Rikers’ walls have got to go

December 3, 2015

Julian Guerrero takes stock of the growing struggle to shut down Rikers Island jail.

DESPITE THE growing chorus from city officials and the public to shut down the jail at New York's Rikers Island, the forces of law and order have reached new lows, shamelessly delaying the implementation of new policies aimed at ending solitary confinement for adolescents in the infamous jail complex.

On November 10, 20 Rikers reformers and prisoner advocates protested outside the Board of Correction's (BOC) public hearing while a line of correction officers (COs) in uniform and plainclothes filed into the building behind their powerful and polarizing union president, Norman Seabrook.

Prison reform advocates sharply criticized reforms put forward by Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration ever since Department of Correction (DOC) Commissioner Joseph Ponte unveiled plans to create a stricter guideline for visitation rights, including criminal background checks on visitors.

A Brooklyn prisoner advocate and member of the Jails Action Coalition (JAC), Susan, was there to protest added restrictions "that punish families who want to visit their loved ones on Rikers, without the data to prove that these new policies would make a huge difference to ending contraband or violence in the jail."

Protesting the death of Kalief Browder and other reasons to shut down Rikers Island
Protesting the death of Kalief Browder and other reasons to shut down Rikers Island (Resist Rikers)

As the public hearing went on, the chasm between these two groups was on full display as activists interrupted the hearing by rushing the stage, chanting "Hell no to the status quo! These prison walls have got to go!" while unraveling a banner of the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers. Meanwhile, protesters in the audience stood up and read out seven reasons why Rikers cannot be reformed. A dispassionate opposition, largely made up of COs, looked on as the protesters were forcefully ejected from the hearing.

Later in the hearing, Seabrook addressed the audience, lambasting the BOC, de Blasio and the DOC for incompetence and for implementing policies that, Seabrook claimed, are "endangering the lives of correction officers." Seabrook successfully leveraged the political weight of the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) to demand the delaying of any new reforms, and called for Ponte's resignation as commissioner of the DOC.

By the end of the meeting, the BOC, the body meant to oversee jail policies and jail conditions, approved the request to delay until February 2016 the ending of solitary confinement for 18- to 21-year-old detainees.

CONTRARY TO COBA's public declamations, the de Blasio administration's reforms and public positions have effectively blamed violence at Rikers on detainees, their family and friends, while neglecting the significant role COs have played in perpetuating violence through unchecked use of force against detainees and reported incidents of smuggling contraband into the jail.

Recent revelations in an article in the Nation magazine detail how solitary confinement has continued, despite the public outcry against the dehumanizing conditions that are a daily reality for detainees, fueling frustrations among those to the left of the mayor. Indeed, under de Blasio's plans, programs meant to reduce the use of solitary confinement, like the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit, have continued these practices, classified as torture by the United Nations, under the guise of "rehabilitation."

With 85 percent of those stuck on Rikers classified as "innocent until proven guilty" pre-trial detainees, there is growing frustration at a criminal justice system that criminalizes, incarcerates and violates the dignity and human rights of thousands of largely Black and Brown working-class New Yorkers.

As Scott, another prison advocate protester, stated:

These new restrictions will negatively affect everybody. Worst off are folks who are incarcerated, but so will the safety in the jail worsen, as they will lead to an increase of violence. Not being able to see or touch your loved ones, not having extended periods of contact or visits because of extensive background checks and invasion of privacy--all this will have devastating impacts on family members.

What New Yorkers are seeing is the disconnect between the growing calls to shut down Rikers and the de Blasio administration's insistence on continuing on the path "reform." The success of COBA in delaying reforms and shaping the political debate is symptomatic of the powerful influence of law-and-order forces over and against prisoner advocates and Rikers reformers.

THE SIGNIFICANT influence over New York City politics that COBA enjoys has its origins in the reorganization of the U.S. economy and the political reaction against the radicalization of the 1960s and '70s.

After a campaign of U.S. state repression, exemplified in programs like COINTELPRO, helped curb the growing radical left of the time, the U.S. economy fell into a recession as capitalists went on the offensive against the international working class. In the U.S., this offensive solidified an ongoing economic trend, with large numbers of manufacturing jobs going overseas or moving south.

According to Christian Parenti, author of Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crises:

[T]he natural decline and intentional decimation of manufacturing and transportation as central components in many urban economies have given rise to a business ecology dominated by finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE), along with high tech, design, cultural production and tourism. This mix of industries requires and creates both spaces and populations that are particularly threatened by the violence and poverty that wracks much of urban America.

The tourism industry, for example, won't feel confident that they will turn a profit if they fear tourists will get mugged, threatened or beat up in a high crime area. Similarly, the real estate industry contributes large amounts of money to police think-tanks, nonprofit pro-police foundations and politicians in the belief that low crime rates equal high property values.

Soon after the neoliberal economic restructuring process began, the "war on drugs" went into full effect as a means to control "surplus populations" that were seen as a potentially politically volatile social force. The crypto-racist anti-crime rhetoric first employed by Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater became the adopted language of both the Republican and Democratic politicians through the 1980s to today, with the city governed overwhelmingly by Democratic politicians.

After three decades of a FIRE economy dominance, the political influence that corresponds to these economic and political interests has entrenched itself in the state's routine operations and bureaucracy in what some have called New York City's "permanent government."

This adopted political rhetoric, along with tough-on-crime laws, led to new prisons being built and, with that, the employment of thousands of workers in the correction field. After COs unionized, the interests of these new unions aligned with the interests of the dominant neoliberal order--as both had a stake in the growth of the prison population.

This alignment gave CO unions an exaggerated influence in shaping local laws and controlling politicians. This explains how COBA, a union of 9,000 COs, has more political influence over the de Blasio administration than the massive 185,000-strong United Federation of Teachers.

COBA, THE largest municipal jail union in the country, is feared by many of the city's politicians because of the intimidation tactics of its longtime president, Seabrook.

COBA's public position toward the ongoing reforms has been to deflect all blame away from COs, to forefront the violence of detainees against COs, and to argue that, despite widespread evidence to the contrary, solitary confinement is not practiced at Rikers.

But the history of violence perpetuated in U.S. jails and prisons by COs is long and well-documented. Rikers is no different--COs have been reported in the press as using gangs and "fight clubs", committing sexual assault, and implementing solitary confinement and other repressive tactics to break the will of detainees, intimidate visitors and control the inmate population.

Further complicating efforts to overcome COBA's obstructionist tactics to stop reforms at Rikers is the fact that the Department of Corrections disproportionately employs people of color.

Blacks make up 65 percent of DOC employees in New York City. As Seabrook uses his platform in the Rikers debate to position himself as a leader within the Black community by claiming that he is fighting for jobs for Black New Yorkers, this dynamic can cause rifts within communities of color in New York City. Those communities are the most affected by policies that hyper-criminalize and excessively incarcerate, but a small segment of them has an interest in keeping tough-on-crime laws intact.

But why does the de Blasio administration fail to criticize COBA? One answer is that de Blasio is covering his flank from further attacks for being "soft on crime" in a city where the mainstream press sensationalizes street violence and criminal activity, despite the historic trend of falling crime rates.

Perhaps de Blasio believes he can kill two birds with one stone--holding onto the votes of the Black community through support for COBA and attempting to curry support from conservative white voters still entrenched in the racist tough-on-crime framework. Either way, de Blasio's re-election strategy seems to rest on the belief that by appealing to the well-organized and politically influential law-and-order forces like the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) and COBA, he can avoid the tough-on-crime backlash that made former Mayor David Dinkins a one-term mayor.

How else to explain a self-identified "progressive" mayor who is committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to add 1,300 cops to the NYPD and who plans to add 1,800 new COs to the DOC?

WITH DE Blasio appealing to the ruling political and economic forces behind the tough-on-crime rhetoric, alternative proposals from prisoner advocates and Rikers reformers will not advance without a grassroots campaign that organizes a full frontal assault on the entire racist criminal justice system.

Prisoner advocates and those who believe that Rikers should be shut down, like activists from the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers, should make the effort to expose the connections between "broken windows" policing and a judicial system that protects cops, COs and corrupt politicians.

Reforms by the de Blasio administration that protect COs and perpetuate the tough-on-crime political order, as well as proposals from state officials to shut down Rikers while keeping the criminal justice system largely intact, must be challenged with alternatives that expand social services for poor and working-class New Yorkers.

The immediate release of all pre-trial detainees at Rikers must be a key demand from prison abolitionists and prisoner advocates. Enlarging the ranks of COs must be vigorously opposed, as new COs will inevitably increase the troops of law-and-order forces, making it more difficult shut down Rikers in the future.

Although immediate efforts by activists should focus on engaging and mobilizing working-class New Yorkers through political education and outreach, at some point, efforts must be made to politically isolate forces like COBA and the PBA from politicians who are more than willing to take up the calls for "law and order."

Calls to shut down Rikers will also raise questions from many, particularly the mainstream media, about the fate of the nearly 9,000 COs currently employed by the DOC. But alternatives like transitional job training programs for COs can be put forward, simultaneously combating COBA's leadership and the argument that they are fighting for jobs for the Black and Latino communities.

At best, a wedge can driven between rank-and-file COs and COBA's leadership, and at a minimum, this will seriously challenge the idea that the only jobs available for minorities are those that incarcerate and control poor and working-class people through brutal and dehumanizing practices.

Although Rikers is not a prison, the national shift by the ruling elites around mass incarceration--the push toward decarceration and decriminalization of drugs like marijuana--should be extended to the second-largest penal colony in the country. Activists need to make every effort to link up the campaign to shut down Rikers to the larger social struggle by the Black Lives Matter movement.

With the potential to mobilize thousands of New Yorkers to shut down a jail that is part and parcel of the ruling-class offensive, there exists side-by-the side the potential to rebuild the people power necessary to push back the dominant "tough-on-crime" political discourse. It is only through struggle that we can challenge the very social order that depends on mass incarceration, deportations and state-sanctioned terror.

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