I Survived Rikers and I'm Praying for Mass Incarceration's End | Sojourners

I Survived Rikers and I'm Praying for Mass Incarceration's End

Image via  REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

On Oct.17, New York City’s Council voted to close Rikers Island. The City Council made it clear that after Dec. 31, 2026, Rikers Island will no longer be a place of incarceration.

Directly impacted individuals and faith leaders were central to this decision.

I am a faith leader and someone who has endured a decade of human rights abuses on Rikers Island when I served time for defending myself against a rapist.

The intersection of racism and sexism directly resulted in my incarceration. Instead of being counseled after trying to defend myself from rape, I was locked in a cage. Many incarcerated women are survivors of physical and sexual abuse and yet these issues are ignored in our prisons because issues that impact black women are often ignored by our society. Since slavery, black women have not been seen as victims of sexual abuse but rather as deserving of abuse and captivity; my incarceration is a continuation of the physical, mental, and sexual abuse black women have faced since being brought to the U.S.

Because of my personal experience and the larger systemic issues with how the U.S. and how the prison system treats black people, I, along with thousands of others who served on Rikers Island, organized for three years to close Rikers Island. As part of the #CloseRikers Campaign, led by JustLeadershipUSA, my organization BEYONDrosies2020, and Urban Youth Alliance-BronxConnect, we know there is no way to end mass incarceration without our voices and leadership.

In April 2016, we began the #CLOSErikers campaign, centering the leadership of people harmed by Rikers, to demand the closure of the notorious jail complex. In the span of a year, organizers took the demand to close Rikers from a lofty ideal to actual policy in New York City.

But this was just the beginning.

The City started off with a plan for a jail capacity of 5,000 (with 6,000 beds), and has reduced that to 3,300 (we have demanded 3,000 or less). Their vote on Oct. 17 set the maximum capacity, but not the minimum. We also need more mental health services for people affected. We need to work toward getting rid of solitary confinement. And we must keep the pressure on to see that closure happens on the fastest possible timeline — which we believe is by 2024. We can keep working, through the design and contracting process, to further reduce the size of the facilities to match our progress towards further de-carceration — the ultimate goal.

If we want to enact justice in any situation, we must listen to the voices of those directly impacted by the injustice. Those of us who served time on Rikers Island know firsthand why it has to close.  Any movement for justice that is not led by directly impacted people is charity, at best, but it is not biblical justice. Biblical justice empowers, while charity can disempower if it is not coupled with justice.

It is also crucial that we give Rikers Island back to the communities that have been harmed by mass incarceration. One way is through The Renewable Rikers Act. This bill is centered on transferring control of Rikers Island from the New York City Department of Correction to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection — guaranteeing this land is never used for jails again. A second piece of legislation requires the City to determine renewable energy capacity on the island, while a third bill will assess how much wastewater can be diverted to the island — potentially closing several aging facilities in northern Queens, the South Bronx, and Upper Manhattan. Shutting down these plants potentially frees up hundreds of publicly owned acres for community use. As a minister of the gospel, I believe in God’s power to transform what was once a site of suffering into a site of healing for our environment.

Black, brown, and poor communities all over New York City have been subjected to torture on Rikers and oppression at the hands of the department of corrections for decades. This harm needs to be documented and repaired, which we are working toward through the Rikers Public Memory Project.

I am organizing and praying for the day mass incarceration ends and I know the closure of Rikers Island is one step towards this goal. I also know that nothing without the voices of formerly incarcerated people will be for us. As followers of Jesus of Nazareth, a brown-skinned man who was wrongly incarcerated and executed by the Roman empire, we must follow his words in Matthew 25: 37-40.  Caring for those in prison is not an option for followers of an imprisoned Messiah. It is a commandment. We must show love for our neighbor whether they are incarcerated or a returning citizen. Now that legislation to close Rikers Island has passed we must continue the fight to ensure that the implementation of the closure is done in justice.