New York City is considering closing its infamous jail. Will its culture of violence die with it?
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced she would form an “Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform” during her 2016 State of the City address. She followed through. A panel of 27 academics, attorneys, activists, and philanthropists released its 150-page report in April 2017.
The report—often called the Lippman Commission, after its leader, Judge Jonathan Lippman—outlines a vision: Reduce the number of people incarcerated in the city overall and raze the notorious jail. The argument is that Rikers culture is too toxic to repair. Smaller and more modern jails placed around the city would replace it. Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed the idea in April and released his own blueprint for closing Rikers in late June, while warning that “it will not be easy.”
And it won’t. NY City Lens set out to shine a light on the Rikers Island Correctional Facility by talking to former prisoners and guards, historians and experts—people who know the jail intimately. Here are their stories.
“If you live in Queens, you should be able to get locked up in Queens.”
If the city closes Rikers, where will the prisoners go?
By Josie Albertson-Grove
So if New York City does indeed close the massive Rikers complex, as seems increasingly possible, what replaces it? And what would keep the pathologies associated with the island jail from infecting the replacements?
The Lippman Commission report, which increased political momentum to close the complex when it was released in April, recommends five smaller jails, to be located near each borough’s courthouse. For one thing, the authors of the report hope such locations will make it easier for people to visit their loved ones in jail and keep them more connected to their communities. They also hope smaller and more modern jails—along with better management—will be less violent than Rikers. In 2016 alone there were 155 slashings and stabbings in the facility, and 6,005 fights between inmates. A report also found that guards use force against inmates hundreds of times each month, with almost 40 percent of those resulting in injury to inmates.
The commission also estimates that after the initial expense of building new jails—around $11 billion–its plan will save the city $540 million per year in operating and staffing costs.
But such a big physical and cultural change in the city’s justice system won’t come easily. For one thing, some people who have experienced Rikers are skeptical that smaller jails will be less violent.
James Proudfoot, a Bronx resident, has been in Rikers “plenty of times,” as he put it, and he does not think the size of Rikers is the cause of the violence. “To me, it starts with the corrections officers.” They set the tone, he said. Aaron Johnson, a Queens resident who got out of Rikers last month, also thinks smaller jails will not improve conditions inside. “It’s going to be the same officers in a different building. Same rules.” But he conceded it was hard for his girlfriend to visit him while he was locked up, and wishes he had been closer to her. “If you live in Queens, you should be able to get locked up in Queens,” he said.
In 2016, three quarters of those incarcerated in New York City were in Rikers
There are 14,000 beds spread across nine facilities in Rikers
- North Infirmary Command – Built in 1935 3%
- Eric M. Taylor Center – Built in 1965 13%
- George Motchan Detention Center – Built in 1969 15%
- Robert N. Davoren Complex – Built in 1972 16%
- Anna M. Kross Center – Built in 1977 20%
- Otis Bantum Correctional Center – Built in 1985 12%
- Rose M. Singer Center – Built in 1988 11%
- George R. Vierno Center – Built in 1991 9%
- West Facility – Built in 1991 0%
The Commission’s report proposes replacing Rikers with a jail in each borough, near each borough courthouse. Another hope is that the new jails will help get detainees to their court dates on time—and at less cost to the city—while enabling more frequent visits from defense attorneys. Horn added that more frequent attorney visits could help speed cases along, shortening the amount of time that people spend in jail.
The Commission’s report leans heavily on the design of the new jails, with more natural light, softer furniture, and better sightlines for guards, to decrease violent behavior.
Some experts agree. “Certainly architecture is part of it,” said Martin Horn, who teaches corrections at John Jay College and is a former commissioner of the city’s Department of Probation. He described the buildings on Rikers Island as dismal, dingy, and stifling. “They’re also very difficult to manage and supervise because of the architecture because of the sightlines, the officers can’t observe what the inmates are doing.”
Smaller size of the new jails might also help cut down on the violence inside, said Horn. He noted that smaller jails across the country, with populations between 800 and 1,000, have fewer violent incidents than Rikers. “There’s just too much going on at the jails.”
A smaller jail means a smaller staff, and Horn thinks this will lead to more accountability for corrections officers who work there. “If I don’t know what my staff is doing, I can’t hold them accountable,” he said. “At a smaller jail, they can be held accountable much more quickly and more realistically.”
The cost $ per inmate per night in Rikers
Despite smaller jails’ promise for the people inside, they will be a tough sell to local residents, who may not want a jail for a neighbor, even a distant neighbor. The idea of building a jail anywhere on Staten Island, for example, is deeply unpopular with the borough’s politicians, who have issued statements against the idea. Even Mayor de Blasio, a proponent of the Lippmann Commission’s plan, has said he opposes a Staten Island jail.
Meanwhile, city jails already exist around in the city. Manhattan and Brooklyn have jails near their courthouses, situated among stores, restaurants, and condominiums. One of the arguments against building new jails has been that the facilities will bring down property values. For example, Councilman Paul Vallone, whose 23rd District is a possible site for a new jail, argues that a jail would interrupt development in his Queens district.
That worry is not borne out by the neighborhoods around the Brooklyn Detention Complex. The front entrance of the jail is visible from the window of Atlantic Bicycles, between Boerum Street and Smith Street on Atlantic Avenue, a store Tony Scarselli has run for 25 years. He has seen new condo buildings shoot up in his Boerum Hill neighborhood as the residents became whiter and wealthier. Scarselli pulled a real estate brochure out from under the counter and pointed to a building with a view of the jail. The asking price? $7 million. “The neighborhood makes a big deal about the prison, but the prison doesn’t bother the neighborhood,” he said, referring to the jail.
In fact, the jail has changed to keep up with the neighborhood. A woman named Lisa was sitting outside the facility on a drizzly April afternoon waiting for the jail’s visiting hours to begin. She grew up in Boerum Hill, and remembers the jail looking more derelict in her childhood. Sitting on the concrete steps that lead down to the visitors’ entrance, she put her hand on the polished red granite façade, pointing out how new it is.
The Brooklyn jail is much easier for Lisa to get to than Rikers, she said. Her fiancé has been in jail for six months, and Lisa visits every week. He’s waiting for his trial, and Lisa says the trial has been adjourned multiple times, mostly because the lawyers don’t show up.
Lisa feels the Brooklyn jail’s correction officers are disrespectful to visitors. “They treat everybody like inmates,” she said, comparing stories with other visitors about having her perfume confiscated, not being allowed to bring in a copy of the New York Post (though the Times was let in), and being denied a visit because there was a dent her state ID card.
But Lisa said the Brooklyn officers are not as bad as the officers at Rikers. “Rikers is the worst,” she said. “They really put you through it.”
Data source for infographics:
“A MORE JUST NEW YORK CITY“, Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, March 31, 2017
(Adriana Loureiro Fernandez)
“Poverty should not be the reason you are in jail.”
The key is reforming the pretrial detention
By Joe Hong
In March, a heavyweight commission dropped a political bombshell with its report on the city’s jail system, titled “A More Just New York City.” The heart of the report—by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration—is a plan to close Rikers Island, New York City’s primary jail complex, known for its high levels of violence.
Informally known as the Lippman Commission, this team of judges, lawyers, and legal scholars immediately fueled a growing momentum for shutting down Rikers. To make that possible, they advocate halving the inmate population on the Island within the next five years. And the key to that goal, they argue, is greatly reducing pre-trial detention. According to the report, nearly three-quarters of those held in New York City’s jails have not been convicted of a crime. They are awaiting trial.
Here are the numbers: In 2016, some 30,000 individuals in New York City were required to post bail after arraignment. Most of these defendants, approximately 89 percent, landed in jail because they were unable to pay, according to the report. And once in jail awaiting trial, they wait. And then they wait some more.
“The length of time it takes to adjudicate a case—it’s just mindblowing,” says Stanley Richards, who was a member of the Lippman Commission. According to the report, the average time to a trial verdict is 20 months.
Some 7,500 inmates are currently held in Rikers, and the Commission argues that policies can be implemented immediately to reduce that number by allowing prisoners to stay within their communities and at home with their families, under supervision. “We believe that it is possible to safely and effectively release many defendants without compromising safety,” the report states. The commission also argues that a reduced jail population could be housed in smaller, less isolated, and more modern neighborhood jails.
Here is how pretrial detention works now: The court sets the price of bail by assessing the severity of the alleged crime and the likelihood that the arraigned person will fail to appear for his or her trial. The judge also discerns whether releasing an individual or setting an inexpensive bail will risk public safety.
Although some lower-risk defendants are often granted supervised release, the Commission argues that pretrial supervision programs need to expand, to also allow higher-risk defendants to wait for trial outside of jail. Supervision programs include ankle monitors and alternative residences within the community. “If we move every low-risk person out of Rikers right now, it would only drop it down by maybe 2,000,” Richards says.
In 2016, almost 250,000 criminal cases were arraigned in New York City courts
A total of 82 percent of those cases were arraigned on misdemeanors
Five misdemeanors accounted for 102,430 arrests in 2016…
… the equivalent of 41 percent of all criminal arrests
The five misdemeanors: Jumping the subway turnstile, petty theft, possessing a small amount of marijuana, possessing small amounts of other drugs, and driving with a suspended license.
How much risk is involved? The Lippman Commission cites a 2017 survey published by Human Rights Watch showing that 64 percent of detained misdemeanor defendants and 59 percent of felony defendants were found to have a minimal-to-moderate risk of re-arrest. The report argues that these defendants should be placed in a supervised released program and not in jail.
Among factors in weighing the risk of not appearing at trial: whether the defendant owns property or has family in the area. Individuals who have financial or social ties to the community are considered more likely to show up for trial.
Jailing people, Latessa argues, can actually raise the risk they pose to the rest of us. He agrees with the authors of the report that supervised release would reduce recidivism for both low-risk and high-risk defendants. “If I locked you up in Rikers for three months, you might lose your job, you might drop out of school, you might lose your apartment. Your risk goes up,” Latessa says. “Poverty should not be the reason you are in jail.”
But Latessa warns that reform of pretrial detention can only go so far, in his view, because most judges don’t want to be liable if a defendant commits a crime before trial. “In my opinion, you’re only gonna get so far because of judicial attitudes,” he says. “I’m not saying its wrong. I don’t know what I’d do if I were a judge.”
Despite this challenge, Stanley Richards from the Lippman Commission wants the justice system to expand and consider more high-risk defendants for supervised release. “The system ought to look broadly on the charges and broaden the pool on the risk assessment.”
Data source for infographics:
“A MORE JUST NEW YORK CITY“, Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, March 31, 2017
(Adriana Loureiro Fernandez)
Rikers Remembered I
The people who know Rikers Island best are probably the people who have served time there. So Tenzin Sangmo of NYCityLens asked some of them about their memories of the place.
How I got caught
Walter Shannon, 57, lives on Frederick Douglas Boulevard in Harlem. He picks up bottles and cans to sell for five cents each on Lennox Avenue. He is on welfare and on the verge of becoming homeless. He says he was charged with possession of a gun charge in 1980 and sent to Rikers.
“I was walking from East 109th Street and coming west. I had a couple of drinks. The police stopped me. I had a .32 Smith & Wesson gun on me. I tried to take out the firing pin from the barrel so that it becomes a mere object, and does not qualify as a gun. They didn’t come close to me, so I hid the gun on top of a tire of a car parked at my side. They didn’t find it at first but found it when they searched again. I was taken to the precinct, then Supreme Court and to Rikers for six months. It was a felony.”
The last time he went to Rikers was for armed robbery. He was arrested near the 72nd Street and Broadway train station. He fought the case and beat it, with the jury voting 10 to two in his favor. The worst thing he has seen, he says, is was how some people don’t fight back.
“Some people get raped in the shower for owing money,” he said. “The different gangs would fly the colors. Now they go in codes.”
I slashed, stabbed, and spit
Sammy Mack, 52, is an associate director of custodial maintenance for the New York City Department of Homeless Services and has worked in a shelter in the Bronx for almost two decades. He said he is lucky to have this employer, who always allowed him to return to work whenever he was released from jail or prison. He first went to Rikers at 16, in September 1980. Since his last stint, more than a decade ago, he says he has helped other people get through Rikers and prison time by sending them money and help. He is well known in his West Harlem neighborhood.
“I am a huge guy and there were gangs inside. I am 5 foot 10 and 250 pounds. They wouldn’t let me use the phone, so I fought and broke it so nobody could use it. I have to defend myself. That means I slashed, stabbed, and spit on an officer and other inmates. They stopped sending me to Rikers after I became a seasoned veteran. I spent two months in the box, another name for solitary confinement.
“What I remember most is the brutal winters in prisons near Canada border. It was so far and so cold. It is hard for people to travel more than 10 hours in bus to see you. But I survived, am healthy, have no stab marks or anything. I may have some PTSD, that’s all. I am a Muslim now. I should pray five times a day but with my work, I can’t stop whatever I am doing five times a day to pray. I pray in the morning and at night.
“I go out only when troublemakers are home. I can’t get into trouble again.”
I straightened up for my daughter
Vincent Urgent is a 57-year-old cook at a community residential facility in Morningside Heights. Born and raised in Harlem, he lives in Crown Heights.
“Rikers was crazy but New York was chaotic when I was young. I had to get my shit together when I came out, in early 2000, and found my 13-year-old daughter in a foster home. Her mother had passed away.
“I lost my mother at 19 and that was a hard time for me. But I had my grandparents who gave me much love. My grandfather was from the West Indies and grandmother from the South.
Why did he end up in jail, despite those loving grandparents?
“To understand why I ended up in Rikers and upstate prison so many times, watch Paid in Full and American Gangster.”
When he was released, Urgent found an internship as a cook at a community residential institution, and that turned into a job. He has been working at the same place for 13 years. He wears a cross.
“I gotta believe in something. I saw my friends die left and right.”
Sixteen, pregnant, and jailed
Tianna Taylor is a 29-year-old freelance hairstylist and a mother of four. In April 2005 she was stopped by two undercover officers for hopping a train turnstile. She was 16 at that time—and six months pregnant. The police ran her ID through the radio and found a Person in Need of Supervision (PINS) warrant in her name. She was a runaway from a foster home.
Within 12 hours, she was in Rikers, in shackles and handcuffs. She remembers inadequate food and always feeling cold. After six days, her name was called to be taken to court in the bus. As the prisoners stood in line, Tianna says she saw a female corrections officer tuck her paperwork under the table. So when her turn came, they couldn’t send her without the papers.
“I don’t know if she saw herself or her daughter in me, and wanted to teach me a lesson.”
Five days later, she made it to court in Manhattan, where they found out that she had an alias, a name she used when working the street as a 14-year-old.
“My fingerprints gave it out. But the judge pronounced ‘sentence served.’”
She had pretty young thug tattooed on her left outer arm.
Rikers is embedded on me, like a tattoo
Nathan Davis, 50, is a Rastafarian from Brooklyn. He moved to Harlem with his mother at the age of nine, and then later to South Carolina, before returning to the city. He spray paints T-shirts for a living. At 18, Nathan was charged with attempted robbery and spent two years in Rikers. He remembers it being mostly “boring.” He was kept on the 10th floor of a facility, a place he says is usually reserved for high-risk prisoners.
“I prayed most of the time. But I also used to make dice out of soap, drink a lot of coffee, and draw.”
Violence is always seconds away in Rikers, he says.
“There was a chicken day, which is served once a month. So 35 to 40 inmates are lined up and manned by two correction officers, one in the front and one at the back, like the train. So when people see someone they know, they would holler at them and the correctional officer would tell them to shut up and they won’t. All the officers have to do is pull the pin and backup comes in seconds. The inmate is pinned, trapped, and dragged out—first to medical and then to the hole.”
“Praying slows me down to compromise and stay safe. God talks to your heart. Take out the H and the T and its ‘ear.’ You listen.
“I mentored a few people inside, who wanted to be mentored. I spoke to them whenever they would listen.
“Rikers is embedded in me like a tattoo. You will always come across someone who will ask you about it. When people talk about prison, you stand there like you know nothing. But you do, and it brings it all back, as a reminder and a remorse.”
I threw away so much of my life
Vincent Carter, 58, lives in the General Grant Housing complex in Manhattan and has made a living selling movie CDs in West Harlem, along 125th Street since 2009. He was first arrested in 1975 for attempted robbery and sent to Rikers as a 16-year-old. He subsequently spent a total of 25 years of his life in various prisons and jails, including Rikers, in New York.
“It’s hard to find jobs with a record. They try to stop you from public housing.
“We need better lawyers. I had my front teeth knocked out by a correctional officer in a prison upstate. I sued them.”
People at the Grant project seem to know him, and everyone stops by his CD table to say hi. Then, every evening at 7 p.m., he packs up his gear and walks home, with a help of walker.
“My biggest regret is throwing away so much of my life.”
“Bob” is a 35-year-old undocumented immigrant who spent a year on Rikers Island (he asked not to reveal his real name). He was arrested after a bar fight in Woodside, Queens. All his friends managed to get away but the police nabbed him. He faced multiple charges, and the attorney assigned to him advised him to plead guilty, which he did. He was sent to Rikers. Since his release, a few years ago, he has been lying low, working low paying job, and moving stealthily whenever ICE agents surface. He is free but he is still tied down.
“There were gangs inside, controlling facilities like the phone. You have to trade your soup to be able to make a call. I didn’t want to join any gang, as that would mean being mixed up in fights. But I had to fight to defend myself, and was sent to solitary confinement for three months.
“I spent days and nights staring at the wall. You don’t know what to do. I wrote on the walls and filled all the sides and sat down not knowing what to do. I read the Bible four times, and backwards.”
“Bob” stopped drinking alcohol two years ago because, he says, alcohol triggers his jail PTSD. He finds it hard not to be angry about what he has gone through.
“My friend told me I become a different person when I drink.”
Rikers Remembered II
Despite reforms, New York keeps putting young people in adult jails, where they learn all the wrong lessons.
Story and photos by Adriana Loureiro Fernandez
There’s a certain word for losing yourself
On February 20, 2016, the coldest month of the year, Junior Rodriguez sat on a bus and looked out the window. He was skinny and tall, and barely had enough clothes on to keep him warm. But the cold was the least of his problems. Things had happened in a way that, at age 19, he was heading to a place that scares even the strongest adults.
Junior thought about how he could have done things differently, but there was no getting off the bus, no return ticket. He looked down: His hands were cuffed. His feet were shackled. All he had was a few nickels in his pocket. The destination was Rikers, the nation’s second-largest jail.
Despite reforms over time, young people of color continue to flow into New York City jails, and though this sad parade will diminish, it will continue even after the latest reform, the so-called Raise the Age law, which takes effect in 2018. Under Raise the Age, 16- and 17-year-olds accused of misdemeanors will be sent to Family Court, diverting them from criminal convictions. But felonies even at these ages will still start in adult Criminal Court, in a new section called the “Youth Part,” with judges trained in Family Court law.
Experts say the new law could prevent more than 17,000 teens, aged 16-17, from facing adult criminal punishment. But it leaves some 5,000 young men and women older than 17 but under 21 with a largely unchanged fate.
Even if the reform had passed before his troubles began, Junior would have been in that group. He would have ended up on the same bus with the same destination. The law would have changed nothing of what was about to happen.
Junior was around five when he moved to 170th Street in the Bronx. “I was raised by my mother. My father was never around,” he said. “My mom was a single mother, so I pushed to be the man of the house.” As soon as they got to the Bronx, he said, he began having street fights. “I was like six and my brother and I used to get jumped every day. I gained respect fighting every day.” The street where he grew up is studded with surveilance cameras, more than six in less than three blocks. The neighborhood has more than 160 daily arrests, according to city data. The South Bronx is the second-largest provider of prisoners for New York State.
Junior played basketball passionately, mostly in a small court near his house. He was good at the game, even by the high standards of the Bronx. “I actually could’ve gone somewhere,” he said. “But a lot of things went crashing.”
By age 11 he had been kicked out of school. Junior says the assistant principle at his school had taken that job right after working in Spofford, the juvenile prison in the Bronx that was shut down in 2011 after years of abuse allegations. According to Junior, the man brought with him some practices from the detention center. “Y’all are fucking my school up. I’ll fuck y’all up,” Junior remembers hearing. One day, Junior threw a chair at the man and got expelled. In the Child Behaviour Problem Index, he was categorized as Class E Antisocial, a designation for young kids who have trouble getting along with teachers. (Students who are suspended or expelled are three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system in the following year, according to a study by the ACLU. In 2016, there were 262 “child in crisis” incidents in which handcuffs were used. In 99 percent of those cases, the children involved were Black or Latino.)
At 13, Junior was smoking pot and coming home at four in the morning. “All the guys on my block were older than me. I was the youngest,” Junior said. He looked up to them. He liked their sneakers, their clothes, the money that they had, the girls they were with. So at 13, he was already affiliated with a gang.
“To this day, I don’t understand the logic of how I was living like that,” he said. Eventually he stopped going to school. “I was in junior year with freshman credits. It was that bad,” he said. “I got kicked out of school on a Tuesday. My mom kicked me out of my house on a Thursday. My mother is not the best mother.”
At 14, Junior was homeless.
He was in fights every week—with enemies, with enemies of friends. “I started to notice that something’s wrong,” Junior said. “Something is really, really wrong.”
He was living the fast life. “I didn’t have nobody. I needed money. I was living by the day,” he said. “One day, I started selling dope. My whole life changed.”
Soon he had saved enough to rent his own apartment. For a while, his life became what he had hoped it would: He spent his money on parties, girls, shoes, and any other thing a teenager would spend money on. Time slipped by.
One morning at 7 a.m., Junior’s phone started ringing. He was sleeping in his house and it rang again and again. By the time he woke up, he had dozens of missed calls, all from his mother. “I knew something was wrong,” he said.
— The cops came here looking for you. What the hell is going on? his mother asked.
— Ma, I’ll call you another day, Junior told her, and hung up.
Weeks before, a man had his phone stolen and, when he updated his iCloud to another device, pictures started loading. Junior was in some of them. The man identified Junior as one of the robbers. Junior heard about it. “I threw a smoke-fest and then I turned myself in,” he said.
He was charged with armed robbery, among other, less serious counts. The minimum sentence was five years. (Again, the Raise the Age law, would not have helped him, as it does not protect young adults accused of violent felonies such as this one, or 19-year-olds like Junior.)
He stood in front of the judge. He was nervous. He knew that his life was going to change in that moment. Bail was set at $7,500. “Nobody wanted to pay it, nobody,” he said. “My mother, my friends, nobody had money for me.” He hadn’t saved a dollar of what he made in the years before, so he couldn’t pay it either. (Nine in 10 people are unable to pay bail to avoid jail, according to the 2017 Lippman Report on the fate of Rikers Island, which includes proposals for bail and pre-trial dentention reforms.)
On February 20, 2016, Junior was sent to the Vernon C. Bain Maritime Facility, better known as “The Boat”—a floating jail on the East River that houses up to 800 medium-to-maximum-security prisoners. Rikers Island, he quickly learned there, has a code of violence.
“They left me there,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about jail. It was my first time.”
All clothes off, turn around, bend over and cough, an officer told Junior.
I’m not doing that! he answered. The officer laughed. It was Junior’s first experience getting strip searched.
New York has the third-largest juvenile population in the nation. The city currently jails more than 1,000 young adults, according to the Lippman Commission. The great majority of those are 18- to 20-year-old Black or Latino men—just like Junior. (Youth in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide, 50 percent more likely to face an armed attack from another incarcerated person, and twice as likely to face physical or sexual assault than those in juvenile detention facilities, according to a report from the Correctional Association of New York, an advocate for the Raise the Age law.)
But when he first came in, Junior wasn’t put with people his age. “I was with adults,” Junior said. “These people were 25- to 26-year-olds, grown men, looking at you like, ‘What’s up little man?” Junior was a fast learner. He watched how others lived, and he got close to people who had power within the jail. “That’s the key: Adapt. You have to adapt. If you think about the outside world, you’re going to die in there,” he said.
After some weeks, he was sent to the George Motchan Detention Center on Rikers Island. The building houses 18- to 21-year-olds. “When I got to the Island, everybody bailed on me. My mom, everybody,” Junior said. His only visitor was his girlfriend, Tasha. Most of Junior’s calls were for her too.
Survival, he said, became near impossible without affiliating with a gang. “If you’re neutral, you’re a nobody,” Junior said. “You have no say.” By the time he turned 20, he was affiliated. Within less than nine months, Junior says, he had gone as high as he could go in Rikers underworld. “I got so caught up in there that it came to a point where I had the building,” Junior said, “In jail, for you to be good and live comfortably, unfortunately, that’s what you gotta do… unfortunately.”
He didn’t know when or if he could get out of Rikers, which made the wait worse. “I had to stay there until they decided what they wanted to do with me—go upstate or go home,” Junior said. The possibility of not getting out made him push harder to prove that he could survive in a place where fear dictates above all.
“What’s that word?” he asked, trying to describe this period in his life. “There’s a certain word for losing yourself.”
Your men just got beat up! Junior was outside playing basketball when the fight broke out and people started screaming. He ran upstairs to check on his friends and, he said, as he walked back, 30 people from a rival gang jumped him. The beating lasted a while. “The guards didn’t do anything,” Junior said.
On another occasion, he says, he got stabbed in the right arm. (In a 2014 report, former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara denounced a “systematic culture of violence” against and within adolescents in Rikers.) “In Rikers there’s no rehabilitation, because you’re surrounded by gang affiliation, so you’re still if the hood,” Junior said. “It’s worse, though, way worse.”
Junior met all kinds of people in Rikers—people who were there fighting murder cases; people who were going to be behind bars for life; people who said they had done nothing to be there. “It was like a wakeup call,” Junior said. He was afraid of becoming someone—like many of those he met—who had lost the fear of staying in jail. He was scared of missing out on what was going on outside. And also of the feeling that he belonged in jail more than he belonged home.
The sun was not up yet on December 16, 2016. Junior took a shower and put on fresh clothes. The correctional officers handcuffed him and put him on a bus that would take him to court.
He sat in the holding cell, tapping his toes, impatient. He stared around, looked at the others all around him. He had been brought to court more than five times since his indictment but each time he had been sent back. Hours went by and nothing happened. “I’m in there talking to God —‘You think I deserve to go home or not?’” Junior thought, “Thats how real it is, you start talking to God, you talk to yourself.”
Finally, in the winter of 2016, the gates opened. “I can’t really explain to you how it feels,” Junior said. “I get goosebumps.” His friends were waiting for him. They were talking, laughing. Junior saw them but he walked away. “You see movies where they exaggerate, like they’re taking the greatest walk of their life?” Junior asked, “That’s how it felt. It was cold, really cold, but that didn’t bother me at all. I just walked. I took my time.”
As often happens, the district attorney in Junior’s case had negotiated a plea deal. The judge put Junior in the hands of the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES) and assigned him to an alternative-to-detention program. These programs aim to help young adults find jobs, complete their education, and build family engagement.
Junior went straight to his mother’s house. He knocked on the door, covering the peephole.
—Who is it? she asked
—The one and only, Junior said
—First of all, the ‘one and only’ is my son and he’s in jail. Second of all, your voice is too deep, she replied.
When she finally opened the door, his mother hugged him and cried. Even so, she didn’t let him stay in the house after that night. He thought, “Wait, but you’re my family. You’re just throwing me under the bus, knowing that I’m trying to change my life?”
In a couple of weeks he got used to being out of jail, got used to the old neighborhood. But the rules had changed. The program he had been assigned to had clear rules: No smoking, for one thing. For another, he had to go back to school and start an internship.
On his first court day after his reléase, Junior stood in front of the judge, thinking everything would be fine. It wasn’t. Since his release, he had smoked weed and skipped school, along most of the duties that came with the program. “I didn’t know how to act,” he said. (Around 80 percent of juveniles released from adult facilities re-offend.)
“When I saw the judge, he’s like, ‘You’re dirty and not going to the program? I’ll send you upstate right now. Blink wrong and I’ll send you upstate right now, in front of your loved ones. Next time you come to my courtroom and it’s not marvelous, you’re out of here,’” Junior recalled.
“Life is all about choices: you make a good one, you get good results. You make a bad one and you could get good results but, watch it now, you might get a bad one too,” Junior said.
He is still skinny, although not like he was before Rikers. He looks like a teen but speaks like an adult. And now, at 21, society expects him to act like one.
“I just got home. I’m only 21 yet I have no GED, no job record at all,” he said. Every year, the City of New York incarcerates approximately 200 adolescents and 1,100 young adults. All but one of Junior’s friends have been or still are in the prison system, with a similar situation.
But he at least has a toehold. Five Mualimm-Ak took Junior as an intern in the Incarcerated Nation Corp., a nonprofit that creates and manages a number of projects in New York State that benefit formerly incarcerated people. “In New York, kids lose their innocence,” Mualimm-Ak said. “Police start looking them as adults but they’re kids. They lose their childhood.”
Since that first court appearance, Junior has done everything in his power to stay free. “If I fuck up the program, I go back for five years. It has me scared, I don’t want to go back,” he said. So at his second court appearance, the judge was satisfied.
His biggest challenge now, he says, is getting stable. “It’s hard when you have no income. My bill just got cut off. Right now, I could go pick up dope, sell it, and get back,” Junior said. “But I’m not trying to do that. I’m trying to go the positive way.”
As tough as things have been for him, Junior prefers to focus on the bright side of his story: “I’m glad I got locked up,” he said. “I needed that experience to wake up. I needed some time out.”
Recently, as he walked around the streets that raised him, people came around. They hugged him. He smiled. How are you, Junior? Are you behaving good? Be good! they told him.
“Everything’s basically the same. I changed… I changed, that’s it,” Junior said. “Nothing changes in this world unless you make it change.”
Junior still owes money to the court and any misstep, including not paying those bills, will send him back to Rikers. He is on the line and will continue to be, at least for the next five years.
Junior didn’t know, when asked, what the Raise the Age law was. And in fact, if it had been in effect, it wouldn’t have changed anything for him. It wouldn’t have changed anything for Kalief Browder either, the former Rikers’ prisoner who killed himself at age 21 after long stretches in solitary, as documented in The New Yorker. The Lippman Report, which makes the case for shutting down Rikers, also makes the case for treating young offenders differently. “Youth charged with a crime should be treated as the young people they are,” reads the report. “We believe that many of these young defendants merit a second chance.”
Junior’s felony is always going to be on his record, making him inelegible for unemployment benefits, for example. There’s no chance of getting his record sealed, and a lifelong criminal record creates enormous barriers to employment, education, housing, and public benefits. From an early age, a barrier has been set so high that it diminishes Junior’s chances to turn his life around, even if he remains crime free. “He was a kid going in, and an adult going out,” Mualimm-ak said. “One mistake and he goes back to Rikers.”
“You need somebody’s support and I don’t have anybody’s support,” Junior said, “I have my girl but that could change any day. I could get a text right now saying, ‘Listen, I don’t want to be with you anymore,’ and that’s it. I’m back outside. It’s tough.”
Junior, though, is determined. “I feel like I’m starting from scratch… again,” he said. “But this time is harder because I’m going the positive way, and going the positive way is the long way.”
A young boy outside of BronxWorks, a social services organization on Morris Avenue in the Bronx. (Adriana Loureiro Fernandez)