Ex-inmates hail plan to close Rikers Island prison

We explore the dark history of the New York prison and ask if it is a symbol of racially biased mass incarceration.

    Glenn Martin, a former inmate who now runs the CloseRikers campaign, served time at Rikers when he was 16 [Photo courtesy of the CloseRikers campaign]
    Glenn Martin, a former inmate who now runs the CloseRikers campaign, served time at Rikers when he was 16 [Photo courtesy of the CloseRikers campaign]

    New York, United States - Time moves both fast and slow on Rikers Island.

    Former inmates of the notorious New York City jail told Al Jazeera of eternity-like bouts of solitary confinement. Others recalled split-second flashes of savagery, from stabbings with crude blades to rapes.

    Now, the isolated lockup in the murky East River has a sentence of its own. Officials and campaigners have merged behind a plan to close Rikers - which is nicknamed Torture Island for its legendary brutality - within 10 years.

    Everything that happens there is a secret - a culture that lets the worst in human beings to come out; and corrections officers who have not been held accountable for abusive behaviour for decades

    Glenn Martin, Former Rikers Island inmate turned advocate

    In doing so, they seek local solutions to a nationwide issue of mass incarceration that overly affects blacks and Latinos, but will probably face repercussions under the law and order administration of United States President Donald Trump.

    "Rikers has a history that is so closely tied to slavery that it stands as a symbol of mass incarceration in this country," Glenn Martin, 46, a former inmate who now runs the CloseRikers campaign, told Al Jazeera.

    "There's only one bridge on and one bridge off. No one ends up there by accident. Everything that happens there is a secret - a culture that lets the worst in human beings to come out; and corrections officers who have not been held accountable for abusive behaviour for decades."

    Martin was 16 when he first set foot on Rikers, a 2km-long isle of sprawling, squat structures, on shoplifting charges. Within hours, a fellow inmate demanded his leather jacket, and he was forced to make the decision that faces all new inmates.

    "You have two choices, predator or prey, and you have to make that decision quickly," said Martin. "I decided to fight him. By the time the fight was over, I got stabbed four times with a pen that was melted and fashioned into a dagger."

    Aside from his injuries, Martin recalls guards sniggering and advising him not to snitch or request a doctor. His decision to toughen up shaped that spell in Rikers, and again when he returned, aged 23, for his first year of a six-year stretch for armed robbery.

    "It taught me I could survive Gladiator School. That I could live through the worst this city has to offer," he said.

    According to Martin, Rikers buildings were kept long and low rise to let jets land nearby at LaGuardia Airport. Guards were loath to run the long corridors every time fights broke out, so deputised inmates to help keep order.

    READ MORE: Feds to oversee reforms at New York's Rikers Island jail complex

    Conditions at Rikers, the US's second-largest jail, have drawn national scrutiny after repeated reports of inmate beatings, corrupt guards and the mistreatment of the mentally ill [Photo courtesy of the CloseRikers Campaign]

    Similar rules held sway when Victor Pate, now 65, was imprisoned on drug and robbery charges in the 1960s. Correction officers assigned cells to reward well-behaved detainees, and to punish others for petty grievances, he said.

    "They were no better than the inmates," Pate told Al Jazeera. "Everyone was locked in at night, and they decided who you were locked in with. And if that was Big Bo, he would spend the night either trying to rape you or rob you."

    It is dubbed a "university of crime" where young men - overwhelmingly black and Latino - enter for wrongdoings such as turnstile-jumping, and leave as well-connected, hardened criminals.

    Aside from the violence, Rikers offers more misery: bouts of solitary confinement, often for those who are already mentally ill. After spending 23 hours a day staring at cracked paint, some inmates describe befriending rats and cockroaches to stay sane.

    In winter, inmates pace cold, snow-covered corridors in gloves, boots and trench coats, Pate said. In summer, temperatures soar inside the metal and concrete structures, which smell of human waste and the landfill they were built on in the early 1930s.

    READ MORE: More than half of inmates in solitary at NYC's Rikers are mentally ill

    A dark racial history

    Big names have passed through. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the IMF chief, traded Michelin-starred dishes for prison slop in 2011. In the 1970s, it hosted the "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, after he was charged with killing his girlfriend, Nancy Laura Spungen.

    But such cameos obscure the island's racial realities: 89 per cent of inmates are black or Latino - echoing a national disparity that widened during the crack epidemic and anti-drug clampdowns of the 1980s and 1990s.

    The criminal justice system doesn't work for us. Never has and it never will.

    Victor Pate, Organiser, New York Campaign For Alternatives to Solitary Confinement

    And Rikers has its own, dark racial history. It was owned by Magistrate Richard Riker, from Dutch immigrant stock, in the early 1800s. From his judge's bench, he rubber-stamped paperwork that allowed free blacks to be kidnapped off city streets and trafficked down South as slaves.

    "There were so many people of colour on Rikers Island, I thought there were no other types of people there," said Pate, from the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. "The criminal justice system doesn't work for us. Never has and it never will."

    Tales of abuse emerge from the island time and again. Last month, correction officer Rodiny Calypso, 38, was arrested for punching and elbowing a detainee in the face while his hands were cuffed behind his back.

    In December, a former correction officer, Brian Coll, 47, was convicted of repeatedly kicking a 52-year-old inmate in the head while he was restrained on the floor, causing his death. In May 2016, two guards and six inmates were charged with smuggling drugs and weapons into the jail.

    The best-known case in recent Rikers history involved 16-year-old Kalief Browder, who spent three years in the secluded prison on charges of stealing a small backpack that were eventually dismissed.

    US media obtained surveillance camera footage of him being assaulted by officers and battered by inmates. He struggled with mental illness while there and in 2015, two years after his release, Browder killed himself.

    READ MORE: Opinion - Kalief Browder's death reveals terrible odds for black lives

    His case reveals a startling fact about Rikers: Some 80 percent of the prison's 9,700 detainees are only awaiting trial, having been denied bail or because they are unable to afford it. Cases can drag on for years. Once convicted, inmates are typically transferred to prisons upstate.

    This month, an independent commission highlighted the $247,000 annual cost of housing each inmate and the $31 million spent each year shuttling prisoners across the 1km bridge for court hearings and other appointments.

    Stanley Richards, a prison reform activist who assisted the commission, described a "19th Century approach to criminal justice" in one of America's richest and most modern cities. Reforms cannot alter a place of such endemic violence and corruption, he told Al Jazeera.

    A 148-page report outlines how new bail and sentencing rules could halve the New York jail's population to fewer than 5,000 inmates over a decade. Rikers will close and new jails will rise, closer to courts and communities, in each of the city's five boroughs.

    READ MORE: Opinion - The Rikers nightmare is far from over

    Mourners and activists decry the suicide of Browder, who was held at Rikers without a trial and abused by guards [Albin Lohr-Jones/Getty Images]

    Last month, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, shifted position and threw his weight behind the scheme, provided that city crime rates continue to fall. "This is going to take a lot of work. There is no quick fix here," he warned.

    There is momentum behind the plan, but it will require more support in the state capital, Albany. Critics highlight the multibillion dollar cost of new jails and warn against not locking up thousands of men and women who may be dangerous.

    While the city is liberal, the country has swung right under a Trump administration in which Attorney General Jeff Sessions pledges to rigidly enforce drugs laws and target undocumented immigrants in New York and elsewhere.

    Previous efforts to relocate Rikers inmates have ground to a halt. De Blasio faces an election in November, it remains unclear who will be managing the city in 2027 to carry the can should plans fall apart.

    "My experience of politics is that this guy goes, there's a new sheriff in town and all bets are off," said Pate. "I'm optimistic that we've got this far, but now we have to put the real tangible plan in place."

    Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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