Fighting for justice inside NYC jails

November 20, 2014

Kevin Burns reports on the scandals around the Rikers Island jail complex--and the efforts of activists to win policy changes that go beyond mere window dressing.

NEW YORK City Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to improve the disgraceful conditions at the city's largest jail, but the reform plan of his commissioner is more about renaming the problems than ending them.

The Rikers Island jail complex has seen a series of scandals in recent years, including drug smuggling, brutality by corrections officers and negligent medical care that led to the deaths of at least 15 inmates.

One of the most horrifying deaths happened this past March when Jerome McDough literally baked to death in a cell due to a malfunctioning heating system. In a tragic irony, McDough was a homeless veteran who was only brought to Rikers because he was trespassing in a building, trying to escape the cold.

But perhaps the most widespread abuse at Rikers Island has been the systematic use of solitary confinement. According to the New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC), Rikers has one of the highest rates of solitary in the country, and over half of those in solitary are mentally ill.

Some of the prison buildings at Rikers Island
Some of the prison buildings at Rikers Island (Zach Cress)

In July, the New York Times' Michael Schwirtz published an investigative report looking at 129 cases of Rikers guards severely injuring prisoners. The next month, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara condemned Rikers' institutional violence against teenage inmates--his report cited routine beatings of inmates by correctional officers, who are protected by a code of silence.

Amid the worsening publicity, the chief of the city's Corrections Department William Clemons was forced to step down in October.

The longstanding horrible conditions at Rikers Island are only seeing the light of day thanks to the work of grassroots organizations like JAC, whose mission statement declares it to be "a coalition of activists that includes the formerly incarcerated, currently incarcerated, family members and other community members working to promote human rights, dignity and safety for people in New York City jails."

JAC and other groups have organized protests outside Corrections Department headquarters, held vigils for murdered inmates, and worked with journalists to publicize conditions inside the jails that are normally kept in the dark.

ON NOVEMBER 18, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte announced at a public hearing a $14.8 million proposal to create "enhanced supervision housing units" for 250 incarcerated individuals at Rikers Island.

According to a press release from the mayor's office, the proposal is "part of the de Blasio Administration's comprehensive strategy to reduce jail-based violence and create a more humane system that promotes better inmate outcomes."

While the release strains to highlight sparse progressive reforms like the elimination of punitive segregation, meaning solitary confinement, for adolescents, it concedes, "the heart of this reform package is the creation of Enhanced Supervision Housing (EHS)," a new unit which would allow corrections officers to confine up to 250 incarcerated individuals for up to 17 hours a day and restrict freedoms like library access and religious practices.

Five Mualimm-ak, a leading member of JAC and executive director of Incarcerated Nation, isn't impressed with Ponte's proposal. Mualimm-ak, who is the survivor of over 43,000 hours of solitary confinement in New York prisons, told that ESH would actually increase the use of solitary confinement. "Its just a new name for the same punishment," he said.

On top of the 17-hour-a-day confinement and restricted library access and religious practices, the ESH would restrict visitations to approved lists of visitors, as well as who incarcerated individuals can receive mail and packages from, plus allow staff to monitor correspondences.

Furthermore, the plan lays out vague guidelines for which individuals would be put in ESH, allowing officers to place any "inmates who otherwise presents a significant threat to the safety and security of the facility if housed in general population housing," according to a notice published on the NYC Board of Corrections website. The proposal also suggests installing 7,800 more cameras throughout the prison.

As the mayor's press release points out, the proposals are in response to "concerns raised by advocacy groups and other New Yorkers." Yet the contents of the proposal prove the mayor has chosen to respond to community outrage with greater repression and willingness to violate incarcerated individuals' rights.

The attempt to expand confinement and surveillance represents a commitment to a continuing culture of inhumane treatment of incarcerated individuals at Rikers.

The Board voted to allow the proposal to move on to the rule-making process, where it will be evaluated further. JAC held a rally of about 25 people outside the hearing and drafted a petition outlining more humane rules and regulations. This petition was submitted by Corrections Board member Judge Bryanne Hammill, but was rejected by a majority of the board.

"[I]t is disheartening that the Board is fast-tracking creating restrictive units while delaying comprehensive solitary confinement reform," said a statement released by JAC after the board meeting. "The proposed amendments to the rules are not carefully crafted--they lack the necessary provisions to protect vulnerable populations, provide for adequate due process, and implement needed treatment, education and anti-violence programs within the jails."

Mualimm-ak complained about the undemocratic nature of the city's rule-making procedures. "The public is not even validated in things that concern the public," he said. "We're insisting on being part of the rulemaking process."

SOLITARY CONFINEMENT is just one of many issues that prison solidarity activists have been organizing around in New York City. Other demands from JAC include:

-- Increasing transparency in Department of Correction ("DOC") policies in NYC jails and accountability for DOC practices and abuses.

Addressing the physical and mental health needs of people in NYC jails and ensuring access to continuing care in the community upon release.

Advocating for more rehabilitative services in NYC jails to promote reintegration

Fighting against the racist and discriminatory policies leading to mass incarceration.

In recent months, another activist group has formed to challenge conditions inside Rikers Island after Occupy activist Cecily McMillan spent 58 days there this past summer when she unjustly convicted of second-degree felony assault of a police officer who, in reality, sexually assaulted her by grabbing her breast.

McMillan converted the energy surrounding the Justice for Cecily campaign, which demanded her freedom, into the Resist Rikers campaign, which organized a string of demonstrations starting in mid-October in solidarity with the October month of action against police violence and in support of the people of Ferguson.

On November 8, Resist Rikers turned out 75 activists, family members, formerly incarcerated New Yorkers and community members for a rally outside the entrance to the jail.

Activists raised a number of demands, including an end to solitary confinement, early lockdown, collaboration with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and an end to juvenile incarceration and incarceration of the mentally ill and disabled, proper medical care, and the introduction of a real grievance process to allow prisoners and community members to voice injustices.

For McMillan, the rally shows New Yorkers are starting to understand the violence at Rikers Island. "People are starting to realize that there is a whole underclass of people--virtually all lower-class, Black and Brown people--that is beginning more and more to be obviously identified as genocide," she told

Unfortunately, the new proposals of the Corrections Board point to a deeply entrenched culture of inhumane treatment of incarcerated individuals at Rikers and an unwillingness to commit to real, progressive reforms by the de Blasio administration. While JAC, Incarcerated Nation and newer groups like Resist Rikers represent a broad opposition to the culture of violence at Rikers, winning rights for the incarcerated will require more militant mobilization across the City.

Prisons are a cornerstone of ruling class control and a threat to any dissident movement. The brutality of the prison system is used to bully activists and terrorize marginalized, mostly Black and Brown communities in order to maintain control in a capitalist system, which otherwise naturally creates dissent.

"Any grassroots movement is about starting from the bottom," said Mualimm-ak. "And you have to start at the bottom, in the dungeon--solitary confinement."

Danny Katch contributed to this article.

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