For former inmate and current criminal justice reform advocate Glenn Martin, his journey over the bridge connecting New York City to the infamously violent Rikers Island was the longest ride of his life.
“There’s something about approaching Rikers and that penal colony that sucks the oxygen out of a person’s chest,” Martin told The Huffington Post on Tuesday.
The facility is one of the focal points of a new Spike docuseries “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story,” which follows the experiences of a young man who spent three torturous years on Rikers Island and made several attempts to kill himself while there.
The docuseries explores the many injustices Browder ― who remained in Rikers because he was unable to afford bail for allegedly stealing a backpack ― faced on Rikers. Browder was held in solitary confinement and repeatedly attacked by inmates and guards in the prison. Two years after his return home, Browder remained haunted by these memories. He died by suicide in June 2015, at the age of 22.
Browder’s short life underscores the urgent need for a more humane alternative to Rikers, and Martin has a solution in mind: closing the prison altogether.
Like Browder, Martin first went to Rikers when he was just 16 years old. So he’s no stranger to the damaging psychological effects the island can have, especially on young minds.
“Think of everything that makes [you] unhappy and think of all those things being applied simultaneously,” Martin said. “It feels like a merging in all of the worst things this world has to offer and that human beings have to offer.”
“At a time when young people are trying to figure out their identity and who they are in this world, New York City sends them a strong message about their lack of value,” he said.
On his second day in the facility, Martin said he was stabbed four times as corrections officers laughed and told Martin that if he wanted to receive medical assistance, he’d be looked upon as a snitch.
Martin said inmates have two choices upon entering Rikers: to become predator or prey.
“You learn how to sleep with your eyes open,” Martin said. “You go into survival mode. Every moment of every minute is about trying to read what’s happening around you to stay alive.”
“Think of everything that makes [you] unhappy and think of all those things being applied simultaneously."”
After being transferred to a New York state prison, Martin realized that not all prisons operated as Rikers did, and that some could actually be rehabilitative.
“I was able to see how much of the problem with Rikers is actually Rikers,” he said.
After being released from the state prison ― where he earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts ― in 2000, Martin began advocating for criminal justice reform, meeting with influential figures like Sandra Day O’Connor and former President Barack Obama. He also met with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who would become the focus of Martin’s campaign to shut down Rikers Island.
After being invited to attend the mayor’s inauguration in 2014 and hearing him speak of New York’s “tale of two cities” ― in reference to the socioeconomic gap among the city’s residents ― Martin was inspired to make an appointment with the mayor to share his vision of closing Rikers. But when Martin approached de Blasio about the issue, he said the mayor pretty much dismissed him.
That year, Martin founded JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), an organization dedicated to cutting the prison population in half by 2030.
The org also initiated the #CLOSErikers campaign in 2016. The campaign is one of few grass-roots movements fully devoted to closing the prison and remedying the damage it has caused innumerable New Yorkers, including Browder. Martin said #CLOSErikers is focused on capturing the attention of the one person with the power to close the prison: de Blasio.
Martin said that despite de Blasio’s mayoral campaign promises of wanting to reform the criminal justice system and end the “tale of two cities,” all he’s seen thus far is a “tale of two mayors.”
In February, JLUSA sponsored a commercial calling de Blasio out for what it saw as hypocrisy.
“We’re going to continue to remind the mayor that you can’t continue to say you’re a national progressive leader and have a torture island in your own backyard,” Martin said.
And he means it. In addition to appearing at de Blasio’s events in NYC, Martin said members of the campaign also show up to de Blasio’s out-of-state events. When the mayor traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a few days ago, Martin said campaign members were right there to greet him.
Commenting on the encounter in Florida, the mayor said he admired the group’s ardency, and that his administration has been looking into everything that would be required to close the prison.
“I said to [the campaigners], ‘Look, we’re looking at all the possibilities around Rikers.’ I said, ‘Anything we do is going to take time,’” the mayor recounted Monday, according to a transcript his office sent the HuffPost. “It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be costly even if we got in a position to consider closing Rikers, you’d still have to build additional facilities elsewhere.”
JLUSA also seeks out de Blasio’s biggest donors regularly to inform them about the troubling issues with Rikers Island.
“He’s going to get enough of us,” Martin said.
In addition to getting the mayor’s attention on the issue, #CLOSErikers also provides leadership training for those that have been affected by Rikers ― including former offenders ― to publicly communicate to others why the city should end operations at the prison.
In 2015, the campaign urged the mayor to consider removing 16- and 17-year-olds from the facility, which may have played a role in de Blasio’s 2016 announcement of his plan to transfer anyone under 18 from the island within the next four years. (New York is one of two states in the country that will prosecute anyone 16 years of age or older as an adult.)
While some could find it unrealistic ― or unfair ― to put the responsibility of closing Rikers on a single politician, Martin said he’s fully aware of the scope of the campaign’s request. De Blasio said he “went over some of the complexities” of closing Rikers with the Florida campaigners, but Martin pointed to one of the mayor’s recent proposals.
“There’s also a lot of complexities involved with building a light rail from Brooklyn to [Queens], and he seems to be really interested in doing that,” Martin said, referring to de Blasio’s push for streetcars that would connect the two boroughs.
“So if people are getting tortured on a remote island 200 feet away from LaGuardia Airport, I would think that you would invest just as many dollars ― and just as much expertise ― to save people’s lives as you would to get people to work a little bit quicker,” he said.
But even if Rikers does close, Martin said he doesn’t want the advocacy efforts surrounding the island to end there. He wants to repair the damage it has had on families throughout the state.
His sentiment echoes that of Browder’s mother, Venida, who died 16 months after her son’s suicide.
Before her death, Martin was able to share a stage with Browder’s mother at The New School in New York City. Afterward, they had a conversation about her visits to Rikers to see Browder while he was imprisoned there. During the conversation, Martin recalled her repeatedly saying that she wants justice for her son.
“Kalief Browder gave his life for a reason,” Martin said. “His mother said that what she really wants for her child is justice ... I think that keeping his story alive, keeping his sacrifice alive, helps us all to be reminded of why we need to be more urgent in our efforts to move toward a fairer criminal justice system.”
Martin has also developed a relationship with one of Browder’s brothers, Akeem, whom he talks to every other day.
“His brother’s messaging aligns with his mother’s messaging, which is he’s not going to rest until he sees justice for his brother,” Martin said.
“And that no amount of resources in the city of New York is going to repair the harm,” Martin continued. “[But] what will repair the harm is the shuttering of the facility that killed his brother and the emergence of a criminal justice system that doesn’t cause the kind of human carnage that Rikers Island does.”