Prison Writes, Writing to #CLOSE Rikers seeks to bring the voices of those who’ve suffered from incarceration at Rikers to the forefront of the conversation about what to do about Rikers Island. They are our credible messengers.
Glenn E. Martin, Founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA, is a powerful speaker on this topic.
Glenn was the featured speaker at the morning plenary at the National Association of Social Workers annual conference at Columbia University March 14 of this year. Glenn, who is the epitome of a credible messenger, used his life narrative to illustrate the need for the change for which he is advocating, to close Rikers Island. #CLOSERikers. As he told his story, he would often step away from the podium, unscripted, to speak directly to the audience.
Credible messengers come from the communities they serve and speak to issues that those they are speaking to, and with, encounter. Because they have the ‘lived experience’, they are able to build trust and establish legitimacy with those who are struggling in the midst of an experience the messenger has overcome. They are like a positive voice from the future.
Credible messengers are able to articulate the impact of incarceration on themselves as individuals and apply that experience towards advocacy and reform.
Glenn told a version of a story I’d heard many times; A young man with a troubled life gets involved in criminal activity in his neighborhood, goes to Rikers and gets caught up in revolving door of crime and imprisonment. As I've worked with youth in an alternative to incarceration program in my community for over a decade, it is a sadly familiar story to me. What makes Glenn’s story different is the context and framework of the telling. You see, Glenn has a vision for a different way to address crime. Glenn’s vision doesn’t include Rikers Island. Glenn’s narrative argues against accepting that Rikers Island is an inevitable part of the story of criminal justice involved people in New York. In fact, the word 'justice' doesn't even belong in the same sentence with Rikers.
Like some of the other social workers I spoke with that day, I came into the room with some idea of how bad Rikers Island is, but believed what was needed was reform.
Glenn wove the details of his personal experience into the broader social issue to illustrate that not only is it possible to eliminate Rikers, it’s necessary.
Over the past couple of years, there’s been considerable press highlighting the horrendous brutality of Rikers Island. Most recently, 60 Minutes featured a broadcast revealing the extreme neglect and abuse on Rikers Island that has led to the deaths of mentally ill inmates and an investigation by the U.S. Attorney. Prior to this articles published in The New York Times about a forty-five year old diabetic who died when his calls for medical attention were ignored and in The New Yorker about the tragic fate of a young man who spent three years at Rikers awaiting trial, vividly illustrate the inhumanity of Rikers and it’s imperviousness even to reason.
What Glenn articulated that struck me so profoundly on March 14th, is the impossibility of reforming such a place. The tragic stories that made it to the press are not exceptions; they are the natural result of a place that can turn its eye on extreme suffering and unspeakable brutality. Rikers is not only unhealthy for inmates, the environment must also take its toll on corrections officers and other staff who inevitably suffer from the dehumanizing exposure to violence and abuse.
While most people have never been to Rikers and may not have experienced it first, or even second hand, it’s brutality harms us as well. As Martin Luther King said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In surveillance video obtained by The New Yorker, we see a young man in shackles being beaten by guards. The young man, whose story was featured in The New Yorker, is Kalief Browder. We see Kalief in a small room with a restless group of young men who jump on him and beat him. Kalief was sixteen years old. He later committed suicide as a result of the unbearable PTSD he suffered as a result of his incarceration and being held in solitary confinement.
As I watched the video I thought about the young men and women I have worked with. Children, really, as has been well established by scientific research that has resulted in youth not being tried as adults in every sate but two, New York and North Carolina. (Currently there are ongoing efforts to Raise the Age in New York.)
I thought about the boys and girls who were remanded for not attending school or therapy appointments, for using marijuana to self medicate and escape from the unbearable stress of living under the threat of prison. They came back to us from Rikers with stitches and bruises. They came back traumatized and less able to function, with a whole new set of problems than when they left us, and much less able to comply with the terms of their release. Much less able to function. So many of the challenges of re-entry are a result of trauma people have suffered while in prison. A place like Rikers adds another set of barriers to healing and success for people who wound up there due to their being marginalized in the first place.
In the past few years the press has highlighted a few terrible, deeply tragic stories. What we need to understand is that these stories are not an exception. These stories cannot be prevented by reform.
As JustLeadershipUSA states on it’s website, “With a 66% recidivism rate, annual operating costs in the hundreds of millions ($167k per resident, per year), and hundreds of reports of staff brutality and violence each year, what Rikers fails to deliver in public safety it delivers in human carnage.”
It costs over twice the price of a year at Harvard ($60,659.) to imprison an individual at Rikers. Think about it. We can afford to do better.