Now is the time to #CLOSErikers

On Saturday 9/24, hundreds of people of all stripes marched from Astoria, NY to Rikers Island with #JustLeadershipUSA and its 90 allied groups for a common cause: to #CLOSErikers and Build Communities most impacted by mass incarceration. Video below.

The Problem

The years between 1968 and the early 2000’s represent a low point in the history of criminal justice in the United States. But there is now a growing public consciousness about the legal system’s inequities that have placed the burden of punitive policies on communities of color.

People from all walks of life, including legislators on both sides of the aisle, all agree on the goal of ending mass incarceration. The idea, once spurned and relegated to the sidelines, is now front-and-center after decades of oppressive policies that have disproportionately swollen the prison population tenfold, making incarceration one of this country’s few real growth industries.

Just look at the numbers. The State of California has built ten penitentiaries and only one university during the last thirty years. Closer to home, in New York State, we spend less on education than anywhere else in the US. The national average spent on education is approximately 36% of each state’s annual budget. NYS spends less than 28%.

In real dollars, it costs the NYC Dept. of Corrections $209,500 annually per detainee at Rikers Island. Yet, the NYC dept. of Education spends only $21,400 annually per student. That’s a 9 to 1 ratio that privileges the criminalization of an entire generation over education.

Prison Reform is Not Enough

Initiatives aimed at reducing the number of misdemeanor arrests, disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline and revamping the bail system are all welcome harbingers of progressive change. I would add that public investment in schools, jobs, and well-thought-out social programs that actually help to rebuild communities torn apart by mass incarceration, are also urgently needed.

Reforms are great but, just as ending legal slavery did not equate to Black freedom, ending mass incarceration is not the same as removing the shackles of economic, social and political marginalization of Black and Brown people. Real reform means dismantling the power structures that exist in our society along with all of the rigged systems designed keep people of color under an oppressive yoke.

Mass incarceration is just a way of keeping people of color under social control and to discriminate against the poor, immigrants, the addicted, the mentally ill and the gender non-conforming… Vivian Nixon | Exec. Dir., Community & College Fellowship

Seventy percent of the residents in communities most impacted by mass incarceration live in poverty and unemployment rates that are twice the City average. Over one half run single parent homes and show a five times greater prevalence of asthma than the national average. Eighty-five percent of adults do not have a HS diploma. NYC Dept. of Education records further indicate, that a significant number of teenagers are truant from school. Going a little further upstream, eighty-three percent of third grade students are already behind in reading, with sixty-seven percent behind in math.

Attachment and Positive Bonding

While the entire community does the time along with the one behind bars, children who lose a parent early in life are impacted at a critical time in their development. The importance of early positive relationships with adults on the well being of our children cannot be overstated. Shaped by the sensitivity and consistency with which our earliest basic needs were met, secure attachments with adults lead to healthy self-esteem, loving and respectful relationships with parents and others, the ability to trust, be emotionally close, feel empathy and compassion.

Moreover, the larger emotional network of extended family and community, along with the basic structure of how we divide and distribute income, wealth, jobs, education, health care, housing and opportunities for youth, all influence what children understand about themselves and their relationships in the world. Feeling grounded and tied to others reassures us that the world is safe. Disruptions of primary relationships along with the lack of sympathy or support from others is traumatic and confusing for young people, significantly impacting their life outcomes.

So many of the communities who bear the brunt of mass incarceration are already mired in unemployment and poverty, poor-quality housing, low-performing schools and a a lack of other resources that deny families the support they need to create safe, nurturing home and social environments.

An over interest in punitive answers to social problems and under emphasis on health, education, and other human services have resulted in the criminal justice system emerging as the predominant social institution in communities of color.

The Psychology of White Adolescence

Further alienating our children, is a youth development field long dominated by a psychology of white adolescence and bound by an inability to examine the complex social, economic, and political forces that bear upon the lives of young people of color. Yet, developing awareness and consciousness about these issues can be healing, particularly for youth struggling with finding a place in the world, pervasive and insidious racism, sexism, police brutality and poverty.

Why #CLOSErikers?

Brutality and inhumane treatment define everyday life for those detained on Rikers Island. As young as sixteen years, our brothers and sisters are subjected to perverse cruelties there. Eighty percent of detainees are awaiting trial, not convicted of any crime but unable to post bail. Yet, the certainty of culpability of people of color, at every point of contact with the criminal justice system, trumps the Constitutional guarantee of the presumption of their innocence and the right to a speedy trial. Cases are routinely put over dozens of times and delayed for up to six years due to court backlogs, bad legal representation, and more often than not, tactics that cross the line to prosecutorial misconduct.

With every adjournment detainees feel the mounting pressure from prosecutors to plead guilty of a lesser charge. If one can hold out, many of the original charges get modified or dropped entirely. Of those cases that aren’t dropped, it is estimated that up to ninety percent of them are resolved with a plea bargain.

This Happens Everyday

One of the most poignant and tragic results of the destruction of human lives occurring in our name at Rikers Island, is the recent case of Kalief Browder. NYPD stopped him on his way home one night because he “fit the description” of a Black male who reportedly had stolen a backpack. Although police acknowledged that the bag Kalief was carrying wasn’t the one they were searching for, he was arrested nonetheless.

Arraigned in at age sixteen, he was unable to post a $3,000 bond and was sent to Rikers Island to await trial. Kalief spent three years there locked up. Two of those years, he spent in solitary confinement. The rest he spent being starved and tortured by the very same corrections officers entrusted with his care and safety. After thirty postponements, the prosecutor dropped all charges against him. The year following his release was marked by  his trauma and a profound sense of alienation. Unable to find his place back in society, on the morning he took his own life, he told his mom, “ I can’t take it anymore.”  May he RIP.

Another World Is Possible

The work of rebuilding communities most impacted by mass incarceration starts by helping prepare the world for our children and easing their transition to adulthood, employment and citizenship. I envision and am working toward a compassionate society committed to healing the scars of structural racism and to helping all people to unleash their true life potential. Here young people’s needs are anticipated, their strengths recognized, are validated in their struggle and otherwise supported by the community in their healthy development.

Indeed, another world IS possible. We can start by closing Rikers Island.


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