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Sanctuary ​​​​

Illustration Tom Foty

Sanctuary, def. A place of refuge or safety

In the days since trumps Muslim ban, I joined my fellow New Yorkers in the streets with a sign that read, ‘Proud to Live in a Sanctuary City’. I stood with thousands and chanted, ‘No Ban! No Wall! Sanctuary for All!’ I cheered Mayor Bill DeBlasio as he spoke at a rally at Battery Park, in full view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island; Landmarks of our history of immigration in our City’s harbor.

New York’s Governor Cuomo has also come out in strong defense of immigrants, stating, “If there is a move to deport immigrants I say then start with me…. If we are going to question immigrants and detain immigrants, then who is safe?”

Both Mayor and Governor state that the Muslim ban is unconstitutional, barring people from the right to due process.

While I truly am proud to live in what our Mayor says is a ‘Sanctuary City’ the reality is, that while we may strive to be a ‘Sanctuary City’, we are a long way from actually qualifying as such while our City government is deeply invested in an unconstitutional criminal justice system.

Rikers Island jail, a landmark of another sort, is situated in the East River out of view of the Statue of Liberty. An estimated 79% of people housed at Rikers are awaiting trial, and many are there because they can’t afford bail. Both these conditions are unconstitutional. The 8th Amendment of the Constitution of The United States of America reads, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

89% of people at Rikers are Black or Latino.

We have a problem with how we treat people of color here in New York City. This problem is very costly for us financially, psychically and has caused and continues to cause tremendous harm, including suicide, murder and death, predominantly to families and individuals of color.

We can trace where we are today to the question, ‘How have we tolerated this Injustice?’ I do not have the answer. Perhaps it’s simply because those who have been, and are impacted are so marginalized and impoverished prior to their detention and incarceration that no one notices when they disappeared because they were already invisible.

All these years our prison industrial complex, aptly labeled ‘The New Jim Crow’ by the brilliant Michelle Alexander, has been thriving. While we now welcome refugees and immigrants so adamantly in the face of the Muslim Ban, we’ve stood by as our internal refugees from the euphemistically labeled ‘inner cities’ have been rounded up and sent to Rikers. Where the long arm of the law reaches into our schools to drag our youth into the quicksand of the criminal justice system. Where the Mayor of our ‘Sanctuary City’ cannot commit to making a plan to Close Rikers, even with all the glaring evidence of its sadism and corruption.

Ironically, and tragically, Rikers provides some of the best jobs for people living in the same ‘inner city’ neighborhoods its prisoners are culled from. In a horrific inheritance of the template of slave owner and slave, the overseers on Rikers Island, the Corrections Officers, are on the frontlines of their own community’s oppression.

I know that not all Corrections Officers are bad.

I think they’re fighting a loosing battle in a bankrupt system. This is about the big picture.

These communities are concerned about what will happen to these important jobs if Rikers Island is closed. They are concerned that providing smaller jails that are community based in neighborhoods with few resources, where a gleaming new jail will provide insult to injury, a message of hopelessness to neighborhood youth.

Why is it beyond the capacity of our imaginations to conceive of another way to invest the millions of dollars we spend on incarceration? The illustration for this blog (by Tom Foty) imagines another Rikers Island. Could it possibly be a bad thing to send people to a place of hope and beauty? What Corrections Officer wouldn't want to work in such a place?

Under pressure for reform, The Mayors Office announced ‘Justice Reboot’ in April of 2015. Justice Reboot “solidifies a long-term commitment to reduce unnecessary incarceration safely and promote confidence in the fairness of the justice system.”

and addresses the multiplicity of issues on Rikers, including the need to expedite pending cases and interrupting the school to prison pipeline.

While the population at Rikers Island is the lowest in 33 years, City reports on the incidence of violence on Rikers Island are contradictory. New York City Department of Corrections reports a 'big drop in violence', while The Office of the City Comptroller Scott Stringer recently reported an increase in violence and spending in 2016.

“The rate of fight and assault infractions in New York City jails skyrocketed 25 percent in Fiscal Year 2016, even as per-inmate spending grew to $132,019 and the average daily number of inmates fell to a 33-year low of 9,790, according to a new analysis released today by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. During the last Fiscal Year, the Department of Correction’s budget grew by $140 million. Focusing more resources on fewer inmates, however, did little to stem violence in City jails.

By many measures, New York City’s criminal justice system is moving backwards, not forward. Instead of working to reverse the cycle of crime and poverty in our communities, we are warehousing New Yorkers in jails like Rikers Island, which are getting more violent by the day,” New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer said. “The fact is, today’s jails are failing to protect inmates and officers alike, while soaking up more and more tax dollars every year. New Yorkers deserve a 21st Century criminal justice system, focused on fairness and rehabilitation – rather than one that prizes permanent punishment. We must continue to explore smarter, and more humane, ways to tackle this issue – and work towards closing Rikers Island once and for all.”

The New York City 2017 Fiscal Budget allocates $170 million for an adolescent facility at Rikers Island where currently there are 180 adolescents. An additional $91 million is allocated for programming space so every inmate can have five hours of programming a day. My question is, why don’t we allocate this money to education and employment outside of jails? Furthermore, why are we sending adolescents to jail at all?

What are we to make of this? We need a better plan to invest in equality and justice in our City rather than the continued imprisonment of our most disenfranchised and marginalized citizens. These are our internal refugees. We must protect them with the same vehemence, vigilance and adherence to the Constitution, as we are those impacted by the recent Muslim Ban. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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