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Protesters carrying coffin demand Rikers Island be shut down

A protest outside City Hall to close the jail complex at Rikers Island on Feb. 23. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

A protest outside New York City’s City Hall to close the jail complex at Rikers Island on Feb. 23. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

Protesters rallied outside City Hall in New York City and attempted to deliver a mock coffin on February 23 in response to the mayor’s recent comments regarding the Rikers Island jail complex.

“We demand that Mayor de Blasio publicly rescind his statement that shutting Rikers Island is not possible and that he begins, immediately, to work with all pertinent city and state officials to not only shut down Rikers but to reinvest those funds in communities that need it most,” the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers said in a statement. “We will not rest until de Blasio meets these demands; we will not be silent and we will not take no for an answer.”

Rikers Island, located in the East River between Queens and the Bronx, is the city’s main jail complex and has become notorious for being one of the worst jails in the country. Amidst a variety of recent cases of abuse, torture and neglect in the jail complex, calls to shut down Rikers Island have grown louder with supporters like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and even New York City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray now joining the cause.

“I think it’s a great idea,” McCray told Jezebel, when asked what she thinks about calls to shut down Rikers.

Her position stands in contrast with that of her husband, Mayor Bill de Blasio, as well as New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and president of the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association Norman Seabrook, all of whom have dismissed closing down the jail as unrealistic.

“[It’s] a noble concept, but one that will cost many billions of dollars, and we do not have a viable pathway to that at this point,” de Blasio told the New York Daily News.

Activists, as well as the politicians who have hopped on the bandwagon, insist that closing down the jail is far from a dream. Rather, they insist that closing down the notorious hotbed of torture is a moral imperative.

“I wonder if Mayor de Blasio would allow his son to spend one night in Rikers Island,” said Josmar Trujillo of New Yorkers Against Bratton. “I wonder if Mayor de Blasio would allow his son or his daughter to spend any time in Rikers Island without a conviction. The people in Rikers Island don’t have a father that is a mayor. They don’t have family members oftentimes who can bail them out, and we need to be able to speak up for them. But first and foremost, we need to shut down Rikers, not because it’s practical or pragmatic, but because it is a human rights violation.”

An activists holds a mock coffin for Kalief Browder outside City Hall in New York City on Feb. 23. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

Akeem Browder holds a mock coffin for Kalief Browder outside City Hall in New York City on Feb. 23. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

The protesters who met outside City Hall on Tuesday cited the cases of Kalief Browder, Jerome Murdough, and Bradley Ballard as concrete examples of why the jail should be closed down. Ballard was a mentally ill inmate who was put into solitary confinement for seven days in 2013, receiving no medical attention during that time, and was later found dead in his cell. Murdough, a mentally ill former Marine, was left inside an unbearably hot cell and was later found dead in a pool of vomit and blood. Browder, perhaps the most famous case, was held in Rikers for three years, two of which were spent in solitary confinement, without a trial beginning when he was 16 years old. After the charges of allegedly stealing a backpack were dropped, Browder was released but suffering the effects of solitary confinement and abuse by the guards and other inmates. He later committed suicide on June 6, 2015 at age 22.

Browder’s brother, Akeem Browder, was one of the protesters outside City Hall on Tuesday. After speaking about how Rikers destroyed his brother’s life and chanting his brother’s name, Akeem helped other protesters carry a mock coffin bearing Kalief Browder’s name. They then attempted to enter the gates outside City Hall in order to deliver the coffin but were stopped by police at the entrance. The protesters also presented seven reasons why Rikers should be shut down including: its treatment of the young and the mentally ill, the routine torture, the prevalence of physical and sexual violence, its waste of tax dollars, and its largely poor, black and brown inmate population. The activists say they’d rather the money spent on arresting and incarcerating people be spent on other, more productive programs.

“Every investment in the police and prison state is a divestment from our communities,” said Nabil Hassein of Millions March NYC. “I’m talking about the 1,300 new cops and the 1,800 new correction officers. Those hundreds of millions of dollars should have been spent on social services that actually keep our communities safe: healthcare, education, jobs, mental health care, rehabilitation.”

Recent studies of Rikers reveal a culture of rampant abuse by guards, particularly against inmates with mental health issues. A secret internal study done by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene revealed 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” in altercations with the guards over an 11-month period in 2013. The majority, 77 percent, of those inmates suffered from mental illness. Another study, commissioned by the New York City Board of Correction and released in 2013, revealed the overuse of solitary confinement, especially on mentally ill inmates. These horrific statistics — as well as the real, heart-breaking stories of people who have suffered and are now suffering inside Rikers — are the reasons, protesters insisted, that Mayor de Blasio was the one who needed to “get real” and shut down the jail complex.

“Too many innocent people and lives have been destroyed by Rikers for the NYC political establishment to wait,” the protesters said in a statement. “We must shut down Rikers immediately.”