The call to close down Rikers gets louder

Julian Guerrero reports from New York City on the growing calls to shut down its infamous Rikers Island jail--and how activists can organize to make those calls a reality.

Protesters call for the Rikers Island jail to be shut down at a protest outside City Hall (Julian Guerrero | SW)Protesters call for the Rikers Island jail to be shut down at a protest outside City Hall (Julian Guerrero | SW)

A SMALL but spirited protest of roughly 20 people stood in the cold outside the gates to City Hall on February 23 to demand the closing of Rikers Island, the New York City jail notorious for its overcrowding, violent guards and torturous policy of solitary confinement.

Organizers with the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers, the coalition that organized the action, welcomed the recent statements in favor of closing the prison made by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Johnny Perez, a member of the Jails Action Coalition who experienced solitary confinement himself, read a poem dedicated to Kalief Brower, who tragically became the face of everything wrong with Rikers when he committed suicide after spending three years there--two of them in solitary--because his family couldn't afford the bail on his charge of stealing a backpack.

Kalief's brother Akeem Browder spoke about how his brother refused to take a plea bargain "because he didn't want his words to fall on deaf ears, and since he [Kalief] didn't take a plea bargain, our justice system failed him, our mental health system failed him, our police departments failed him."

Akeem and other members of Shut Down Rikers then carried a mock coffin marked with Kalief's name and brief life span--1993-2015--to the eastern entrance to City Hall. They were denied entry by the NYPD.

Protesters also highlighted the gruesome deaths inside Rikers of Bradley Ballard and Jerome Murdough, the high rate of sexual assault against female inmates, and the rampant abuse of adolescents and people with mental health issues.

Darren Mack of JustLeadershipUSA was incarcerated on Rikers Island in the early 1990s and called it the "Abu Ghraib of New York City." He said the jail "should be closed immediately to send a message to Americans to let them know that we can't have torture chambers" in this country.

A representative from the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement railed against the bail system that keeps the working poor on Rikers for months and even years on end: "If all the people who couldn't pay bail were let go, [the population on] Rikers would likely be the number it was initially designed to hold."

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AWARENESS OF the barbaric treatment of Rikers detainees has increased in recent years, thanks to the exposure of cases like Kalief Browder and the Black Lives Matter movement forcing a long overdue discussion on the criminal justice system in the U.S. This has brought tremendous pressure on the New York City establishment to address these conditions, and they have done so in a contradictory fashion.

In response to this building pressure, there have been increasing calls for reform. Solitary confinement was ended for minors last December--with the promise of ending the practice for young adults between 18 and 21 years of age by January of this year. Pressure from the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association (COBA), however, has delayed this step until at least June.

Mayor de Blasio and Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte have blamed most of the violence on detainees themselves but failed to pass stricter guidelines on families who want to visit their loved ones trapped on Rikers after protests and disruptions were held against these invasive policy proposals.

De Blasio, who promotes himself nationally a leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, also called the idea of closing Rikers floated by Cuomo and Mark-Viverito "unrealistic" because it would cost "billions of dollars that right now we don't have."

Police commissioner and key de Blasio ally Bill Bratton chimed in by invoking the "super predator" bogeyman to argue against neighborhood-based jails. "There are some very violent people on that island," he said. "You want to house them in neighborhoods around the city? I don't think so.

But many grassroots activists aren't demanding that Rikers detainees simply be transferred to other facilities. As the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers noted in a press release:

Releasing the 85 percent of people on Rikers legally considered innocent [because they haven't been convicted of a crime] is not only the humane and civil course of action but can lower the population enough to make shutting down Rikers and immediate reality. We reject the plan to build borough-based jails as an alternative to Rikers Island.

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THIS DEMAND to drastically lower the jail population stands in contrast to the path put forward by Mark-Viverito to create an independent commission to undertake a year-long study on how to lower the population on Rikers and develop a "community based justice model."

At the rally, protesters also noted the contradiction between Mark-Viverito's support for closing Rikers and her recent push for the hiring of 1,300 new cops and 1,800 new prison guards. By adding more troops to the forces fighting for the tough-on-crime agenda, the Speaker has set up obstacles to the realization of what she calls her "dream of shutting [Rikers] down."

As Nabil, a member of Millions March NYC, told a reporter from WBAI radio, every investment into the police and corrections departments is a direct "disinvestment from our communities...those hundreds of millions of dollars should have been spent on social services that actually keep our communities safe: health care, education, jobs."

Democrats like Cuomo and Mark-Viverito are moving to the left on prison reform (and other issues) as they feel the discontent around rampant inequality in their voting base, but without an increase in grassroots protest, Rikers could remain open for many years to come.

De Blasio's position against closing the jail reflects the political force of the more than 40,000 combined members of COBA and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, as well as the potential of a NIMBY (not in my backyard) backlash from neighborhood residents and leaders against other jail proposals.

Only a broad campaign that involves the large number of New Yorkers who have directly experienced the horror of Rikers can build the people power needed to force politicians to turn their statements into reality.

We can take advantage of the divisions in the political establishment and the historically low crime rates to shift the discussion towards improving our schools, hospitals and public transit by diverting funds from the bloated budgets of the NYPD and Department of Correction.

Though the debate around shutting down Rikers Island brings up questions about alternatives, activists don't require a detailed blueprint in order to argue that the expansion of social programs would curb crimes of poverty and better reintegrate people whose lives have been turned upside down by the justice system.

Rather than being pulled into debates about how to manage an unjust criminal justice system, activists should focus on building the forces that want to fundamentally change it.