Rikers Island: Tales from inside New York’s infamous jail

_109301128_rikers Rikers Island: Tales from inside New York's infamous jailPicture copyright
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The marketing campaign to close down Rikers, well-known for cruelty and abuse, has been ongoing for years


Vidal Guzman was 16 years outdated when he entered Rikers Island jail for the primary time. As he crossed the bridge over to the island, a jail guard instructed him to “prepare for Gladiator College”.

In Vidal’s first week, he says, he noticed two youngsters dangle themselves.


“That formed my thoughts,” he says. “They are saying that Rikers is all over the place in some form or kind. Rikers would not depart you.”

This week New York Metropolis Council voted to shut Rikers Island jail, which has housed well-known inmates together with Tupac Shakur, Sid Vicious, and Mark David Chapman – the person who killed John Lennon.

Council speaker Corey Johnson described the jail as “a logo of brutality and inhumanity”.

“As a metropolis, we should do the whole lot we are able to to maneuver away from the failed insurance policies of mass incarceration,” he instructed councillors.

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Vidal explains that Rikers is a “poisonous island”, constructed on waste and positioned close to the airport

The detention centre is because of shut by 2026 and might be changed by 4 new jails beneath an $eight.7bn (£6.7bn) proposal put ahead by New York Mayor Invoice de Blasio.

‘Assault in your soul’

Johnny Perez additionally first got here to Rikers when he was 16 – arrested for gun possession. Out and in of jail till he was 21, Johnny was ultimately given a 13-year sentence for theft. He has been incarcerated in 9 completely different jails throughout New York state.

Was Rikers the worst? He laughs. “Yeah.”

“In Rikers, the officers provide you with a knife. They’re going to promote you a razor,” he explains. “I’ve purchased medicine from correction officers who’ve rotated and instructed me they’ll put me in solitary if my mom would not meet them in a parking zone to pay them.”

And solitary confinement, he says, is a “second-by-second assault in your soul”.

“There’s just one particular person you come into contact with and discuss to, and this particular person can also be chargeable for locking you out and in of your cage,” he says. “If this particular person would not even look you within the eye or discuss to you, it type of chips at you.”

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Johnny Perez

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Johnny Perez is now a felony justice reform chief

Glenn Martin additionally first entered Rikers as a 16-year-old when he was charged with shoplifting. Final yr, Rikers moved its youngest inmates out following a change within the ending the detention of under-18s in grownup jails.

“It is outdated, dilapidated, rusted,” he says. “It was horrifying. It was a spot the place I needed to be taught shortly. If you happen to enable individuals to take benefit, you’ll be able to’t dwell there.”

He says he was stabbed 4 occasions throughout his time in Rikers.

“It is a spot the place you must select: predator or prey.”

‘All of us had the identical story’

Like 90% of the inmates in Rikers, Vidal, Glenn and Johnny are black or Hispanic. All three are actually anti-jail activists.

Certainly one of Vidal’s early childhood reminiscences is the sound of his mom’s abdomen grumbling as she gave him her final remaining meals.

Talking of his fellow prisoners, he says: “All of us had the identical story: a father determine who was incarcerated or wasn’t of their life.”

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When he was 5, Vidal was homeless for a yr. Not a lot later he was on the streets, getting concerned with gangs. By the age of 12, he was dealing medicine.

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Vidal Guzman

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When he left jail, Vidal labored in social justice and have become a group organiser

Johnny’s story is comparable. He got here to New York from Cuba at 10 months outdated.

“Once I was 16 years outdated, I wasn’t attempting to determine if I’d go to band camp or karate college – I wasn’t even enthusiastic about faculty,” he says. “I am serving to my mom, who’s alone, to assist feed my brothers.”

He says that in his group, which has little or no belief within the police, individuals carry knives or weapons as a method of safety. Incarceration turns into inevitable, he says.

He says “there must be a deeper understanding of how individuals come to interrupt the regulation”.

“They’re really reacting to one thing of their life and normally it is a public well being situation,” he argues, citing poverty, psychological well being and meals insecurity as main elements.

“If you happen to steal a coat to remain heat, you go to jail for that.”

‘The whole lot sends the message that you haven’t any worth’

Vidal says when he was launched from Rikers, he “did not know learn how to come residence”.

“I used to be not speaking to anybody, waking up early within the morning being actually defensive, pondering I’d be in a battle,” he says.

“If you happen to deal with individuals like an animal, what do you assume they’ll act like? An animal.”

With a felony document, he discovered it inconceivable to get a job. Inside a few years he was again in jail.

Glenn says that the whole lot about incarceration “sends the message you haven’t any worth. If individuals deal with like you haven’t any worth, you begin believing different individuals don’t have any worth both. “

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Glenn Martin

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Glenn Martin now runs a management consultancy

Glenn says that for the final 20 years, the closure of Rikers is all he is considered. His life after incarceration has not been clean crusing.

In 2014, he arrange the advocacy group JustLeadershipUSA, which he left final yr amid allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denies.

He says his pleasure about Rikers’ closure is tempered – the satan is within the element.

“It is one factor to attain closure but it surely’s equally essential what occurs subsequent.”

‘There isn’t any model of incarceration that is human and honest’

He believes that incarceration must be abolished altogether, arguing it doesn’t work.

“There isn’t any model of incarceration that is human and honest,” he says.

Johnny’s response to the announcement is equally restrained – he says he’s not popping champagne.

“We’re nonetheless at a place the place persons are being incarcerated in New York. Folks with psychological well being considerations, individuals who have dedicated non-violent crimes – do they honestly impose a risk to society?”

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Rikers Island is nicknamed Gladiator College, Torture Island and the Oven

However Johnny additionally believes that abolition of incarceration can’t occur in a single day and the closure of Rikers marks progress – a place that as a black man, he says, is just not simple to take.

“However to go from 12 metropolis jails to 4 – even when we’ve to construct these 4 – I virtually have the accountability to help that.

“Beginning clear is certainly a step in the proper course.”

p07r2zxh Rikers Island: Tales from inside New York's infamous jail

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Media captionEx-inmate Nicola explains how she escaped the “revolving door” of the jail system and drug habit

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