Letters from Pelican Bay


When I first got interested in the criminal justice system, I began following community leaders throughout the nation who were involved in the reform movement. One person I began following was Glenn E. Martin, founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA and a formerly incarcerated individual. JustLeadershipUSA is an organization committed to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. Their mission is to empower the people most affected by incarceration to drive policy reform. One of their biggest campaigns was #closeRikers, which was a battle to close Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. It is a facility notoriously known for its brutal treatment and violation of human rights. As Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, stated, “Rikers Island is a whirlpool of poverty, incarceration, and injustice.”

Throughout Rikers Island history, there have been many cases and controversies regarding conditions and treatment. One case involved Kalief Browder who was arrested for stealing a backpack. Since he was underage during his arrest he was placed in solitary confinement for his ‘protection.’ After serving 3 years, he was released without charge, but it was clear his incarceration had took a toll on his overall well being. He failed his first suicide attempt shortly after his release. Unfortunately, after a second attempt he ended his life.

While his case is not reflective of all cases, it does serve as an example of the faults at Rikers Island and in our criminal justice system as a whole.

After years of advocating, organizing, and protesting JustLeadershipUSA celebrated a victory this past Friday, March 21, when New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to close the facility.

“It will take many years. It will take many tough decisions along the way, but it will happen,” de Blasio said at a City Hall press conference.

While no specifics were given, Mayor de Blasio did say it would take roughly 10 years to close the detention facility and it would require reducing the jail population.

So why does something that happened across the country matter to us?

Personally, it serves as inspiration and on a larger scale it provides a model for us to follow. California currently has 123 county jails which are used to house inmates awaiting trial or those who are sentenced to one year or less. Our jails like many across the nation are overcrowded with mentally ill inmates or people awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford bail or solid legal representation. Over 12 million people funnel through our jails annually and if California is rethinking prisons, it must rethink jails.

Right now, the goal of majority of criminal justice reform advocates along with JustLeadershipUSA is to cut the incarcerated population in half by 2030. That is going to take some serious coalition building and community organizing which the citizens of New York engaged in. Reducing incarceration in jails and prisons requires addressing homelessness, education, public benefits, employment, and the stigmatization of formerly incarcerated individuals. If New York can successfully close down its largest jail, then California can begin to close down its local jails.

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