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Kalief Browder suffered solitary confinement through two of his three years in detention on New York City’s Rikers Island, asserting innocence of an alleged backpack theft despite beatings, surveillance, and starvation. In 2015, a trauma-scarred two years after his release, Kalief, at age twenty-two, took his own life.
Protests, plus a Jay Z-produced documentary, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, alerted society about the life and death of Kalief; but while the UN Human Rights Council calls more than fifteen isolation days “torture,” and New York State’s HALT Act bans it, the Rikers toolkit—with Mayor Eric Adams’ assent—includes isolation, as Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina cites the need to “limit time out of lockdown for violent gang members.”
Kalief had no such ties to violence nor did recent Rikers dead. The New Yorker described Browder’s torment. The city’s $3.3 million settlement with his family affirmed it.
How many present detainees plead falsely to guilt, ruining futures for themselves and their families, to extricate themselves from Hell?
Island jails meant for half the six thousand, who spend years in squalor until their court dates, make the Sixth Amendment trial rights a farce. Fitful sleep in cells, or tile-floor crowds in shower stalls, risk guard or inmate violence. Nineteen detainees died last year, a twentieth last month, one more last week. Tourists and commuters rush by mock coffins that Freedom Agenda and Katal Center’s rallies place outside City Hall.
Can we somehow save the living?
The City Council Chamber’s ceiling showpiece cites Lincoln’s Gettysburg claim that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.” As I wait to speak at a Criminal Justice Committee during the last Rikers hearing, I wonder: do lawmakers sitting beneath Lincoln’s benediction perceive the mahogany-frame’s dimmed content? How would the Great Emancipator guide us? Familiar with human nature’s primal faults, might he have foreseen the Rikers crisis?
I wait two hours and twenty minutes for my two-minute testimony to Criminal Justice Committee Chair Carlina Rivera. She alone stays for the hearing’s public portion, and a scarlet-scoreboard clock ticks down my precious time; still, the moment is my Super Bowl. Averting eyes from numbers, I press on, head held high until I decide that I’m done.
“We have long known factually and statistically that conditions in the Rikers Island jail complex constitute a human rights emergency. This Council three years ago voted thirty-six to thirteen to close the complex over time. That was a mandate for action. Former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann’s Independent Commission on Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform five years ago endorsed closing Rikers. That too was a mandate. You must hold accountable the mayor who turned his back on that plan. Will this body become Angels of Mercy to secure Federal oversight to save lives?”
Will political inertia negate my conscience call? Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina, the City Hall press corps, and Rivera’s colleagues are long gone before I speak. Was my call for naught, I fear? My eyes emit tears of frustration.
“The Department has made progress, brought in new leadership from outside the city and demonstrated its commitment to reform by intensifying its weapons searches, utilizing technology and considering searching inmates’ mail to curtail a drug influx,” Molina reports in his ninety-minute speech to reassure the Committee. The body language shows boredom before Council Members Lincoln Restler and Shahana Hanif, knowledgeable and assertive, cut through the clichés. But they leave abruptly thereafter.
Molina sweeps up the aisle with seven staffers surrounding him. They ignore the rows of Rikers’s survivors who, with the Katal Center for Equity and Justice plus allies like me, rallied with Public Advocate Jumanne Williams (but not one Council Member) in frigid cold on the City Hall steps.
“I have nights when I lie awake thinking that we should have gone harder on Molina,” Restler says when I question him at my synagogue, where he has addressed climate concerns.
The New York Times notes that investigators of the Rikers guards’ sick-day abuse have abused their own sick days. They leave ill or injured inmates bereft of medical attention. Videos show that Corrections Officers assault incarcerated men, and they file false reports the next day, the Times reports. Gothamist adds that seven Rikers staffers (two assistant deputy wardens, a captain, two officers and two nurses) were suspended for neglect as a factor in an elderly man’s recent demise.
Business as usual shades sordid disclosures.
“Try to shine more light on the issue,” a Council staff aide tells me when I ask what’s to be done. She won’t pass me through to her boss, although, she adds, “Rikers is top priority.” Hanif, in whose district I live, does not answer emails or phone calls to her Brooklyn or Manhattan office. When I make clear that I’m writing a story about Rikers, three on her staff want to know what I will say. I answer their email, but no one replies. Chair Rivera will have a phone call or Zoom with me about tactics, her Legislative Director pledged two months ago.
Retired from roles as a Brooklyn Borough President’s race relations advisor and as Chair of the NYPD Training Advisory Council’s Race Subcommittee in the aftermath of Eric Garner’s killing, I have no platform beyond writing, but what I’ve learned about Rikers consumes me.
Survivors earn no solace. The dead draw no remorse.
Kalief’s brother, Akeem, crafts silver linings now. His Browder Foundation serves young adults, who are at risk for suicidal tendencies, alcoholism, or drop-out behavior, with life skills that navigate financial or legal systems and jobs “because they come from our community.”
Akeem’s comments at the Foley Square rally move me. There, a Federal Judge grants the city more time to show that Rikers is making progress and that Federal oversight is unnecessary. Akeem’s centered stance and modulated tone make clear that he often speaks in public. What sustains him? At our chance street encounter, I can merely murmur “God bless you,” while I suppress an urge to embrace him. We will, weeks later, share an hour-long phone call.
“I wanted people to know Kalief died to have us speak up and stand up,” Akeem says. “I wanted to educate the community about policies as we are talking now, and when they saw me run for Mayor in 2017 and I finished third of sixty-eight candidates, things began to change in our surroundings. Kalief died to have them speak up and stand up. The $550,000 spent yearly per person in Rikers plus the three million dollars spent building borough-based jails could go for better things.” To change priorities takes a life’s work, we agree, as government’s wheels grind slowly. Machinations in the Congress and escalations in Ukraine censor his and others’ advocacy.
“People don’t see,” Akeem explains. “With jails ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ the media muzzles me and Tiffany (Council Member Tiffany Caban, whose District includes Rikers Island).”
“The highest incarceration rate for Black and Brown youth is from seventeen- to nineteen- years old. I worry for my nieces and nephews and my own five-year-old son. If I and the elders before me can’t change the injustice system, then I have to move my son away from where all the Kalief’s come of age. One of three Black people is incarcerated. I can’t let my son get swept-up, but where on Earth can we go to be treated positively?”
Molina told the Council that Rikers will grow by one thousand inmates this year, negating the lawful closure plan’s scheduled population drops. Where are outrage and action? Who will go to the mat over this?
“Pain and suffering are a kind of currency passed hand to hand until they reach someone who receives them but does not pass them on,” Simone Weil wrote. A prolific writer who yielded an affluent French teaching role to bear witness to suffering on a Renault auto assembly line in Paris, on the Spanish Civil War’s front line and in London’s anti-Nazi Underground, Weil challenged apathy, arousing an activist generation.
Can we think beyond the box as she did?
Senator Mike Gravel’s 1971 marathon reading of the Vietnam Era Pentagon Papers exposed its truths, bypassing litigation, spurring antiwar actions. Would having Rikers survivors, families and prominent allies reading authentic accounts aloud to the media from the just-published Rikers, An Oral History by reporters Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau provoke the public to push passive leaders toward life-saving actions?
The Theater of War is a model that involves Broadway and film actors with the public in staged readings from Antigone and other ancient Greek plays to spark town hall discussions of modern, moral dilemmas. Artistic Director Bryan Doerries guides these dialogues toward depth and outcome. His policing, mental health and Ukraine programs impress me. The example inspires.
A Brooklyn pastor and I have set the program, location, and date to spark discussion of the modern, moral dilemma of Rikers. We’ve got a press list with core groups of readers in mind. We can’t predict the impact our public program will have, but its unique approach has sky-high potential.
Dear Reader, Will you get involved?