Sept. 22, 2016 By Hannah Wulkan
An activist group will lead a march through the streets of Astoria Saturday in the hopes of shutting down the Rikers Island prison complex for good.
The march will culminate with a rally at the foot of the bridge to Rikers as part of the #CLOSErikers campaign, an effort by 98 advocacy groups looking to shut down the prison and push for reforms in the national prison system.
The event will be led by JustLeadershipUSA, an organization dedicated to cutting the national prison population in half by 2030.
The march will begin at 1 p.m. at 30th Avenue and Steinway Street, and will continue through the neighborhood to 19th Avenue and Hazen Street, which is at the foot of the bridge to Rikers.
The rally will run from 4 to 5:30 p.m., with speakers including Emily Althaus, a star of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, Councilman Daniel Dromm, and many other activists and politicians.
“Rikers does not deliver safety nor justice – it is wasteful, racially biased, unsafe and unjust,” President and Founder of JustLeadershipUSA Glenn E. Martin said in a statement. “With all that we know about the human suffering that occurs in Rikers, the biggest scandal is that Rikers continues to exist at all. It must be closed down.”
Rikers has been criticized for years over its treatment of prisoners.
New York is one of the only states in the country that treats 16 and 17 year olds as adults.
In 2014, the Department of Justice released a report that found that adolescent male inmates had their constitutional rights violated through excessive use of force and solitary confinement.
In the report, investigating Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said, “It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort; where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries; where beatings are routine while accountability is rare; and where a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails.”
The Department of Corrections has tried to institute reforms to lower violence in the ten prisons on Rikers Island, after seeing a steady increase in violence from 2008 to 2014.
The reforms have been somewhat effective, according to a New York Times article, stating that the Department reported 39 uses of force by correction officers resulting in serious inmate injuries in the first six months of 2016, compared with 72 during the same period in 2015.
Mayor Bill de Blasio also recently announced some reforms to the system, including tripling the amount of mental heath units at the facility, and moving two youth detention centers to the Bronx, though that transfer could take several years.
However, these reforms do not address all of the criticisms of Rikers Island as an institution.
The demographic makeup of Rikers Island is dissonant from the demographic configuration of the City, with almost 89 percent of the approximately 8,000 inmates being either black or Latino.
Additionally, Rikers is an extremely costly prison to maintain. Detaining a prisoner at Rikers for a year costs the city over $208,000, according to a 2015 study by the Vera Institute of Justice. The national average cost of housing a prisoner for a year in 2014 was $30,619.85, according to the Federal Register.
At the rally on Saturday, several people will share personal experiences with the prison. Akeem Browder, the brother of Kalief Browder and civil rights advocate, will speak on his brother’s experience at Rikers.
Kalief Browder was arrested when he was 16 years old for allegedly stealing a book bag, and was charged with robbery, grand larceny and assault. He could not afford bail, and was held at Rikers for three years awaiting trial. He was released when he was 20 years old after the man who accused him moved out of the country. He hung himself two years after he was released.
Nearly 80 percent of the prisoners held on Rikers Island are awaiting trial, and are only in jail because they cannot afford their bail.
A commission chaired by former NYS Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is currently investigating the conditions at Rikers, and he released a letter detailing the three pillars of the investigation in July.
He wrote that the investigation would look in to whether it is possible to further reduce the population of Rikers, what jails should look like in the future, and if there are other uses that would make more sense for Rikers Island.
In his letter he wrote, “The bottom line, as multiple experts have testified to the Commission, is this: if you were building a jail system from scratch, there’s no way you would build something that looks like Rikers Island.”
“Every week, if not every day, a new, horrific story emerges from Rikers,” Martin said in a statement. “There is no dispute that the Rikers Island Correctional Facility jails are dangerous, isolated and woefully inappropriate for human beings.”
More information on the #CLOSErikers cause and the rally can be found at http://www.closerikers.org.