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Shutting Rikers would be a major step towards fixing the US’s prisons

“One day, I was walking through the receiving room and I saw an officer who was instructing two inmates at a time to put their feet on a box and when they did, he shackled their ankles together. They were being transported to an upstate prison to serve their sentence. 

“Back in the day, slaves were warehoused in pens, waiting for the slave ships that would bring them to the plantations. And right then and there I realised this was exactly the same way the slaves were shackled together and put on to slave ships to be transported.” 

Former prison guard Lorenzo Steele says the experience of working at Rikers Island, New York City’s jail, left him “traumatised for life”. 

Something “really snapped” when he suddenly realised he was akin to being an overseer on a slave plantation. “I started thinking: ‘Wait a minute, whites commit crimes but why are only blacks and Hispanics being incarcerated?’”

Rikers Island, a sprawling prison complex located on an island in the East River, wedged in between Queens and the Bronx, is a hotbed of injustice and degradation located smack bang in the middle of one of the richest and most glamorous cities in the world. 

Steele worked at Rikers from 1987 to 1999, arguably the worst period ever at the jail. Abominable conditions reached their apex in the 1990s when the war on drugs and then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken window” policy inspired a tough-on-crime approach. The prison population exploded: some of the 24 000 inmates had to be housed in floating barges the city tethered to the island. 

Since then, a lot has changed. The settlement of a federal lawsuit led to a federal monitor being tasked with overseeing reform at the jail. The proposed measures are aimed at reducing the length and improving the conditions of solitary confinement, restricting the use of force by guards and installing CCTV cameras. 

A groundswell of support among local politicians and policymakers has now formed around the idea of closing the facility. A commission headed by Judge Jonathan Lippman is exploring solutions, including possible closure, for the notoriously violent prison. 

But, although the abuse and overcrowding are being addressed, the racially skewed profile of the prison population has remained unchanged and is not mentioned in the push for reform. 

Roughly 95% of the current 7 800 inmates at Rikers are people of colour. This reflects a national trend: in the United States, one out of three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime and African-American women are three times more likely to be jailed than white women. 

This is especially grim considering the island’s dark past. A rich Dutch slaveholding family named Rycken (anglicised to Rikers) bought the island in the early 17th century when New York was still New Amsterdam. In the first half of the 19th century, scion Richard Rikers, a judge, established a criminal court on the island. 

Rikers was instrumental in sending back free African-Americans, who were deemed “fugitive slaves”, to their former masters in the South. 

Historian Eric Foner asserts in his book History of the Underground Railroad that Rikers was part of the “kidnapping club”. Foner writes: “In accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act, members of the club would bring a black person before Rikers, who would quickly issue a certificate of removal before the accused had a chance to bring witnesses to testify that he was actually free.”

In many ways, things have not changed much since then. Jenel Bird, a pretty 32-year-old African-American writer whose nickname is Ginger, tells how she was on her way to meet a friend in 2010. 

“It was a real nice day, and I swiped my metrocard in the subway and a message popped up that there wasn’t enough fare on my card. But I had just put money on the card. Then the gate opened and people came out of the train and I just went through the gate.”

A plainclothes police officer approached Ginger. She tried to reason with him, telling him there was money on the card and he could check it on the machine, but it was too late. She ended up handcuffed in a paddy wagon and driven to the police precinct, from where she was sent to Rikers. 

“The holding cell was filthy and overcrowded. I saw a woman who had defecated on herself. The guards left her like that for days. Layers and layers of dirt.” 

Inside, most women she met were African-American or Latina. Although Ginger was only in Rikers for three days, the experience had a lasting effect. She has a criminal record and struggles to find a job. 

A Puerto Rican flag is draped over the windowsill in Julian Segava’s apartment in the South Bronx. He has short-cropped hair and a teardrop tattooed under his left eye. “They knocked out this teeth, this teeth,” he says, as he points to his front teeth. 

“I only have 40% lung capacity and I was in a coma for six months,” he says, summarising the attack by eight guards that nearly killed him in 2008, following a gang fight. “According to the paperwork I saw when I came to, other inmates did this to me.” 

A judge dismissed the case because Segava had no proof that guards caused his permanent disabilities, a decision that has further impeded his job prospects. 

Although the federal monitor signalled in its recent report that serious injuries suffered by staff and inmates were down at the prison, the violence hasn’t stopped. The use of excessive force was deemed “a source of continued concern”. This is also reflected in several ongoing lawsuits in which inmates allege guards used extreme violence against them. 

To Steele, the experience of working at Rikers was also shocking. He felt Richard Rikers’s ghost had never left the building. This epiphany led to his resignation several years later. He now advocates for prison reform and has a travelling exhibition of his photos of life in Rikers. 

Reform at Rikers seems inevitable, given the push for change in both political and legal structures. But the actual closure of the jail might be the only way to ensure that Richard Rikers’s legacy is properly stamped out. 

Ruth Hopkins of the Wits Justice Project was awarded the Sylvester Stein Fellowship and used it to conduct research in the United States and to compare criminal justice issues in South Africa and the US, analysing how race, demographics and the unequal distribution of wealth affects the systems in both nations.

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