Marching against New York’s Abu Ghraib

October 3, 2016

Allen Arthur reports on a demonstration led largely by former Rikers Island prisoners to demand that the brutal jail in the shadow of New York City be shut down.

"Officers purposely put us together trying to entice a fight. These officers have a smile on their face when someone gets slashed or beaten up."

"There are seven cameras in the dorm, and the officers watch us all the time. Even when they aren't watching from the bubble, they're watching the cameras. They watch us undress on the cameras, and they make comments about our bodies constantly. One officer said to me, 'I know what you did last night.' Because he watched the cameras. I'm scared to use the bathroom. I feel like I'm in a zoo."

"There were times when I wanted to commit suicide, and I never got adequate mental health and medical attention. One time, DOC [Dept. of Corrections] took me off suicide watch even though I was trying to hurt myself. DOC staff ignored me when I told them I wanted help."

"I sit in my cell every night praying to God I make it out alive."

THESE ARE the words of people incarcerated on Rikers Island, written from within and read at the #CLOSERikers march on September 24. They just begin to scratch the surface of the brutality that takes place behind the walls of New York City's notorious penal colony, a 413-acre island named for a slavemaster, sitting just north of Queens.

Protesters march through Queens to demand the closure of Rikers Island jail
Protesters march through Queens to demand the closure of Rikers Island jail (Allen Arthur)

Rikers houses over 9,000 people every day, more than 80 percent of whom are pretrial detainees who have not been convicted of anything. They simply can't make bail.

In the era of Broken Windows and stop-and-frisk policing, startling numbers of people--largely poor and largely people of color--are being swept up for nothing more than jumping a turnstile. For this "crime," they are sent to a place where 98 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, where juveniles are placed into solitary confinement and where correctional officers run drugs.

For these reasons and more, Rikers has become a flashpoint for New York City's use of violence to manage poverty. Calls to reform Rikers have largely vanished, and calls to close it have replaced them. Last Saturday, a march largely organized by JustLeadershipUSA, assembled some 600 people demanding Rikers be shut down.

The goal of JustLeadershipUSA is halving the prison population by 2030. The group is led by Glenn Martin, who is formerly incarcerated and, since his release, has worked with the Legal Action Center and the Fortune Society, one of the biggest re-entry organizations in the city.

Martin is a passionate speaker dedicated to and directly affected by the cause. His strategy is largely built on legislative actions, lobbying politicians to do the "right thing" by creating more humane facilities or introducing helpful statutory reforms. The rally brought out politicians and celebrities who joined clergy and formerly incarcerated people as speakers, alongside more radical activists demanding prison abolition and the redirection of resources into communities.

Protesters marched from 30th Avenue in Astoria down Steinway Street to the Rikers Island Bridge. Formerly incarcerated people led the way, demanding an end to the misery of Rikers Island.

Darren Mack, who spent nearly two years at Rikers at the age of 17, said:

Basically Rikers Island is the Abu Ghraib of New York City. There are a lot of solutions. Ten percent of the population of Rikers Island is under 18. Juveniles should be in juvenile facilities. Forty percent of people on Rikers Island have a mental health issue. They should be in a hospital, not in a jail. Then there's the issue of bail. You got people sitting on Rikers Island because they're poor. They sit on Rikers Island for years like Kalief Browder.

The story of Kalief Browder is the most well-known from Rikers and arguably did more than any single case to push activists to demand closing the prison. Arrested at 16, he spent three years on Rikers Island, including two years in solitary confinement, for allegedly stealing a backpack--a charge that was later dropped. Kalief struggled after his release, eventually taking his own life.

But there is also the case of Bradley Ballard, a mentally ill man left without medication to die while under evaluation.

There is Jerome Murdough, a former Marine who baked to death in his cell. He was homeless, and his bail was set at $2,500 for sleeping in a stairwell. His 101-degree cell killed him, and Rikers didn't even tell his parents about it. They found out when the Associated Press called to ask them questions.

Then there was Candie Hailey. Hailey spent 29 months at Rikers, 27 of those in solitary, before she was acquitted of attempted murder. She was at the rally, and said that during her time on the island she attempted suicide 80 times.

Ron, a public defender who attended the rally, said:

I work with kids and unfortunately too many of them are at Rikers Island. Rikers Island is a very inhumane place. No child, let alone adult, should be treated the way they're getting treated at Rikers right now. The majority of the people there are pre-trial. They could be out on lower bail. Many of the crimes that people are there for are crimes of poverty. They're not violent crimes.

This was a recurring theme: that New York City is locking up the poor and desperate. Herbert Murray, who was incarcerated for 29 years, told the crowd that crime comes from desperation, and forces people into a facility where the desperate are left to hurt each other.

"Our kids are fighting against each other because of the hostility that [place] is causing," Murray said. "They throw materialistic things at us to make us feel deprived, because when you feel deprived, you're willing to do anything."

There were wide-ranging views at the rally on how to solve the problems at Rikers. Some speakers recommended legislative means. "For every step you take on the streets, you have partners taking steps with you in City Hall," said one city council member.

In a fiery speech, Vivian Nixon, a minister and CEO of the College and Community Fellowship which helps formerly incarcerated women attend college, told the crowd that prions are a form of "social control" that "represents discrimination against people of color, poor people, immigrants and the gender non-conforming."

Actor Malik Yoba said that he hoped his positive portrayals of police officers would encourage them to do better.

"The main thing that's going on that people should know is that the people being detained are being victimized by the same people who are sworn to protect them," said Johnny Perez, who served more than a year in Rikers, including 60 days in solitary, and helped lead the march. "In addition to being in deplorable, inhumane conditions."

After a two-hour march and two more hours of speakers, the crowd had noticeably thinned by the end of the event. Still, everyone I spoke to, regardless of their proposed solutions, agreed that not only is closing Rikers the right thing to do, but that is also possible--something that was unthinkable even three years ago.

"There's also the symbolism behind it, right?" Perez continued. "It's been around so long that the symbolism sends a ripple effect throughout the country--that we're putting a stop to mass incarceration, jail by jail, legislation by legislation. So to close this, it's not only effective to people in New York, but it will also send ripple effects across the nation."

The rally speakers stood on a stage built by a man who was incarcerated for 30 years, an apt metaphor for the movement's momentum. The varying conclusions about what to do after Rikers reflect both the youth of the campaign and the urgency of closing the prison. But the sentiment was unanimous: Shut it down.

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