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Rikers Island - A National Disgrace

Kalief Browder, who was arrested at sixteen and spent three years at Rikers Island jail awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit, is not the only victim of Rikers who spent years behind bars without trial and ultimately lost his life.

For every victim of the island, there are family members who suffer as well. Today we are reminded of this suffering by the tragic news of Kalief’s mothers death. The Daily News reported Venida Browder died of a broken heart.

Is it really acceptable to consider people who are held indefinitely and suffer physical abuse, mental abuse and death, without ever having a trial, as necessary collateral damage? How is this any type of sensible crime prevention strategy? This type of treatment isn’t even acceptable for a criminal who is rightfully accused.

As an INNOCENT CHILD Kalief was beaten by inmates and guards. As an INNOCENT CHILD Kalief spent 800 days in solitary confinement.

If Rikers Island jail were in any other country, say, in Malaysia or the Middle East, we would condemn it as inhumane and a violation of international human rights. But here we are in New York City with our Mayor DeBlasio propping up an institution and system that violates the United States Constitution- as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt.

While Mayor Bill DeBlasio campaigned on a platform of reform, in early September he announced his support of the use of tasers in Rikers Island jail for emergency responders for ‘safety measures’. Far from engaging in a plan to shut Rikers down, it has recently come to light that DeBlasio is resuming former Mayor Bloomberg’s plan for yet another jail on Rikers Island. “The facility is actually projected to cost $596.4 million, according to Doug Turetsky, of the city’s Independent Budget Office.”

Currently in New York City we have record numbers of homeless, an ongoing need for improvements in education, and for more and better paid jobs. These, I would argue, are all crime prevention strategies. Why would anyone pour more money into an institution that is a national disgrace? OUR MONEY- our hard earned money that should be going towards responding to our needs as citizens. Do we need Rikers? Does it make New York City better, stronger, safer? A quick Google search ‘Rikers’ will yield article after article with titles such as, “Even as Many Eyes Watch, Brutality at Rikers Island Persists”

What is this blind support of a sadistic institution representative of in our society?

Saturday September 24th I participated in a rally to #CLOSERikers organized by JustLeadershipUSA. Under Glenn Martins visionary leadership, JustLeadershipUSA brought together elected officials, formerly incarcerated advocates and activists, and performers to bring the message to the jailhouse door, SHUT IT DOWN! JustLeadershipUSA is on the right side of history – as are all those whose support this important campaign.

Rikers Island and the criminal justice system that sends citizens there who can’t make bail, who are pressured to ‘take a plea’, and who spend weeks, months, and years awaiting trial, and subjected to violence and abuse, are in violation of the following constitutional amendments:

Amendment V “nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law;” Citizens who are sent to Rikers are very often advised by their lawyers to ‘take a plea’, in other words, admit to a crime they didn’t commit in order to get a lesser sentence rather than risk trial and receive a longer sentence.

Amendment VI, which reads, in part, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial,”

Amendment VIII, which reads, in part, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Amendment XIV, which reads, in part, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Laws made preventing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated citizens from exercising their right to vote are in violation of Amendment XI which reads, in part, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

In addition, Rikers Island violates EVERY WORD of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights including the first clause of the preamble, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,”

It is simply not possible for the United States to present itself as a nation that values and protects freedom with a criminal justice system that is criminally unjust.

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