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Rikers Island and the Shapeshifting Monster of Reform

“We’re talking about a hostage situation and the answer is to free the hostages,” says Kelly Hayes.

Former prisoners of Rikers Island, family members of prisoners who have died at the jail and advocates for closing Rikers Island protest the deaths of 12 prisoners in 2021 on October 1, 2021, outside of City Hall in downtown Manhattan, New York.

Part of the Series

“This crisis embodies the violence of a murderous system that is re-legitimized through reforms, any time its true character becomes too visible, like a shapeshifting monster in a horror film. It never stops consuming life,” says Kelly Hayes. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Hayes digs into the crisis on Rikers Island, why people are dying, and why this isn’t a story about understaffing, but rather, a story about a system that cannot be redeemed.

Music by Son Monarcas and Charles Hubbert


Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. You’ve probably seen headlines in recent weeks about the crisis at Rikers Island, where horrifying conditions, and the deaths of 13 imprisoned people this year, have prompted some New York officials to demand the mass release of people being held at the facility. The more I learned about the situation at Rikers, the more concerned I became about how we talk about it. Because it would be very easy to allow this to become a story about the extremity of the moment, rather than a lesson about how this system cannot be reformed. The story unfolding at Rikers is a story about why mass decarceration is a moral imperative. This crisis embodies the violence of a murderous system that is re-legitimized through reforms, any time its true character becomes too visible, like a shapeshifting monster in a horror film. It never stops consuming life. So we’re gonna get into that, and we’re also going to hear from Mon M., an Indian designer, writer, and abolitionist organizer who is fighting the good fight in New York City.

Now, the surface level, mainstream narrative is that Rikers is an institution that’s basic functions are breaking down because of a staffing shortage. About a year into the pandemic, a federal monitor noted that an “extraordinarily large number of staff were not reporting to work.” While COVID-19 certainly drove some of those absences, the commissioner of New York’s Department of Corrections, Vincent Schiraldi, stated at a hearing that he suspected that some officers were using their unlimited sick days as “an unlimited vacation pool.” New sick day restrictions have reportedly been put in place, but is this a story about a place where things would be okay if more staff were coming to work?

As Jarrod Shanahan wrote for Truthout,

[The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association] claims that the widespread prisoner abuse at Rikers stems from “understaffing” — a highly dubious assertion, given the comparatively massive size of the DOC’s uniformed workforce in proportion to its captive population. Moreover, it is incorrect to assume the capacities of Rikers are simply overwhelmed. The present number of prisoners on the island, an estimated 6,000, is still very low historically — the island reached its peak population of almost 22,000 in 1991, and until 2015, the average population had not dipped below 10,000 for decades. What we are seeing now did not happen when the population was much higher.

Instead, today’s crisis on Rikers is fueled by ad hoc work stoppages by guards, part of a long history of organized actions by DOC guards to insist on impunity and the ability to commit abuses without oversight.

The union’s leadership claims that the best way to address the current crisis would be to hire 2,000 more guards. As Shanahan reported, the city’s supposed plan to eventually close Rikers, and replace it with multiple borough-based facilities, would ultimately lead to a reduction in staff for the Department of Corrections — which is something the union is raging against. Now, historically, when New York Corrections officers get militant about their demands, bad things happen. In 1986, guards at Rikers staged a staff riot at two different jails, attacking imprisoned people and causing serious injuries. As Shanahan wrote, “COBA [Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association] President Phil Seelig was present and reportedly at the center of the action, giving speeches and cheering on the assaults.” The guards rioted again in 1990, and won most of their demands, by blockading the bridge to Rikers Island and violently preventing people from entering the facility for 36 hours. The guards even brawled with emergency medical technicians who tried to reach the island in an ambulance. After a tense standoff with police, the guards were told their demands had been met, and the guards, many of whom were intoxicated, celebrated by pushing their way into the jail to attack imprisoned people who were rebelling inside, after days of abandonment.

So, I wanted to begin with that framing, because the conditions we are seeing at Rikers are being manufactured by people with direct control over this facility, and those are the same people who make that facility a torturous, inhumane place that has been unceasingly cited for brutality and neglect. These people maintain the suffering of imprisoned people at Rikers daily, and now, they are ramping up that suffering in order to demand more resources. Given that guards control virtually all aspects of imprisoned people’s lives, we’re basically talking about a hostage situation, and the answer isn’t to bargain with the guards or hire new ones. The answer is to free the hostages.

Now, as a prison abolitionist and an organizer, I have to say, it is heartening to see legislators demanding mass release of incarcerated folks as a solution to the horrors that are currently unfolding. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and two congressional colleagues toured Rikers last week after signing a letter calling for mass release last month. The group released a statement, after their tour, that included another call for mass decarceration. The representatives wrote:

It is inexcusable that the number of in-custody deaths on Rikers Island has more than quadrupled over the past two years, including five individuals who have died of suspected suicides this year alone…. To address overcrowding, we can act today by beginning the decarceration process, supporting individuals’ return to their communities, and working with the Courts to reduce pretrial sentencing and to expedite hearings for those currently incarcerated…. The inhumane conditions we witnessed today are a stain on the City and State of New York. Rikers horrific history must come to an end.

New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio has responded to calls for decarceration from officials who have visited Rikers by saying “that’s not going to happen” and that the city of New York is not going to “just open the gates” of the facility.

In September, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the Less is More Act, which eliminates incarceration for most technical parole violations. Hochul also ordered the release of 191 people who were being held in Rikers for technical parole violations. Even that drop in the bucket was offensive to the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association. Union President Benny Boscio, Jr. told reporters, “This legislation releases 200 of the over 6,000 inmates in our custody. Less criminals in our custody only means more crimes will be committed in our streets, creating more victims and that is an injustice.”

But fear mongering about crime has not managed to eclipse the story of what’s happening inside Rikers. New York State Assemblymember Emily Gallagher recently tweeted, “A reporter from Paris just interviewed me, and asked, ‘in a Rikers, did you feel ashamed?’ I found myself suddenly on the verge of tears. Finally I had clarity on how I feel. I am ashamed. We are collectively detached from the suffering of our most vulnerable, intentionally.” Gallagher added in a subsequent tweet, “To be clear this feeling isn’t limited to Rikers. It’s also how we treat the homeless, those with physical or psychological differences or needs, those who are recovering from trauma, substance abuse and more. Our culture is so often pro-isolation, and it exacerbates pain.”

So what did Gallagher, AOC and other officials who have toured Rikers witness? Gallagher wrote a piece in Jacobin documenting her experience. In it, she wrote that, at Rikers:

I met men who had been stuck for days in the intake center, held in overcrowded cells and temporary pens without toilets, cut off from contact with their family or their attorney. I learned that, in some cases, families tried posting bail, but no one was bringing the detainee to their court appearances where they would be released. Many were there for tiny infractions, such as missing curfew on parole or getting into a fight at a barbecue. I met men with broken bones who were not being given medical treatment.

On the floor, there was garbage, cockroaches, human feces, and urine. Most toilets were broken, so men were given plastic bags to defecate in. Many reported only eating one meal a day — and often had to beg for it. Everyone was thirsty and had limited or no access to water. The temperature in some areas is sweltering in the humid summer heat, and there is no air conditioning.

People formerly imprisoned at Rikers and the families of people who are either still confined at the facility, or who have died there, have also raised the alarm about heinous conditions at the jail — while making clear that these conditions are part of a much larger, ongoing disaster that has been playing out for years. At a protest outside City Hall last month, Melania Brown declared, “Rikers is a human slaughterhouse.” Brown’s sister, a 27-year-old transgender woman named Layleen Polanco, died in her cell at Rikers in 2019.

Officials who actually have the power to implement decarceration measures, however, are not interested in that obvious course of action, even though voices from within the system itself have called for those solutions. In a letter to the New York City Council, Ross MacDonald, the Chief Medical Officer and Sr. Assistant Vice President of Correctional Health Services in New York wrote, “Unfortunately, in 2021 we have witnessed a collapse in basic jail operations, such that today I do not believe the City is capable of safely managing the custody of those it is charged with incarcerating in its jails, nor maintaining the safety of those who work there.” MacDonald wrote that “jail conditions meaningfully contributed” to people dying, adding that, “Death and injury are predictable consequences of repeated failures to perform certain essential functions due to unavailability of staff. These include sustained failure to process and house new admissions to jail within 24 hours, resulting in pervasive problems of overcrowded pens where incarcerated people are held for days on end.” MacDonald explained that people were being kept for prolonged periods in temporary spaces such as showers, at times standing in feces, and noted that, “These conditions lead to fights over necessities including food.” MacDonald described a public health crisis, where imprisoned people were not being transferred for care “even when 911 has been activated and EMS has arrived to transport them.” He warned that, “As critical jail functions break down, self-injury, medical emergencies, use of force and serious injuries all rise.” MacDonald also complained about the medical staff’s inability to contain the spread of COVID-19 and dismissed current plans to address the situation as inadequate, saying, “plans with months-long timelines are not adequate for the urgency of the situation…. Decarceration efforts, which are a proven public health response to COVID-19, have not been meaningfully pursued since 2020.”

Zoey Thill and Kimberly Sue, two former physicians at Rikers and other city jails, echoed MacDonald’s concerns, but also refuted the notion that getting AWOL guards back on the job would be a worthy resolution. In a piece for the Gotham Gazette, the two recent wrote:

To date, proposed solutions to these problems have largely focused on increasing staffing and reopening strategically shuttered facilities. But the idea that improved staffing will magically improve conditions on the Island is not grounded in reality. The truth is that, even in times of adequate staffing, the care we provided in the medical clinics was marred by the violent and inhumane setting in which our clinics were embedded.

Our exam rooms were not private. The clinic was disturbingly loud with guards and inmates yelling profanities and threats at each other or with people in “pens” begging to be seen right away or struggling psychiatrically. Patients reported trying to get appointments for weeks but being denied care by guards who wouldn’t sign them up for or escort them to the clinic. Providers were limited in what we could prescribe because even pretty harmless things like chapstick were considered ‘contraband.’ Improving staffing will not fix any of these problems.

Mon M., who is an abolitionist activist and organizer in New York City, made a similar point when we talked recently about the crisis at Rikers.

Mon M.: One of the things I think is important to fight right now is the narrative that’s coming from the mayor’s office, the governor’s office, the Department of Corrections in New York that are arguing that the current disaster within Rikers is caused by understaffing.

And while the lack of support from corrections officers perhaps adds to the problem, it’s not the thing that’s driving the problem. Efforts to make sense of the current emergency have focused primarily on the pandemic’s impact on corrections officers, without contextualizing the overall disaster within the jails as a result of mass incarceration itself. Even as judges are driving the crisis forward by continuing to sentence people to jail. Vincent Schiraldi, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections and Mayor de Blasio are doing their best to characterize the situation as an issue in unemployment. But there are higher numbers of corrections officers employed by the Department of Corrections than people currently incarcerated in the jails. Mainstream media is focusing on the understaffing and not on the fact that at one point during the pandemic, Rikers was leading the country in the number of cases of COVID-19. Roshan Abraham, a journalist, has actually written about this and said that Rikers has a dramatically higher staffing ratio than any other jail across the country, even on days when roughly 2000 people are unavailable to work.

Narratives of that understaffing obscure the true source of the crisis, which is longstanding mismanagement, neglect, abuse, and callousness towards lives of incarcerated people. The city has to have a plan to transition its 7,000 plus corrections officers into less dangerous work and retrain them for roles that do not involve punishing people or overseeing their death sentences. Instead of working to decarcerate the city’s jail population drastically over the long term and shut down Rikers immediately, Schiraldi and de Blasio have promised minimal repairs and to hire more guards while suspending AWOL officers. Kathy Hochul, the governor, who has the power to unilaterally shut down Rikers, signed the Less is More Act, which released 191 people who were inside on technical violations. 191, while significant, is a drop in the bucket of the over 6,000 people currently incarcerated in New York City jails.

Although Less is More begins the project of massively decarcerating Rikers, Hochul has to use her power to do more in the face of such an expansive catastrophe. The moving of people from Rikers to an upstate prison just demonstrates how incapable state and city legislators have been for seeing the crisis for what it really is, and how they’re just playing politics with the lives of incarcerated people.

KH: So let’s talk about the larger social context of this crisis. Carcerality is a defining feature of our health care system, of our social services and public education system. Cycles of punitive control and human disposal have been normalized all around us. Because in addition to building a lot of physical walls and borders, the prison-industrial complex also creates less visible constraints. As a social force, securitization constructs borders that create barriers to human empathy — borders that reinforce to us that we don’t have to worry about what happens to people behind certain walls and fences, because those people are in a zone of punishment for a reason. Whether that zone is a prison or a school, we have been conditioned to accept suffering when it is inflicted on criminalized people.

Occasionally, some policy or set of conditions will violate our understanding of what’s ordinary within these structures, and we see condemnations and outrage. Politicians may even weigh in, as we’ve seen with Rikers. People may feel the need to condemn the atrocity of the moment, but what the public usually winds up settling for is a return to “normal” levels of suffering that are easier to ignore — or the promise of future reforms that either never materialize, or ultimately compound the problem. So that’s something we really need to talk about, with regard to Rikers, and every jail and prison where people are suffering right now due to unspeakable conditions, which is probably happening somewhere near you, wherever you are. Because we have to understand that reinforcing the system only makes moments like these more inevitable. No amount of money or staffing will make death-making institutions responsive to crisis in ways that prioritizes life.

Out in the uncaged world, when a crisis hits, we expect the government to mobilize a response — a response that mitigates the damage and saves lives. That’s not what happens in jails or prisons when a crisis hits, just like it’s not what happens with policing, because these are systems of disposal. Healing, care and rescue are not functions of these systems. These are systems that disappear people from society, and grind them through conditions that bring about premature death. How quickly those conditions bring about premature death may vary, according to the severity of the situation, but even without a staffing shortage, or a pandemic, or a hurricane — all situations where imprisoned people have historically been left to die — prison conditions in the U.S. are so horrendous that they strip years off of people’s lives. So we’re talking about a mechanism that robs people of life. That’s how it functions. It robs them of their liberty in real time, and it also shaves years off of people’s futures. Of course that system is going to become more brutal and punishing in any crisis, because when it comes to meeting the needs of the people, the government is generally doing the bare minimum that it needs to in order to avoid unrest, or to placate the electorate. With prisons and jails, those concerns don’t exist in the same way, because the system has been very successful in conditioning most people not to care about what happens to people in jails and prisons, so the consequences of simply allowing people, who have already been deemed disposable by society, to just die off, often aren’t politically significant. We have all been given social permission to forget about imprisoned people, because, as the wisdom goes, they should not have done whatever got them incarcerated — even if that thing was simply being Black or Indigenous, and in the path of a police officer.

We’re allowed to forget about them, because they exist within the realm of our fears. These are people who we are told are being contained for our safety, so most people wind up accepting that containment on the state’s terms, without asking too many questions. And so the monster that is the prison-industrial complex becomes more deadly and it grows.

We have to remember that with police and prisons, the system’s position will always be that they need more resources to get it right. In New York City, we have seen a lot of controversy over plans to close Rikers, with some community organizers backing the city’s current plan, that would ultimately create four borough-based jails — facilities that would supposedly be modern and more humane than Rikers, even though they would be staffed by the same department. Opponents of the plan point to the fact that Rikers itself was created as a reform effort, and that this system will only continue to replicate suffering and cause premature death, regardless of how much money is poured over it, because it isn’t designed to do anything else. One of those abolitionist organizers, who has argued for the closure of Rikers without the construction of new jails — a position that is also backed by AOC — was Mon M. When we talked about the nightmarish conditions at Rikers, Mon emphasized the importance of understanding that what we are witnessing is part of a larger cycle of violence.

MM: On October 15th, the 13th person to die in [the] Department of Corrections’ custody passed away. It was state sanctioned murder, and his name was Victor Mercado. What’s happening inside Rikers is that there is a crisis of neglect, of no health care, there is a crisis around state legislators and city legislators using the lives of incarcerated people as a bargaining chip, as a political pawn, and taking no real action to get people out so that they can receive real care. Up until now, 13 people have passed away in Department of Corrections’ custody, and the majority of them were held pretrial on incredibly high bails, which means that they have died because they weren’t able to pay their bail. The current conditions being reported inside sound uninhabitable and unlivable. People have reported that there are bodily fluids and trash all over the floors, people are packed tightly into cells, well over capacity, people don’t have places to relieve themselves.

Somebody reported that one could be spending days or even weeks in intake, where there’s no access to a bed or showers, there’s just benches in a crowded and maskless space. People are not receiving bedsheets, towels or other basic necessities. After hours of waiting for a client to be produced for a visit, attorneys often just give up and leave without any contact. So that’s currently the situation. Some of the legislators who visited Rikers in early September described circumstances that I think would be horrifying to anybody, but one of the things that they haven’t done, is contextualize the current crisis inside Rikers as part of an ongoing crisis of mass incarceration in New York City that is primarily impacting poor, disabled, and Black people in the city.

Instead of talking about the deaths that have happened under Department of Corrections custody this year as part of an ongoing disaster and an ongoing failure on behalf of the city to take care of people who are poor and criminalized. Instead of talking about it as the extension of the neglect that happened inside jails during COVID-19, or even before that, as the kind of neglect that took the lives of people like Layleen Polanco and Kalief Browder, or even before that. In the seventies, when people were rebelling against the conditions in New York City jails, or even before that, instead of contextualizing the current crisis as part of this longstanding disaster unfolding inside the penal colony known as Rikers Island, legislators are reducing the situation down to a question of staffing and just not enough corrections officers. The situation is changing basically day by day, so even I might not even know what new insidious plan they’ve cooked up to avoid actually addressing the problem.

One of the most intense things that happened, which was really surprising to me, was that 14 legislators actually signed a letter demanding that district attorneys in New York City end the bail practices in light of the crisis. This is kind of amazing because one of the things that was in the letter was that … it’s just amazing to see legislators actually openly say free them all. And so I feel like this is a moment where certain people are waking up to what the answer should be, which is to shut down Rikers without new jails and let people out. But yeah, the people like Vincent Schiraldi, the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the governor’s office, the Department of Corrections, the Board of Corrections, the judges, the DAs, are kind of colluding to sustain incarceration in a moment that demands like totally different, radically different solutions.

But also one of the things I feel like is so telling about this moment is that many abolitionists for many years, literally for the last 50 years and beyond, have talked about how this kind of situation where there’s death after death after death in New York City jails is inevitable. So for a lot of people, they saw this coming and for legislators to act like this is just a shocking, incomprehensible, inexplicable disaster. It’s so cruel it’s laughable almost, because anybody else could have told you that this was going to happen.

KH: And Mon is, of course, correct that many people have made clear, for many years, that Rikers was a site of atrocity where things were bound to get worse. One of the voices currently raising the alarm about conditions at Rikers is actually a federal monitor. That monitor was appointed in 2015 as part of a settlement in a case called Nunez v. City of New York, a class action lawsuit filed in the spring of 2012, in which 11 people who were imprisoned at Rikers sued after experiencing chronic, “unprovoked” beatings at the hands of guards. The U.S. Attorney joined the suit in 2014 after a two year investigation into the treatment of minors on Rikers revealed there were more than a thousand incidents of officer-on-minor beatings in 2012 and 2013, respectively. The report described a “deep-seated culture of violence” among guards, that included attacks on imprisoned youth who refused to keep quiet about violent incidents. The settlement included a lengthy list of reforms, including fast and thorough reports of use of force incidents, and the appointment of the federal monitor, who would track the implementation of those new policies. But activists who had been organizing against the state violence committed at Rikers weren’t buying it. Brian Sonenstein, an activist and writer for Prison Protest, told The Gothamist, in the wake of the settlement, “While some of these reforms would certainly be marked improvements on the horrifying status-quo on Rikers Island, the city appears committed to using a wrench where it truly needs a wrecking ball. Rikers can’t be saved.”

Sonenstein was correct, and by 2020, the federal monitor was reporting that the Department of Corrections had “not yet demonstrated progress in reducing the frequency of unnecessary and excessive force.” The Gothamist reported that, “In 2020, the use of force rate per person remained higher than all years prior since the monitor was in place, despite historic lows in the jail population — from about 5,600 in January to below 4,000 in June.” The federal monitor’s report also indicated that use of force rates against young adults had also increased almost 200 percent among 19 to 21-year-olds since 2016. More recently, the federal monitor’s reports have grown even more dire. At a hearing earlier this month, the monitor described an incident in which guards were six feet away from an incarcerated person who was actively hanging themselves, and failed to intercede or even acknowledge what was happening.

All of this evidence tells a tale, not of an institution with a staffing crisis, but of a monstrosity that can only serve to replicate violence. As Brian Sonenstein put it, “Rikers cannot be saved.” But the violence of Rikers is not simply the violence of a facility. It is the violence of an apparatus that’s character will not be rewritten by hiring more guards, or monitoring their behavior, or by redistributing their violence to a new set of locations. But elected officials, for the most part, can’t admit that institutions like jails can’t be saved, anymore than they can admit that hiring more police won’t reduce crime. They don’t plan on instituting policies that would actually improve the conditions that generate harm and crime, because that would be antithetical to neoliberalism, so as things get worse, having the police around, to guarantee our cooperation with capitalism, and having jails, where cities can dispose of people who don’t cooperate or fit in, is pretty important to the people who govern us. So the solutions forwarded by officials will almost always involve fortifying those structures, or just getting them to work better.

This is familiar logic when it comes to the criminal injustice system. When policing fails to address intra-communal violence, we’re always told that police just need more funding and control over people’s lives. In Chicago, we hear all the time that we simply need people who are accused of crimes to have fewer rights. Our police superintendent and mayor blame bail reform for violent crime, even though no data supports any correlation between bail reform and violent crime. But even in the absence of data, police claim that if the people they arrested were simply held, pending trial, even though they haven’t been convicted of anything, we would be safer. Again, no evidence supports this. Police simply want an arrest to carry the same weight as a conviction, in that if they charge you, you’re basically serving a sentence — which is how things play out for a lot of people, including in facilities like Rikers. In Chicago, our top cop and mayor also want people charged even when the police know they don’t have adequate evidence to make a case, as the mayor recently highlighted by condemning States’ Attorney Kim Foxx for refusing to file charges in a shootout where police and prosecutors agreed that there was no evidence of who did what.

Officials who actually have the power to decarcerate often have a jail them all and let god sort it out approach to law and order because their larger political agendas don’t allow them to address the root issues, that are landing people in jails, so fear mongering about crime and siphoning people into the system is all they’ve got.

When jails and prisons produce so much suffering and premature death that people who have been conditioned to ignore carceral violence actually take notice, we are told that this is an anomalous situation that can be remedied with more resources and oversight. But it’s not anomalous. It’s inevitable and observation is not alteration. We simply cannot address these harms by bolstering the system. We can address them by setting people free en masse and tackling the root causes of violence and dysfunction in our communities. In New York, there are activists and organizers fighting for that vision, and proposing plans for getting people out of Rikers without building new jails or further reinforcing the system. One of those proposals is called Cage Free NYC.

MM: So Cage Free NYC is actually one of the models and one of the plans for decarceration put forward by a group of organizers, including me. It’s not the only one, so there were plans that were put forward by the People’s Plan New York City, the DSA also put out a plan for ending the carceral state, but Cage Free NYC was one created by abolitionist organizers who have been organizing in the city for a couple of years. And Cage Free NYC essentially highlights a decarceral path that would shut down Rikers without building new jails. The thing that Cage Free NYC prioritizes is reducing the numbers of people inside New York City jails to a level that Rikers can be shut down and it can be done immediately, without building new jails.

The majority of people inside Rikers right now are held pretrial, which means they haven’t been convicted of anything, So one of the other things that Cage Free NYC highlights and prioritizes is the end of pretrial detention and the elimination of bail so that people are being let out. In particular, Cage Free NYC highlights a holistic path to decarceration, which includes reducing police interactions with the public, resulting in fewer arrests, reducing funding for prosecutors in the Department of Corrections, resulting in fewer sentences, and expanding investment in reentry services such as free education, free vocational training, without police involvement or electronic incarceration. It also highlights steps to curb the power of the courts and to reduce the levels of policing within New York City, which would then significantly reduce the jail populations. If the city were to decarcerate to such an extent and reduce the amount of people moving in and out of not just jails, but courts, the city would not have a need for extra beds after Rikers is shut down.

One of the things that we said in Cage Free NYC is jail expansion is a choice, but not the only one. The city is choosing jail expansion, but closing Rikers is possible without new jails. The current crisis, if anything, demonstrates how incapable the Department of Corrections is of keeping people safe, we already know that jails are death making institutions and in the hands of the New York City Department of Corrections, they become even worse, completely unviable and completely unconscionable. But instead of taking these common sense steps, which are not necessarily…. These are hard steps, but instead of taking these common sense steps, the city is offsetting the problem onto staffing. But you’re not going to fix a problem by adding to the problem. When the root of the problem is Rikers itself and the Department of Corrections itself, then reforming the Department of Corrections, reforming incarceration in New York City, building new jails, hiring more employees in prosecutors’ offices, hiring more corrections officers is not going to be the way to undermine the problem.

One of the things I want to highlight is that city officials have argued that the demands to shut down Rikers immediately without new jails are unrealistic and they’ve even stopped mentioning the possibility of canceling the jails plan. So in a lot of reporting about Rikers, the borough-based jails, particularly about the current crisis in Rikers, the borough-based jails aren’t being mentioned, but they go hand in hand. Right now, the only option being put forward for shutting down Rikers is one that shuts it down by 2027 with new jails. But Rikers Island was built as a reform to recover from the injustices, so-called “recover,” of Blackwell’s Island Mental Asylum. And if prison profiteers continue in their ways, more reforms will be used to deal with crises like the ones inside New York City jails now, only to require undoing years or decades later. Instead of exceptionalizing Rikers and exceptionalizing this moment, we need to see it as part of a continuum of neglect and abuse that come with the carceral state, not just in New York City, but in New York state and also across the country and world.

KH: The bottom line is that disposal systems do not provide care. They inflict suffering and cause premature death. When the manufacturing of premature death accelerates, and a society doesn’t react, the needle can just keep moving, until you’re living in a place where the formalized disposal of human life becomes swift business. Those of you who are terrified of a right-wing takeover and the continued rise of fascism should think long and hard about what that means. These carceral horror stories are not a blip. They are the shape of things to come in an era of ongoing crisis, and we need to recognize that piecemeal reactions, that simply demand the amelioration of whatever singular horror broke through, and got a reaction out of the general public, often wind up reinforcing the system. Because the system will always say it needs more money and resources in order to treat people more humanely, and it will consume the billions of dollars that are fed to it, as reform, and it will continue to do what it has always done: inflict suffering and inflict even greater suffering in times of crisis. That’s why we have to challenge ourselves, to not simply turn down the volume of atrocity, but to say, “Why is this happening? What mechanism keeps producing these outcomes? What would it take to get different results?”

There are no structures of care that can be adequately fortified in these places, because sites of human disposal are the antithesis of care. They are where we put people who have been stripped of popular empathy, and without that, the system can do things to them that would horrify people in any other context. But once a person is incarcerated, they are physically situated within the realm of our fears, so any regard for their well-being is pitted against our fears, and our sense of inevitability. Because the system will always frame itself as essential and inevitable, even though it is neither.

So how can we support people incarcerated in Rikers? Mon had a few thoughts about that that I would like to share with you all.

MM: So one big thing people can do is to support the demands coming from the inside. For example, currently women incarcerated at Rosie’s on Rikers Island have signed a petition against moving them to state facilities. A couple of days ago, the state announced that it would be transferring people from Rosie’s to Bedford Hills. The transfers to upstate prisons are so nonsensical because the upstate prisons are equally terrible if not in some ways worse because of how long people are incarcerated there. And now people incarcerated at Rikers are advocating for themselves to not be transferred and to be freed. So one of the biggest things people can do is actually support the demands that are coming from inside New York City jails, the demands coming from people who are incarcerated, particularly from people who are demanding an end to pre-trial detention, demanding better conditions inside, demanding better food, better healthcare, and demanding better services to be provided to them when they get out.

It’s really important that people support incarcerated people right now, who are incarcerated in New York City jails, and also build relationships with them because we need to be seeing them as part of our community. And because if people don’t have relationships with incarcerated people and don’t support their advocacy for themselves, then it allows the city and state and the Department of Corrections to silo them and silence them and make it seem like nobody is fighting for them. So that’s a big way that people can support and get involved. I think it’s a big call to action. Another way is to support demands to stop the borough-based jails plan, to move capital construction funds away from the borough-based jails to other projects, to delay the construction, to prioritize healthcare inside jails, to prioritize free services for people who were formerly incarcerated over the building of new jails as part of an agenda for New York City.

And lastly, the other big narrative thing is people can learn about what pretrial detention is and how to end it. Ending pretrial detention is a huge part of how we’re going to abolish mass incarceration in New York. I don’t think that the shutting down of Rikers should be contingent on the fight to end pretrial detention, but do think that people need to learn about what pretrial detention is and how to end it, and what bail is, in order to start advocating for solutions that are not incremental, and for reforms that will actually shrink the prison industrial complex, shrink New York City and state’s carceral sprawl, instead of expanding it.

KH: We do not experience the fullness of our humanity under this system. Our tolerance of mass suffering and death deprives us of that. It leads us to accept the unacceptable. Jails, prisons, detention centers and refugee camps are sites of human disposal in a larger system of disposal, surveillance and control. These systems cage people, but they also confine human potential. Because what our government has accomplished, by cultivating widespread indifference about human suffering in carceral spaces, is the blueprint for our destruction under capitalism, whether it’s waged by the right-wing or a neoliberal regime. Right now, the right-wing appears to be winning, by continuing to forward its agenda at the state level and through the courts, even though the Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress. But under either party, our acceptance of the mass manufacturing of premature death makes us morally malleable in ways that have and will prove disastrous. The elasticity of our tolerance for suffering and death will be our undoing if we don’t destroy the borders that restrict our empathy. We all have human and political potential that cannot be realized until those borders are undone.

Peeling back layers of desensitization can be painful, but it can also free up something inside of us that we didn’t even know was caged. When we allow our sense of human connectedness to dissipate, on a categorical level, whether it’s people who are imprisoned, or people who are entangled with immigration or the family regulation system, something goes dark inside of us. In my work, I have found that when those barriers come down, there’s a spark of possibility that doesn’t exist anywhere else, or happen any other way. When we acknowledge that the prison-industrial complex should not exist, and imagine what it would take to eliminate any perceived need for such a monstrosity, we are setting our imaginations loose upon the world in ways that are incompatible with the violence of capitalism.

It reminds me of an activity I’ve used in the opening of direct action workshops with, where I would ask people what it would be like to be truly free. People would name things like free education, free healthcare, guaranteed housing, and not being subject to state violence — things that are, under this system, really radical demands, but that just make sense to people, when they think about what it would mean to be free. Most of those people were not prison industrial complex abolitionists, but when they tried to imagine a world where we all had a shot at living freely and in peace, they envisioned many of the things that abolitionists are fighting for, because in a world where we prioritized meeting those human needs, we would not be trying to figure out how to dispose of or contain millions of surplus people, whose needs and struggles don’t match the demands of a cut throat system. Taking that step, of actually imagining the prioritization of life as being fundamental to what it means to be free, and fighting from there, is liberating. Questioning your boundaries around who that prioritization extends to, or who landed where they are, because their survival and well-being were never a priority — that can lead to a liberation of thought that will absolutely blow your mind, if it hasn’t already. It’s that jailbreak of the imagination that allows us to demand what we need, rather than beg for status quo levels of suffering.

I know that not everyone listening to this podcast is an abolitionist, but I don’t think we all need to be on that page to contemplate the prioritization of life as being fundamental to our freedom. Because freedom has to mean more than not being disposed of in a cage. And I don’t think you have to be an abolitionist to trouble your boundaries around that. I believe that when anyone gets real with themselves about the borders that restrict the flow of their empathy, and takes a wrecking ball to that shit, there is a flash of potential in the world that wasn’t there before. That’s how we find each other in the struggle to stay human, and that’s how we wind up emptying cages together.

I want to thank Mon M. for talking with me about abolition and the rights of imprisoned people, for this episode. If you would like to get more involved in supporting imprisoned people in Rikers and elsewhere in New York, we will have some links in the show notes that you can check out on our website. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

If you would like to engage with this issue:

  • To learn more about how you can support people being held in Rikers, you can check out In Defense Of. In Defense Of is a storytelling and action platform curated and powered by public defenders and their clients.
  • Mariame Kaba created this list of commitments “for people who want to be part of supporting and working alongside incarcerated people this year and need some concrete ideas/steps. It is an incomplete list. But it is a good start. Please feel free to share this with others.”
  • Survived & Punished (S&P) is a coalition of defense campaigns and grassroots groups committed to eradicating the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence and the culture of violence that contributes to it. S & P’s New York contingent is focused on freeing criminalized survivors from prisons and detention centers through organizing and policy advocacy in the state.
  • Covid Bail Out NYC is a volunteer-powered effort to bail people out of NYC jails. You can support their efforts here.

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