More Voices from Rikers Island 11-2-12

November 2, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper |


This is from a reader who went to Rikers Island, New York City's major prison complex, and is a follow-up to an earlier report, "Voices of Loved Ones of Prisoners at Rikers":

At first Andre, a young Latino waiting to be called as a witness, told us he had not much to say but a lot was on his mind, and this was a common thread with some of the people we spoke to, including Junior the day before. But then when it got going, the floodgates opened up, along with the anger and deep thinking they had bouncing off of people they never encountered before, not just because we cared, but because they realized that Revolution newspaper was not going to just report on this and share it around the country with others, but together we needed to figure out how to change all this. These elements contributed to them opening up. Lucia, whose brother is in jail here, had a lot to say but got interrupted with phone calls with her lawyer’s office who kept putting her on hold.

The big issue is the commissary not coming until next week. This has to do with access to phone calls, not just things like gum or chips, which means no or limited access to lawyers and family.

Andre, in response to Bloomberg’s statement on prisoners at Rikers (the NYC mayor had declared before the storm, when asked about whether the prisoners were going to be evacuated, that there was no worry about prisoners escaping), said, “Is that his only concern? He’s supposed to be the mayor… Even here at Rikers, there are people who are here for higher crimes and there are people here for bullshit crimes. It’s bullshit. There are people here for petty larcenies like stealing a bag of chips, dumb stuff, misdemeanors; would it matter if those people escaped? He’s generalizing all of them here. For [Bloomberg], the person who does the petty crime is no better than the person who is here for rape. You can’t really compare the two. He’s not really a mayor to me; he’s more like an entrepreneur.

"We have the highest prisoner to population ratio in the world. That’s a lot. Just think about how many people there are in New York.... that are incarcerated."

Andre tells me why he’s here. He says he is here as a witness to someone who is inside and who didn’t commit any crime. He’s been waiting for 6 hours to be seen.

“You know how they tell you you are innocent until proven guilty? Just look at this stop and frisk. I’ve been stopped many times, and I ask them…and nobody knows about this, but I ask them for a ‘frisk report,’ and I’ve done that on several occasions, and they get upset that you know this, and when you ask them for this they just get upset. 95% of the time they just tell me to ‘fuck off.’ I’ve never gotten a frisk report. It’s interesting that they just get pissed when they run into someone who has knowledge of the laws – the very laws that they’re supposed to be upholding. When you’re profiling people and I ask for a frisk report you should just do your job and give me the frisk report. It makes no sense. Just like the other day. I was just sitting in front of my building [in Manhattan] and a friend of mine was running from the cops and he comes up to me and he’s wearing the same color scheme as me and immediately I say to myself ‘I better go upstairs and change my clothes because now I fit his description.’

"I’ve been caught off guard with this. The comparison is small, but for me the uprising that started in Egypt and Syria started on Facebook, and it started with the youth. That uprising started with the youth and why? Because of their concern for the future of their nation and for future generations. All these younger generations, they are computer savvy. We are living in a time when everything is about technology so the more you know how to harness this technology the more you’re able to say about what’s out there. And that’s ultimately what happened in Egypt and Syria, where for example women can’t say much because they have no rights, and you have to consider that these are first and second world countries. We need a revolution over here. There’s too much to say about this… There’s not one thing to touch upon. The judicial system is messed up, the education system is messed up, because the government has become more commercial.

"The judicial system has become more concerned with justice but not fairness. The justice is what the majority see as right. But fairness is really what’s right at the end of the day, so the majority of these prisoners who are here is because of justice but not fairness because the system says they committed so many number of infractions. It’s just all about labeling."

Lucia: "Right now my brother is in here and he can’t get his commissary which is sad. And you already know they can’t get no decent food here because the food sucks in here. He can’t make phone calls. Today is his hearing, and if his lawyer don’t show up, he’s fucked. And there’s just no way of knowing. I’ve been sitting here since 8 in the morning.

"It’s unfortunate, it’s sad. My brother has a hearing and we can’t find our lawyer, and if he doesn’t get a hearing, he’s fucked. And I came from Manhattan where you need to go back with three people in the car or else they don’t let you through. He just did 10 years, and now he’s back. And you know what happened first day? A Spanish CO officer when my brother got here was asked him: ‘Are you down with any gangs?' And my brother said ‘no.' And the officer gave him a razor and told him 'the first Black motherfucker that comes here cut him.' That’s Rikers Island right there. The corruption starts here.”

* * * * *

A professor who came with me to Rikers wrote this essay off of the experience:

21st Century Peculiarity

In reading the testimonies of families of people incarcerated at Rikers Island it was astounding some of the things they exposed. Luz was trying to bail her daughter out after she was jailed for being present at a fight and actually trying to break it up. Essentially what she revealed was the officers, etc. at Rikers giving people the run around, why is this? Is it because “these people” do not matter? Even if “these people” and the officers are of the same ethnicity, there is a mindset instilled in officers when they are trained about “these people” who are poor people and ethnic minorities. Luz commented on the media and the fact that coverage of the plight of wealthy people takes precedence over the plight of people who happen to be poor. The fact that someone who is Brown realizes that because she is Brown her story will not be told does not speak to the perceived ignorance of poor people and ethnic minorities. She shared the fact that she and her family lack the means to travel back and forth from the Bronx to Queens by car. This is an inconvenience that is not the concern of people in general. What was most striking was the statement she made about someone trying to be a good citizen and not being able to be one. In the case close to her, her daughter was trying to stop a physical fight. When someone is deemed guilty of something, they are discarded like trash even when they have done nothing wrong.

What was most substantial about the story of Margaret’s son was the fact that he has substance abuse and developmental issues. The remedies for these issues are treatment and counseling, not incarceration as Margaret stated. But Margaret’s son’s story is that of numerous others. Within the last two years, two of the men (African American) who were executed were developmentally delayed. The decision to execute them should have been overturned because executing someone with developmental delays violates the Constitution. A number of people incarcerated also have mental health challenges that warrant the attention of mental health professionals, not the justice system. She also revealed that people connected to the justice system are well aware of the inability of poor people and ethnic minorities to pay for quality legal representation. Additionally Margaret’s statement about the policing of specific neighborhoods and criminalization of people because of their residence speaks volumes. These practices are historic but seem to have become pervasive.

Junior’s thoughts were the most illuminating, yet disheartening. I say disheartening because of what it uncovers about the structure’s effects on the psychological state of young ethnic and poor people. “We live life how it comes. We struggle. And sometimes people end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. You got to realize, I’m not high class, I’m low class.” What does this demonstrate? Does he think he and others like him are not worthy of dignity and respect because they are not high class? Is that the message? “… But even those who are guilty, it’s life: we kind of expect to be here.” No words are adequate to express my thoughts on this statement. It speaks to how the justice system has infiltrated the lives of poor people and ethnic minorities before they actually have to experience it firsthand. 

Today Andre himself impressed me. When we first approached him, he said something to the effect of, “I do not know what to say. There are so many things going on.” He actually had tons to say. What was most memorable about his comments was his understanding of the difference between justice and fairness. Justice is what those who benefit from the justice system want and get, but fairness is what is right. Andre was right on point and though he was concerned with his terminology, his intelligence and sharpness spoke more than the expansiveness of his vocabulary. That was most notable. Maybe what Andre could not say on the spot was that fairness does not encompass: ensuring convictions by any means, bringing counterfeit charges against people, allowing people to make false accusations, and imprisoning people without cause. All of these circumstances are those of poor people and ethnic minorities when they encounter the justice system.  

Overall what I took from these stories in the wake of hurricane Sandy is that poor people and ethnic minorities are denied their human rights: the right to their liberty (Luz not being able to bail her daughter out & Lucia not being able to bail her brother out) and the right to food. Since the storm the commissary has been closed and will not be opened until next week. The “food” provided by Rikers is substandard and so are people expected to starve? You cannot blame people who refuse to eat hard, uncooked hot dogs as Junior revealed. Above all else, these are human beings. People have fought tirelessly for the rights of animals, but ask those same people to stand for fellow human beings, and bewilderment spans across their faces.


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