How the #CloseRikers Campaign is Achieving the Impossible

Glenn E. Martin leading the Close Riker’s Campaign – Photo Credit: Twitter @glennEmartin

After the 2015 suicide of Kalief Browder elevated the injustices of Rikers Island to a national conversation, calls to close Rikers Island by grassroots organizations intensified. On June 22, 2017, New York Mayor, Bill de Blasio’s office released a 51-page report outlining a credible path to closing Rikers Island jail complex.

As a minor, Browder was arrested on suspicion of stealing a book bag and was sent to Rikers Island after his family could not afford to pay the $3000 bond as a condition for his release. Kalief Browder spent almost two years in solitary confinement at Rikers Island where he attempted suicide at least five times after being denied healthcare services.

In 2016, the #CloseRikers campaign lead by JustLeadershipUSA in partnership with many other organizations was created to “break the political gridlock and achieve real solutions that are guided by directly impacted communities”, according to its website.

The campaign called for:

“New Yorkers to boldly reimagine the city’s failed criminal justice system and become a national leader in ending mass incarceration”

When I first heard of the #CloseRikers campaign, I believed the campaign was a good idea in theory and would be effective in helping to raise awareness, but it seemed the jail complex was too massive to sustain any real change. My first thoughts were, “Is this a reasonable ask?”

This tweet opened a dialogue with Glenn E. Martin, the visionary leader, who believed in the impossible long before Mayor de Blasio backed the Rikers Island Commission’s recommendation to close the facility. I was reminded of when I first saw Glenn E. Martin which was during a livestream forum hosted on Twitter by the Columbia University Center for Justice back in early 2015 before periscope. During the forum, he said something to the effect that many people enter public service to change the system when in fact the system will change you long before you change it.

As someone who has worked in corrections at a Supermax, in law enforcement as a patrol officer, and in social work as a Child Protection Investigator, this statement really resonated with me. Although my heart is dedicated to serving others, I just could not conform to those environments which is why I created Social Work Helper. Now, I have the freedom to advocate, help create awareness and hold institutions accountable all of which has the tendency to get you fired in a public service job.

Glenn was gracious enough to grant me an interview to discuss his organization’s efforts to advance criminal justice reform, and you can read our conversation below:

SWH:  Tell us about your organization JustLeadershipUSA, and how you are using it to influence criminal justice reform.

Glenn E. Martin – Founder at JustLeadershipUSA

GEM:  I spent six years in state prison and met some of this country’s best and brightest while I was there.  It taught me that, in criminal justice reform, those closest to the problem are closest to the solution but furthest from resources and power.

The people most harmed by mass incarceration are the people who can lead us out of that crisis, but only if we have a seat at decision-making tables.  That’s the principle on which I founded JLUSA.  Our bold goal is to cut the correctional population in half by 2030, and we have a three-pronged approach for accomplishing that.

Through our national leadership training we empower formerly incarcerated people to lead criminal justice reform efforts around the country.  Through membership in JLUSA we engage thousands of people across the country concerned about criminal justice issues and mobilize them to create change.  Through advocacy we build campaigns and influence criminal justice policy on the local, state, and federal levels.  By building a strong base of formerly incarcerated leaders and other supporters across the country, we effectively push for policy changes that will create a decarcerated America.

SWH:  What do you believe are the major barriers and challenges preventing forward movement towards a more equitable criminal justice system?

GEM:  JLUSA believes that America’s most challenging barrier to expansive, systemic criminal and juvenile justice reform is the absence of clear and consistent leadership by those who have been directly affected by our failed criminal justice policies.  People who are directly impacted have big, bold ideas for changing the system that often are dismissed as unrealistic by traditional stakeholders.  That’s why the foundation of our organization is equipping formerly incarcerated people who are already leaders to access the power and resources necessary to make their ideas a reality.

SWH:  When you developed the #CLOSErikers campaign, what were your goals and expected outcomes?

GEM:  The #CLOSErikers campaign was developed with an ambitious goal of totally reimagining what criminal justice looks like in New York City.  Closing Rikers requires the City to reevaluate how each phase of its system operates: policing, setting bail, prosecution, sentencing, incarceration, and reentry.  Closing Rikers requires a significant reduction in the jail population of New York City.  And the shuttering of the penal colony is only one piece of the campaign.  The equally important part is to invest in and build the communities – poor black and brown neighborhoods – that have been devastated by Rikers Island for decades.

SWH:  What advice would you give to someone who dares to achieve the impossible?

GEM:  I’m proof of the talent that this country locks up and throws away every day.  There are thousands, if not millions, of people just like me who have the solutions to some of our most pressing issues but never get to have their voices heard.  My advice to other people like me is to hold onto what you know is right and don’t allow others to tell you that your ideas are impossible or unrealistic.  That’s what I was told when I first started talking about closing Rikers, but now it’s the official policy of New York City.  Build relationships with people who are willing to invest in you and your vision.

SWH:  How can our readers learn more about your projects and how to support them?

GEM:  Visit the JustLeadershipUSA website and the #CLOSErikers website for ways to get involved.  You can become a JLUSA member for only $1 per month ($12 per year), and there is an opportunity to donate memberships to people currently incarcerated.

We Must Honor Kalief Browder and Work to End State Violence

Screenshot from rare video footage from Rikers Island showing Kalief Browder being held on the ground.

On Saturday, June 6, 2015, 22-year-old Kalief Browder, a Black man from the Bronx, committed suicide at his home unable to recover from the trauma he endured as a child prisoner in New York City jails. Social Workers Against Criminalization (SWAC), a committee of the National Association of Social Workers – New York City Chapter, pauses today to send peace to Kalief Browder and his family and to acknowledge the tens of thousands of teenagers that remain in custody throughout the United States.

When he was sixteen, Mr. Browder was accused of stealing another boy’s backpack and was arrested. He was sent to Rikers Island because his family was unable to pay the $3000 a Bronx criminal court judge demanded as a condition of his release. While in custody, he maintained his innocence until the case was finally dismissed by Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson three years later.

Kalief Browder

At Rikers Island, Mr. Browder was bullied and beaten by correction officers and spent nearly two years isolated in solitary confinement where he mentally decompensated and attempting to kill himself there at least five times after being denied the healthcare services he requested.

He had not reported any mental health distress prior to being subjected to solitary confinement, which is considered torture by an abundance of international bodies and defined as pathogenic by forensic psychiatrists – that is, a direct cause of mental illness.

Each year thousands of teenagers and tens of thousands of adults will spend time at Rikers Island because they are unable to pay for their liberty while their criminal court cases advance through a legal system clogged by the hundreds of thousands of arrests dictated by New York City’s stubborn adherence to fundamentally racist Broken Windows policing. Like Mr. Browder, 95 percent of the people cycling through Rikers Island are either Black or Latino, and a recent study by the Vera Institute found that in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, race was meaningful predictor of bail and charging outcomes.

After spending three years, terrified and alone in a cage, Mr. Browder was suddenly released on the side of the road in Queens with a two-ride Metrocard and told to find his own way in the world that he had been unjustly ripped from and no longer understood to be his. Across the United States, 2.5 million people are incarcerated, nearly all of who will return to their home communities. Who is responsible for repairing the torture and damage inflicted by the State through the brutal, dehumanizing process of incarceration?

While more visible acts of state violence – like police brutality – have been brought into the national spotlight by the relentless protest of young people of color, forcing a national conversation on race and policing, acts of torture and the traumas of incarceration remain largely unseen, though we now know them to be just as deadly. As social

As social workers, we acknowledge the historical and current role of our profession in participating and perpetuating state violence while recognizing our responsibility to stand up to the injustices of structural racism and the continued criminalization of Blackness and poverty by the very institutions that are sworn to serve and protect.

Social Workers Against Criminalization call for the immediate removal of all adolescents from Rikers Island, the cessation of any forensic social work practices that lead to the maintenance and furtherance of trauma and grief as well as the abolition of secured financial collateral for release and other money-bail practices that discriminate against the poor.


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