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Seeing Rikers, Closing Rikers

Making Incarceration Visible

A year ago the New School hosted the opening of States of Incarceration, an exhibition created by hundreds of students and people directly affected by incarceration. Organized through the Humanities Action Lab, a consortium of 20 universities, the exhibition details the history of imprisonment in the U.S by a close look at topics or sites local to each university. New School students chose to explore what dominates the discussion of incarceration in New York City: Rikers Island jail complex. The opening program of the exhibition focused on Rikers as well with a conversation between Glenn Martin, the founder and director of Just Leadership USA who spent time at Rikers, and Vendia Browder, the mother of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after being held for almost three year on Rikers Island. Browder was arrested — but never convicted — for stealing a backpack. Ms. Browder’s sadness and persistence were palpable. Kalief’s death had pushed her to expose the tragic consequences of this violent jail and unjust system. But the personal cost of doing so was also obvious that night, as she recounted yet again her son’s capture by a criminal justice system that ultimately drove him to seek relief in death.

Ms. Browder died a few months later, her own life cut short by the sadness she bore. She did not live to see the remarkable events of this past week that she helped to make happen. On March 31, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Rikers Island jail will close in ten years. The swiftness and force of this announcement shocked even the activists who initiated the #CLOSERikers movement. And de Blasio’s pronouncement pre-empted the independent report commissioned by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito that had come to the same conclusion. Now, just a few days later, it appears that New York State, one of only two states that prosecutes 16-year-olds as adults, is set to finally raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18.

The campaign against mass incarceration and its many consequences has been going on for decades but the call to shut down — not reform — Rikers is barely a year old. The speed of the decision is a testament to the remarkable work of activist organizations such as Just Leadership USA, Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, and Vera Institute of Justice — many of which are led by people who have been incarcerated themselves. It will be important to learn from this movement’s success.

But the swiftness is also due to the shocking conditions on Rikers Island itself.

When New School students began studying Rikers for the States of Incarceration exhibition, the primary challenge was to find an overlooked perspective on the jail. News headlines were full of the ongoing violence inside the jails’ walls, the delayed court proceedings, and battles between unionized workers and the city. Students started their research by conversing with men who had spent time on Rikers and were part of the Fortune Society, an organization that helps with reentry into society after incarceration. These conversations were central to students’ understanding of the jail, and prompted them to focus in on the contradictions of the location. The island was an updated penal colony, where we housed people accused of committing a crime — and then forgot about them. Out of sight, out of mind. And yet there were many parts of the city where Rikers was hypervisible, present in the absence of loved ones or in the constant stories of time spent there. So our primary question became “How do you see Rikers Island?” but we added one answer after the question: “In Plain Sight.”

What the recent week’s activities have proven is that if you really see Rikers, you know we need to close Rikers. Its violence, isolated location, and deeply rooted problems have no solution. We need smaller jails, connected to borough courthouses and closer to legal and social services, family, and friends. And we also need to drastically reduce the number of people in jail altogether, as the mayor and the commission report outline, by decriminalizing poverty and mental illness and actively confronting the racial discrimination that undergirds the criminal justice system.

Three students in the class began a campaign to name the island on subway maps with stickers pointing people to #SeeRikers; with no fanfare from the MTA, the name appeared on those maps a few months ago. The New School played a tiny role in this much larger effort, but we should continue and expand that role to ensure that the closure happens. The Center for New York City Affairs has just launched the Institute for Transformative Mentoring, which trains people with run-ins with the law to mentor court-involved youth. Various courses, from design and policy to literature and history, look at the long roots of our current crisis and how we might give up our leading role in incarcerating more of our citizens than any other nation — by far. (The U.S. has China, a totalitarian country, beat by over a half million more prisoners.)

But the most significant initiative we can make is to continue what the Humanities Action Lab’s States of Incarceration has started. The Independent Commission recommended that whatever else Rikers Island may become — an additional runway for LaGuardia airport, a facility for energy infrastructure — it should also contain a memorial to the jail complex. We should not put what happened there out of sight and out of mind as we have done before. The New School should support the people whose lives have been transformed by Rikers to define how it will be remembered in the future. Let’s start those conversations with people who know most about Rikers now: how should the memorial be designed? Whose stories should be told? And how do we tell those stories over and over and over again, so that Rikers is closed, does not re-open, but is not forgotten? On May 5, come see the documentary, Rikers: An American Jail, listen to those who have been held there, and be part of the movement to close it and to remember why we need to.

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Julia Foulkes

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