Hundreds expected to march through Astoria on Saturday to demand closing of Rikers Island

Photo courtesy of Close Rikers

Celebrities, elected officials, community leaders and citizens will march from Astoria to Rikers Island this weekend to demand that Mayor Bill de Blasio shut down the decades-old jail.

The Sept. 24 rally is a part of the #CLOSERikers campaign, a citywide effort by 98 advocacy groups, to shut down what many call a “failed” jail complex. JustLeadershipUSA, an organization that is dedicated to cutting the nation’s correctional population in half by 2030, is leading the event.


“Rikers does not deliver safety nor justice – it is wasteful, racially biased, unsafe and unjust,” said Glenn E. Martin, president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA. “With all that we know about the human suffering that occurs in Rikers, the biggest scandal is that Rikers continues to exist at all. It must be closed down.”

Starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday, the group will march from 30th Avenue and Steinway Street in Astoria to 19th Avenue and Hazen Street, at the foot of the Rikers Island Bridge. The rally will begin at 4 p.m. and end at 5:30 p.m.

According to Captain Peter Fortune, the commanding officer of the 114th Precinct, about 500 to 800 people are expected to attend the event. The precinct will have officers and traffic agents in cars, scooters and on foot patrolling the area.

Emily Althaus, an actor on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” Councilman Danny Dromm and Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, are some of the people expected to attend.

Akeem Browder, criminal justice advocate and brother of Kalief Browder, will also attend the event. Kalief Browder was arrested at age 16 for allegedly stealing a book bag. He was charged with robbery, grand larceny and assault and was kept at Rikers Island for three years awaiting trial.

He maintained his innocence but was not released until he was 20 years old, after the defendant who accused him of the crime moved back to his home country of Mexico.

Two years after his release, Browder hung himself. In interviews with the New Yorker, Browder detailed the violence he faced and his time in solitary confinement. He attempted to kill himself several times in jail and after his release. He admitted to facing extreme anxiety, hallucinations and paranoia after leaving Rikers Island.

Nearly 80 percent of prisoners detained in Rikers Island have not been convicted of a crime but are detained awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay bail. Some may spend months or even years awaiting trial. One man, Jairo Pastoressa, has been detained for six years awaiting trial.

According to a 2015 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, detaining a person at Rikers Island for one year costs the city $209,000.

More than 40 percent of the people detained on Rikers Island have a diagnosed mental illness and studies show those with mental illness are more likely to be the victims and offenders of violence.

The jail has also been criticized for racial bias – 89 percent of inmates are black or Latino, despite making up only 56 percent of the city’s population.

De Blasio has announced some reforms meant to decrease the violence at the jail, including tripling the number of mental health units on site. Earlier this month, he announced that members of the Emergency Services Unit would be given tasers after several guards were attacked. He was criticized by inmate advocates who pointed out the jail’s history with violent guards.

Plans are also being made to move adolescents to two juvenile detention centers in the Bronx but this transfer could take four years. New York is one of only two states that treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults and there are currently 188 16-and 17-year-old inmates on Rikers Island, according to the city.

“Every week, if not every day, a new, horrific story emerges from Rikers,” Martin said. “There is no dispute that the Rikers Island Correctional Facility jails are dangerous, isolated and woefully inappropriate for human beings.”

To get more information about the march, visit the #CLOSERikers website.