after high school. “We saw the same kind of anti-immigrant legislations and backlash from the 1990s in California spread throughout the country, so I became involved in the immigration justice movement,” Ramos recalls.

She continued her activism as an undergraduate at Cornell University, where she studied labor relations. She thought of pursuing a career in labor law, but ultimately chose a more research-oriented path studying immigration enforcement. She received a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University and chose to pursue a Ph.D. at The Graduate Center so that she could work with her adviser, Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Earth and Environmental Sciences), a well-known prison abolitionist.

Ramos doesn’t deny the struggle inherent in earning a doctoral degree, but says, “The Graduate Center is home to some amazing, very committed faculty members and students who are activists and organizers, movers and shakers. We come with a lot of experience, and make sure that the communities where we come from and the communities we're forming are taken care of.”

For her doctoral dissertation, Ramos is researching patterns in the imprisonment of immigrant populations, specifically “the shift toward using incarceration to solve societal issues.”

“I argue that the imprisonment of immigrants as well as the response to prosecute and criminalize their activities begins with the country’s carceral boom in the 1980s. Federal immigration detention relies on states’ criminal legal and physical infrastructure, such as the county jails in New Jersey, which outsourced their bed space to the federal government,” she says.

She believes that justice for immigrants and everyone in this country means building communities, not jails.