Tomorrow afternoon, protesters and prison reform advocates will march to the foot of the bridge to Rikers Island and demand the jail’s closure.
The march will begin at 1 p.m. at 30th Avenue and Steinway Street in Astoria. Actor and activist Emily Althaus (Orange is the New Black), Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, and Johnny Perez of the Urban Justice Center are scheduled to speak at a rally and vigil following the march.
Glenn E. Martin, the founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, has been one of the most potent voices in the movement to shut down Riker’s Island.
“For me it started at 16, with an arrest for shoplifting that sent me to Rikers Island for a couple days,” Martin told the Voice. “I had bail set at under $1,500, but we were on public assistance, so it might as well have been set at $15 million. I remember getting to Rikers and realizing quickly that you had to make a decision — to be predator or prey. If you want to survive, you need to quickly be comfortable engaging in violence. That was just the atmosphere and the culture I found myself in.”
The fight to reexamine Rikers’ future gained momentum in the wave of the tragedy of Kalief Browder, the teen who spent three years incarcerated there while awaiting a trial for charges that were ultimately dropped. He was eventually released, but he struggled to readjust after spending much of his formative high school years in solitary confinement. Browder committed suicide in June of 2015, roughly eight months after his story was recounted in The New Yorker.
In July, three years after he campaigned as a criminal justice reformer, Mayor de Blasio finally announced funding for the multi-year land use evaluation process that might eventually facilitate the moving of young people off Rikers. But for Martin, the administration’s response to reform at Rikers has been weak and muddied with equivocation.
“The bureaucracy that it takes to accomplish these tasks should be repulsive to any New Yorker with a conscience,” Martin says.
Martin’s first stint at Rikers lasted only a few days. But at the age of 23, he was arrested for a robbery charge, and ended up back at the notorious jail, this time for a whole year.
“That’s when I got a real taste of the culture. I quickly realized that if you had money, you could operate on Rikers by getting corrections officers to do what you want them to do. So I would pay them to bring drugs in, I would pay them to bring in food, I would pay them to look the other way,” Martin recalled. “I was in an environment that was so much more corrupt than where I grew up. There was nothing rehabilitative about Rikers, nothing correctional. In fact, people in the position of authority were helping to facilitate that atmosphere.”
Martin was eventually sent upstate and served six years at Attica. While in prison, he earned his GED and was elected to lead the penitentiary prisoner’s advocacy group which lobbied for access to programming and avenues to recourse against punishment. When he got out, he landed a job with the non-profit Legal Action Center and eventually rose up the ranks of the Fortune Society, a reentry program for former prisoners. After six years there, Martin was determined to address the structural problems at the heart of America’s incarceration epidemic. He raised the money to start JustLeadership and built a coalition to launch the Close Rikers campaign.
“When we showed up at the state legislature and on the steps of the city hall, it wasn’t with a bunch of elite educated lawyers alone — it was also with people from Harlem and East New York and Brownsville and Bed Stuy and South Jamaica Queens and the communities that are disproportionately affected by crime and incarceration,” Martin says.
Asked why he thinks the closure of Rikers is necessary, Martin cites the culture of violence supported by the island’s remote location and the impunity for guards ruling with dubious ethics.
“People say, ‘If you just move people off Rikers, you’re just going to have the same conditions elsewhere.’ My response is, there are other incarcerative settings that prove that that’s not the case.”
“If you are on Rikers and you have one razor blade, four or five people can get cut with that before they get it out of circulation. At state prison, the first thing I saw was guys opening cans of soup with can openers and taking the top off, which is one of the sharpest razors I’ve ever seen, and throwing them in the garbage and eating soup.”
Martin also notes that facilities housed in the boroughs do not suffer from the same issues. “When correction officers walk out of the Brooklyn House of Detention, they walk into a community. They are reminded that these people are part of the community or that the community has some interest in what happens in the jail.”
In contrast, Rikers’ “remoteness, over eight decades, has lent itself to what we see now.”
Tomorrow’s march will be an opportunity for supporters of prison reform to make their voices heard. “If we really want to honor the memory of Kalief Browder,” Martin says, “then you stand up and spend the political capital to make sure there’s never another Kalief Browder. The only way you do that, in my opinion, is by shutting down Riker’s Island, and creating a more fair and human jail system here in New York.”