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Book Cover for: Skyscraper Jails: The Fight Against Jail Expansion in New York City, Zhandarka Kurti

Skyscraper Jails: The Fight Against Jail Expansion in New York City

Zhandarka Kurti

A damning account of the latest transformation in mass incarceration, revealing how powerful nonprofits and so-called progressives used the language of social movements to build new jails.
In 2019, after unyielding pressure from activists, New York City seemed poised to close the detested Rikers Island penal colony. The local press dutifully reported that the end of Rikers was imminent, and New Yorkers celebrated the closure of the country's largest urban jail, condemned as a moral stain on an otherwise great city. The problem, however, was that the city had not actually committed to closing Rikers. And at the same time, it laid the groundwork for the construction of more jails, a network of skyscraper facilities amounting to the largest carceral construction the city has seen in decades.
How did this happen?
In Skyscraper Jails, scholars and organizers Jarrod Shanahan and Zhandarka Kurti detail how progressive forces in New York City appropriated the rhetoric of social movements and social justice to promise "downsized" and "humane" jails. The principal advocates of these new jails were not right-wing politicians, but prominent city activists and progressive non-profit organizations.


As the political coalition that campaigned for the new jails fans out across the United States, the story at the heart of Skyscraper Jails is at once a case study and a cautionary tale for what will be coming to cities and towns across the United States and beyond.

Book Details

  • Publisher: Haymarket Books
  • Publish Date: Mar 11st, 2025
  • Pages: 272
  • Language: English
  • Dimensions: 0.00in - 0.00in - 0.00in - 0.00lb
  • EAN: 9798888903087
  • Categories: PenologyCivil RightsEssays

About the Author

Kurti, Zhandarka: - Zhandarka Kurti is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Loyola University, Chicago. She researches and writes about race, class, policing, incarceration, and mass supervision. She is the co-author of States of Incarceration: Rebellion, Reform and the Future of America's Punishment System and editor of Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity. She lives in Chicago.
Shanahan, Jarrod: - Jarrod Shanahan is the author of Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage, co-author of States of Incarceration: Rebellion, Reform, and America's Punishment System, and City Time: On Being Sentence to Rikers Island, forthcoming from NYU Press, and editor of Treason to Whiteness Is Loyalty to Humanity. He lives in Chicago and works as an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Governors State University in University Park, IL.

Praise for this book

Praise for Captives

"Shanahan, who personally experienced Rikers' violence, has crafted a masterpiece of synthesized social observation, analytic history and political critique. Now that the city has a new mayor who loudly champions the jailers and bad cops, Captives is urgent and obligatory reading."
--Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz and Planet of Slums

"Captives is more than a history of the notorious Rikers Island; it is a riveting, caged bird's eye view of the tumultuous shift from postwar liberal dreams of penal reform to neoliberal punishment, police power, and the rise of the carceral state. Ultimately, it is a book about class struggle - how we got from build better to lock 'em up to shut it down."
--Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

"Captives is an important and timely book that vividly depicts how decades of class struggle and oppression, especially along the lines of race and gender, shaped the rise of Rikers Island as we know it today. A must read!"
--Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch

"Shanahan's lively must-read explains the power politics shaping New York City's municipal lockup frenzy."
--Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of Abolition Geography and Golden Gulag

"Captives is a long, hard look at the role of human cages within New York City politics and the reform efforts that birthed Rikers. His account reads like a page out of L.A. Confidential rewritten with corrupt guards in place of cops, from an unaccounted $2 million discovered posthumously in the safe of the guards' union president to rebel prisoners at the Manhattan Tombs hanging burning sheets out of windows."
--Los Angeles Review of Books

"Shanahan makes it possible to answer the immediate and pressing question-why did an agenda of jail reform fail so drastically, producing in the process one of the most notorious penal colonies in the United States?"
--The Nation

"A scrupulously researched history showing nearly a century of dysfunction of one of the world's largest correctional institutions. And the inescapable conclusion that, whatever the justice is in shipping people to Rikers, there is little justice once they arrive."
--New York Daily News

"A vivid, vital, and terrifying volume"
--Jacobin