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Rikers Island: Past, Present and Future

Johnny Perez, center

A screening of the documentary Rikers: An American Jail, followed by a panel discussion at the American Bar Association Tuesday March 28, 2017

“You can’t reform a concentration camp.” Johnny Perez (center)

Last night was the second time I viewed Bill Moyer's documentary, Rikers: An American Story. I saw it the first time on PBS. Click on the underlined title to watch it yourself.

As with my first viewing, it was painful to hear the first hand testimony of survivors of Rikers. Though Mr. Perez noted in the discussion after the screening, “No one really survives Rikers.” The experience is something a person learns to live with, at best. No one survives unscathed. Yes, it is so painful to listen to the testimony of our fellow human beings who were subjected to torture, rape, cuttings, beatings, and solitary confinement. I can’t begin to imagine suffering it myself, or worse, a family member, particularly a child of mine, enduring such suffering.

It is painful to try to reckon with the fact that other human beings built this place, manage this place, work in this place, create these conditions, commit these acts. It’s painful to try to wrap my head around the fact that other human beings maintain this inhumane place.

However it came to be- it must be undone.

Following the screening was a conversation between Judge Lippman and Johnny Perez. Former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is Chair of the twenty seven member newly formed Independent Commission on New York Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito requested the commission be formed after proposing the possibility of closing Rikers at her February State of the City speech. The commission, the speaker stated, is mandated “to create a blueprint for justice for New York City.”

Mr. Perez brings thirteen years of incarceration, three of which were in solitary, to the discussion. He is currently a non-attorney mental health advocate for the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, a law firm providing pro-bono legal representation to underserved populations affected by social justice issues, and a sought after speaker who has been on Front (read his full bio here)

The conversation between Judge Lippman and Mr. Perez focused on the detrimental impact of violence on Rikers Island , that it accomplished the opposite of rehabilitation, causing, in Mr. Perez’s words, “long term psychological adverse consequences’ at great expense to individuals, families, communities and taxpayers. And not infrequently to innocent people who are caught there awaiting trial, such as two of the subjects of the film.

Innocent or not, there’s no argument to be made in favor of the violence of Rikers. Mr. Perez maintains there is a way to hold people accountable while ‘maintaining their humanity’ such as evidenced by jails and prisons in Germany, Norway and Denmark that were referenced in the discussion. But not holding those employees who abuse their power at Rikers accountable, is not going to change things. “Anytime you give people total control over another person and decrease accountability, there’s going to be violence.” Noted Mr. Perez, citing the Stanford Prison Experiment

The conversation gave me some hope that the momentum building towards closing Rikers will be bolstered by the Lippman Commission report when it comes out.

As Judge Lippman stated, “Rikers is a symbol of despair and hopelessness of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system.”

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