Event held to discuss future of Rikers Island

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STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- About 35 people gathered in the Recital Hall of the College of Staten Island Wednesday night to discuss the future of the Rikers Island jail facility.

Everyone in attendance agreed that something needed to be done about the jail,  where violence has been up despite a significant decrease in population over the past 20 years.

The event, organized by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, featured a panel of three guest speakers who took questions from the crowd.

Chaired by former Chief Judge of the State of New York Jonathan Lippman, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform is a fully independent body.

Lippman didn't say which decision the commission would recommend, but said its independence from the government was a strength.

"We're not going to pull any punches," he said "We don't have to curry favor."

Worries have persisted in Staten Island's South Shore that a closure of Rikers Island would mean a "neighborhood jail" coming to the area.

City Councilmember Joe Borelli said in a 2016 letter to Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito that he doesn't want a smaller jail to be built in the area.

Kathy Morse, a woman who was incarcerated at the jail for what she said was about 11 months, said she doesn't believe the jail should be shut down entirely, but there needs to be a further decrease in the 9,500 inmates.

"It's extremely difficult being anyone on Rikers Island," Morse said. "It's an absolute madhouse. It's often been referred to as worse than hell."

Morse said she suffers from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder because of her time at the facility, and believes the power of correction unions is one of the reasons Mayor Bill de Blasio has not taken a firm stance on the shuttering of the jail. 

"It's an extremely powerful union and until we break that union there will be no reform," she said.

The mayor has repeatedly said that he believes closing Rikers to be a noble idea, but that other factors, like the creation of new jails in residential areas, also need to be considered.

Members of the The #CLOSErikers campaign, led by JustLeadershipUSA, in partnership with the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, made up a large part of the audience.

The campaign was formed in 2016 "to break the political gridlock and achieve real solutions that are guided by directly impacted communities." 

Through the campaign, more than 120 diverse organizations across New York City have joined together to demand that de Blasio close Rikers.

Glenn E. Martin, who founded the #CLOSErikers campaign, served time on Rikers years ago, and says his motivation comes from his personal experience. 

"For us, it's not just about shuttering the facility, it's about repairing the harm that's been caused by Rikers over the last few decades," Martin told the Advance earlier this week.

John McBeth, a North Shore community activist who formed the group Occupy the Block, was also on the panel, and said he also believes that Rikers needs to be closed.

Ronald A. Gregg, who represented the NAACP at the event, also served as the deputy director of internal affairs at the facility during the 1990s, he said.

According to Gregg, the NAACP is not in favor of the full closure of Rikers Island, but, instead, would like to see city organizations work together to drastically improve conditions.

"Rikers Island in its current form is not an optimum facility," Gregg said. "The NAACP is firmly against mass incarceration."

He said he believes that if the prison is reformed, it can become an acceptable institution.

Olivia Dana, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, was also the panel. She said the criminal justice system needs to be reformed as a whole, and advocated for alternatives to incarceration.

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