More than 275 protesters held a march on Sunday to call for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to close the highly controversial Rikers Island jail complex. The protest culminated in a vigil alongside faith leaders and activists outside Gracie Mansion, de Blasio’s official residence on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Rikers has become a symbol among activists of a rotten prison system, plagued with a history of reported excessive force used against inmates. In 2014, following a two-year federal investigation, then-Manhattan U.S Attorney Preet Bharara described it as “a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort.” As recently as last Friday, December 2, a former Rikers Island guard was charged with violating the civil rights of the inmate Ronald Spear by reportedly kicking him to death.
“Understanding the culture of violence that surrounds [Rikers] and understanding that nothing progressive or cultural comes out of it, it only makes sense for it to close down,” said Mysonne, who was formerly incarcerated at Rikers, to Rewire after the vigil. “Young children and those who suffer from mental illnesses … it does more to hurt than help them,” Mysonne, who did not provide his last name, continued.
Organized by #CLOSErikers—a campaign co-led by JustLeadershipUSA and the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice—the protest and vigil came three weeks after a surprise announcement by New York City’s correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, that a previously planned 1,500-bed expansion of the Rikers complex had been placed on hold. In Ponte’s announcement, he cited pressure, especially from the #CLOSErikers campaign, which formed in April 2016, as a factor for the hold.
Gabriel Sayegh, co-founder and co-executive director of the Katal Center, declared to Rewire that the move was “a major victory for us.”
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The campaign chose Sunday for the vigil and march due to its close proximity to Thanksgiving and the end-of-year holidays: “A time when far too many New Yorkers spend the holidays feeling incomplete because a loved one is being detained at Rikers,” said Erin George, advocacy coordinator for JustLeadershipUSA, in an email to Rewire.
Starting off with a prayer by Reverend Andrew Wilkes and led by JustLeadershipUSA’s Glenn Martin and several other community figures, the marchers then walked alongside the East River at Carl Schurz Park, singing “We shall overcome” and chanting. Many present wore #CLOSErikers T-shirts and held signs noting that more than 89 percent of people at Rikers are Black and Latino and that it costs the city hundreds of thousands of dollars to detain a person at Rikers for a year.
The ensuing vigil was filled with a line-up of faith-based leaders, all calling for an end to the torture and trauma that has plagued Rikers for decades. Drawing attention to Rikers’ position as a holding jail, many reverends and rabbis heavily criticized Rikers’ increased 85 percent incarceration rate of those who simply couldn’t afford bail. These include people like Kalief Browder, who was held more than three years starting at age 16 without being charged with a crime. Last June, months after his release, he died by suicide.
Among these critics was Kerry Kennedy, who is president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. When Kennedy’s father, Robert F. Kennedy, was attorney general, he championed the 1966 Bail Reform Act to prevent poor people in federal proceedings from being locked up because they couldn’t afford bail.
Kennedy’s presence, as Sayegh described to Rewire, was a “real strong indication as well that this is a human rights struggle as much as anything else—to close Rikers.”
Damon Antrum, a middle-schooler, whose father was imprisoned in Rikers for four years without being charged for a crime, held up a sign that read “Close Rikers NOW,” while he looked solemnly at the speakers. “I lost four years with my father because we couldn’t afford bail,” he told Rewire.
The campaign is also focusing on raising greater public awareness of the brutal abuses reported at Rikers, a feat that has been made easier with the recent release of the Rikers documentary by Bill Moyers. A growing number of politicians—such as Queens City Councilmember Daniel Dromm—former correction officials, and academics—like president of the John Jay College for Criminal Justice, Jeremy Travis—have also joined in the chorus to shut down the jail. Building off this growing support, the campaign is going to continue to pressure Mayor de Blasio, vis-a-vis continued vigils in front of Gracie Mansion, with a strong organizing presence at City Hall, and protests throughout the city.
“We’re going to make ourselves known and we’re going to build some momentum until the mayor gets on the right side of history, and says, ‘All right, we’re going to shut this thing down,'” said Sayegh to Rewre.
Many present at the action noted that during de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, he positioned himself as a reformer for blue-collar communities and those of color. “We have one of the so-called most progressive mayors in the world, so if that is what he is, then I think this should be the landmark state to close facilities like Rikers Island,” said Mysonne to Rewire.
Similar sentiments were echoed by Sayegh, who said that closing Rikers could continue New York City’s history of progressive action and influence the issue of mass incarceration across the country.
“New York has long led the country in progressive reforms, in a range of things, from labor issues to housing and other areas,” said Sayegh. “We should be leading the nation in ending mass incarceration and creating a fair, equitable, safe, and just justice system.”