December 9, 2015

Scars that Remain a Lifetime:
Why Rikers Island Must Be Closed 

By Glenn E. Martin

Less than 300 feet from the runways at LaGuardia Airport lies a longstanding and notorious stain on our city’s integrity: Rikers Island. On any given day, approximately 9,600 New Yorkers languish in its 10 jail complexes where they are exposed to a “deep-seated culture of violence,” in the words of a report issued last year by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Brutality pervades the island, inflicting irreparable physical and emotional trauma on the men, women, and adolescents housed there.

In June 1987, I sat in a holding cell at Rikers awaiting transportation to court.  Another adolescent walked over to me and said, “Give me your jacket.”  Surrendering my jacket would have been surrendering my safety on Rikers, since the residents ran the jail and the correction officers (COs) empowered their favorites.  When I told him he would have to fight me for the jacket, I hadn’t realized that many of the other young people in the cell were with him and the fight would result in being beat up by over five people.  As we fought, COs looked on, laughed, and joked before eventually yelling for us to “break it up.”  I emerged with four stab wounds inflicted by writing pens fashioned into shanks: one behind my head, two to my back, and one to the neck, where a pen protruded once the fight ended. I lost the fight; I kept my jacket; I earned respect; and I quickly learned that the COs didn’t give a damn if I lived or not.

Twenty-seven years later, I attended Mayor de Blasio’s New Year’s Day inauguration.  As I and others braved the cold, I could feel the residual pain of my stab wounds, pain that becomes more pronounced in bad weather, pain that often brings me back to that day in the holding cell.

After the ceremony, I stood on line to make a plea.  Finally, I was summoned to walk over to the towering mayor. My heart racing, I said, “Mr. Mayor, with all due respect, I trust that you and I will have many opportunities to take a picture together.  I am here to ask you to CLOSE RIKERS.” The mayor looked at me quizzically and said, “Why do you believe that?”  I responded, “It’s an insidious place, a place that breeds violence and crime, a factory of despair, and corrupt beyond reform.  Please close that place!” 

I launched JustLeadershipUSA in November 2014, and continued to share my vision for closing Rikers with my friends, family, colleagues and the media, many of whom responded incredulously, as the mayor did.  When I pose that vision to people who have been detained there, however, there is always a resounding “Amen!”

People held on Rikers -- the majority without being convicted of a crime, simply because they can't afford bail -- must survive barbaric conditions. Many don't survive on the island. There were 10 deaths last year alone, and stabbings and slashings have doubled since 2010. Other people don't survive the trauma of Rikers once they're off the island. And the scars of Rikers, both physical and emotional, remain for the rest of their lives. 

Those who’ve borne the brunt of the suffering caused by Rikers were forcefully articulating the urgency of closure long before criminal justice reform enjoyed its “national moment.” Exposing Rikers’s grisly record was made entirely possible by the courage of those who’ve suffered within its walls – people like Kalief Browder. [Editor's Note: As a teenager, Browder spent three years at Rikers, almost two of them in solitary confinement, after being accused of stealing a backpack. He was never convicted and was eventually released; his story attracted national attention. Unable to rid himself of fears provoked by his incarceration, however, he committed suicide in June 2015 at age 22.]

City leaders are, finally, seriously discussing reforming Rikers. There is only one reform serious enough to warrant consideration: #closeRIKERS. 

Glenn E. Martin is the founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization that aims to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030 by elevating and amplifying the voice of people most impacted by crime and incarceration. This article is drawn from Martin’s remarks at a Nov. 18 public forum on the future of Rikers Island at The New School that his organization co-sponsored with the Center for New York City Affairs.