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The Appeal Podcast Episode 4: How Prison Reform Was Co-Opted to Sell More Prisons

With journalists Raven Rakia and Ashoka Jegroo.

Demonstrators carry a symbolic coffin bearing the name of Kalief Browder as they march outside NYC’s City Hall.Albin Lohr-Jones / Getty

It’s a tension as old as activism itself: if all politics involves compromise, how do you tell the difference between healthy reform and reform that’s too watered down? Or worse: what do you do when reform efforts are co-opted for other ends entirely? Our guests on this episode, journalists Raven Rakia and Ashoka Jegroo, examine these debates among those working to close Rikers prison in New York and discuss the co-optation grassroots reform efforts often face.


Adam Johnson: Welcome to The Appeal Podcast. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Thanks for joining us. You can follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod and on Facebook at The Appeal Podcast. You’ll see the little red and black logo and make sure to subscribe on iTunes if you can. Today’s show we are going to talk about difference between revolutionary reform and reformist reform, reform that actually improves people’s lives and lessens harm and leads to less people in prison versus reform that sounds really great, but when you scratch the surface is actually just more police, more prisons and longer jail sentences, but with a friendly face. Our guests today, Raven Rakia and Ash Jegroo wrote an excellent piece for The Appeal on May 29th called, “How the Push to Close Rikers Went From No Jails to New Jails.” It details with somewhat depressing precision, the degree to which a organic activist driven effort to close Rikers turned into a effort by big donors and democratic establishment politicians to simply move Rikers to another location.

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Raven Rakia: The Campaign to Shut Down Rikers as well as other abolitionist groups really try to focus on the root causes that lead to incarceration, which of course can include poverty, um, capitalism, etcetera, etcetera. And so instead of building new jails they would rather the city put money towards the things that lead to jails in the first place.

Ashoka Jegroo: For example, I mean, just to make a, to do a concrete example, Mayor de Blasio when he rolled out his plan didn’t address Broken Windows and hasn’t addressed Broken Windows. Broken Windows, which is one of the main reasons why black and brown people come in contact with the police and get sent to places like Rikers Island in the first place. So in order to just say, ‘Oh, we’re going to have more community facilities, we’re gonna put them in your neighborhood, these jails, but we’re still gonna arrest you for the same damn stuff.’ Doesn’t seem to be addressing root causes.

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Adam: Thanks so much for coming on Raven and Ash.

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Raven Rakia: Yeah thanks for having us.

Ashoka Jegroo: Thanks for having us.

Adam: So, loved your piece. I guess I want to start by laying the groundwork here, setting the table for our listeners. Can you explain what the close Rikers campaign is, what Rikers is in general, and what the sort of present status of efforts to Close Rikers are so we can all sort of get up to speed?

Raven Rakia: Right yeah. So the Close Rikers campaign is one of the campaigns to get Rikers to shut down. Um, and it was, it was run by Just Leadership USA with over a hundred partner organizations. Um, so #CloseRikers is their specific campaign. There were campaigns before that, like the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers and these were two different groups or campaigns working towards the same goal basically. Um, so, Close Rikers was started by Glenn Martin, who was then the president of JLUSA, and they, they basically had rallies and were pressuring the mayor to close Rikers. Um, the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers, which happened before, um, did a lot of organizing as well and shut down, um, board of correction meetings and held rallies of their own. And their goal was to shut down Rikers without opening any new jails, um, which was different from the Close Rikers campaign. And in terms of what’s happening now, Just Leadership USA now has a Free New York campaign, which is them trying to push for more reforms in the justice system. Um, there are also other organizations like South Bronx Unite, which is fighting against the opening of the jail in the Bronx and there’s also the organization Critical Resistance, which is against all of the new jails, um, and has a No New Jails campaign.

Adam: And the general thesis of your piece, and it’s something that we struggle with a lot on, I know on this show and people on the left in general do, is that the push to close Rikers went from a campaign to have no jails and to have no specifically, no new jails, uh, not just shutting down Rikers, sort of like a, you know, when you were a kid and you would have vegetables and you know, kind of spread them across your plate to make it look like you ate them. This is sort of what some of these reformers are trying to do they’re sort of trying to just move people from one jail to the other.

Raven Rakia: Right.

Adam: Um like a sort of shell game instead of, and so they can say, ‘Oh, we closed Rikers,’ but if you just move people from Rikers to the Bronx or to Westchester or wherever it doesn’t really matter. So that there’s tension within that movement, can you talk to us about that tension and what are the competing forces at work here, both in terms of the more abolitionist activist side and the kind of liberal NGO side?

Ashoka Jegroo: Yeah. Um, so yeah. Um, to rewind a little bit, the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers was the more abolitionist campaign, which included members of Millions March NYC, the Jails Action Coalition, Kalief Browder’s brother, Akeem Browder. And basically they, uh, you know, approach from a far more abolitionist angle they wanted, they want to shut down all prisons and jails and pretty much abolish the police and prisons in general. And from the beginning they were very clear about that. The person we interviewed, Nabil Hassein, has been very outspoken about this, uh, pretty much every rally I’ve been to for their events. He even called out Close Rikers campaign at a few of these events saying that, you know, ‘We’re not like these people. We don’t want to make these jails nicer. We don’t want, you know, we’re, we’re not going to be wishy washy about this from the beginning. We’re going to. We were about, you know, fire to the prisons,’ pretty much. Whereas Close Rikers is the bigger, much more well funded campaign.

Adam: Right.

Ashoka Jegroo: They’ve been much more compromising, I guess would be the word from the beginning, uh, where they have been, I guess, tolerant of the idea of new jails and “community facilities” quote unquote. But they weren’t really clear about that from the beginning. As it’s gone on and as politicians have jumped on the bandwagon pretty much like Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was a former city council speaker and Mayor de Blasio of course, as they’ve come and co-opted it, the plan to close Rikers, and have been more upfront about, ‘Okay, we’re going to open new jails in order to be able to close down Rikers in the first place.’ It seems like only later on has the Close Rikers campaign been more open about saying, ‘Oh well matter of fact we don’t want new jails. That might not be such a good idea.’ But now that the politicians pretty much jumped on the bandwagon, the more abolitionist grassroots activists from Shut Down Rikers kind of fell by the wayside. They disbanded their group pretty much because you know, they, they didn’t see a reason to exist once the politicians jumped on the bandwagon. But now the only voices to speak up about the issue are the reformists pretty much the, the Close Rikers campaign. So yeah, now it’s pretty much between the reformists and the politicians going back and forth. Whereas the abolitionists, the grassroots activists, they don’t have their organizations anymore. They’re not doing events anymore and they don’t pretty much have the organizational infrastructure to really make statements like they used to.

Adam: Right.

Raven Rakia: Yeah, to clarify, the campaign to shut down Rikers disbanded, but Jails Action Coalition is still around as well as um, Critical Resistance who also spoke out against the jail. So there are still some grassroots organizations um looking at this, but um, yeah, it’s not a group dedicated to this like it was before.

Adam: Um yeah. So there’s a quote by Hassein in your piece where he says, “The only reason to build new jails is because the city is actively planning to incarcerate more people rather than actually addressing the issues that lead to incarceration.” What do you think he meant by that and what is the sort of general idea that when you build jails we’ll find ways of filling them? How much of that is sort of informing this abolitionist approach to just less prisons or no prisons?

Raven Rakia: Yeah, that’s a good question. So I can’t speak for Nabil, but in terms of that quote, the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers as well as other abolitionist groups really try to focus on the root causes that lead to incarceration, which of course can include poverty, um, capitalism, etcetera, etcetera. And so instead of building new jails they would rather the city put money towards the things that lead to jails in the first place.

Ashoka Jegroo: For example, I mean, just to make a, to do a concrete example, Mayor de Blasio when he rolled out his plan didn’t address Broken Windows and hasn’t addressed Broken Windows. Broken Windows, which is one of the main reasons why black and brown people come in contact with the police and get sent to places like Rikers Island in the first place. So in order to just say, ‘Oh, we’re going to have more community facilities, we’re gonna put them in your neighborhood, these jails, but we’re still gonna arrest you for the same damn stuff.’ Doesn’t seem to be addressing root causes. And I mean, one of the main ideas behind these abolitionist campaigns is the idea of, um, you know, divesting from prisons and police and investing in communities which is, you know, pretty much Nabil, and all a whole bunch of other abolitionists’ idea of know how you address the root causes of these, of these issues.

Adam: Ruth Wilson Gilmore has an interesting dichotomy that she advances in some of her writing, saying that that makes a distinction between what she calls revolutionary reform and reformist reform, which is to say non-reformist reform does not extend power or the reach of the prison industrial complex. Whereas we see all the time when this happened, especially in Chicago, Rahm Emanuel actually used reformist language to justify building a $95 million police academy that he was, that they were going to do training about racism. And this is, this is the sort of deeply cynical manifestation of liberalism I think someone called neo liberalism where it’s, it’s all just marketing and there’s a tension there and it’s not always easy to tell the difference. You know, I know that some of these big funders that are funding, the more, the more Democratic Party aligned, Mayor de Blasio aligned, you know, there’s always a tension there of, you know, is this something that’s good or something that’s just sort of putting a cap on it and it’s not always easy to tell what that is. And I, and I guess when you examine this specific problem, it seems like the general threat is just put no more money at the very least put no more money in prisons and jails and the police. Is that the sort of general criteria that you guys use when determining that?

Raven Rakia: That’s like the first thing we look at, is it going to give more money and or more power to cops or to the prison system or the DoC? And if the answer is yes, it’s probably, it might not be the best reform. But um, I also wanted to address when you were talking about Rahm Emanuel. I mean Mayor de Blasio does the same thing where he uses reformist language in order to put punitive measures into our jail system. And he’s been doing this for the past four years. So yeah, the, I mean that, that has been happening. And so that’s why we, we need to be careful when we’re talking about certain reforms and I think the very first question should be who is this giving money to? Who will, where will the money be going? And um, and then you go from there.

Ashoka Jegroo: And then one of the perverse things about Rahm Emanuel is I think he framed the new, the new cop academy as a community investment and stuff like that, which is really perverse as well. And it has its parallels with these, with this Rikers plan as well. Uh, one of the ideas is to, for these new community facilities, these new community jails is so, you know, put more soothing colors in the, in the jail, and to have more vocational education in these jails and to have a section for trans prisoners as well. Whereas the abolitionists obviously don’t want people in the jails to begin with. And I mean, for example, one of the people from Mayor de Blasio’s office, uh, Elizabeth Glazer from the Criminal Justice Office framed it as quote, “A critical part of that is thinking about jails not as a place that is on an island, hidden from all lives, but as part of the ebb and flow of neighborhoods and considered civic assets.” Unquote.

Adam: Wow.

Ashoka Jegroo: I mean, uh, yeah, I don’t think jail should be considered civic assets to begin with and I don’t think they should be part of the ebb and flow of the neighborhood and you know what kind of neighborhoods they’re going to put these jails in. And I don’t want uh-

Adam: Its just basically a Starbucks, you know, you just kind of go in there-

Ashoka Jegroo: Exactly, yeah. She’s literally advocating for a revolving door in front of the jails in black and brown neighborhoods. Um, and then framing it, as you know ‘This is a civic asset and you should be happy to have this.’

Adam: That’s next level cynical. I learned something new, when I think I’ve seen it all…

Raven Rakia: Yeah. I was just going say to address your question about the tensions that happened, um, with donors. And so there are some Close Rikers organizers who say they’re against jails, like Darren Mack has spoken out against the new jail. So there obviously is some tension and you really can’t tell from an outside perspective all the time how it’s working behind the scenes like who’s actually making the decisions and you know, who has the power in whatever organization. Um, I mean, so that’s just a question you always have to think about. I think yeah.

Ashoka Jegroo: And another organization needs to be called out is Perkins Eastman, which is an NYC firm who has been, um, pretty much contracted by the city to find new locations for these jails that are going to replace Rikers and allegedly known for their, you know, quote unquote “progressive” approaches to jail design or whatever. So this is really insidious stuff using faux progressive language in order to pretty much continue to perpetuate, uh, the same old nonsense that abolitionists and grassroots activists have been fighting against.

Adam: Yeah, I think it’s what a Neil Young calls “the kinder, gentler, machine gun hand.”

Ashoka Jegroo: Pretty much. Yeah. (Laughs)

Adam: Uh, this kind of segues to the next question, which is an equally, if not more sinister development, which is the expansion and the increased usage of electronic monitoring and house arrest as somehow an quote unquote “alternative” to cash bail and pretrial detention. We talked about Rikers. I know that Rikers is upwards of 90, 95 percent pretrial detention. Um like most county lockups they range between 80 and 95 percent pretrial. So these are people who are in prison who’ve done nothing, who have been convicted of nothing. People oftentimes will spend obviously years there. One gentleman has spent 30 years going in and out of Rikers and mental health facilities and he hasn’t been charged with anything. We’re going to talk about that in a later episode. Can we talk about why the siren song of electronic monitoring and house arrest is not an improvement and in many ways is actually more sinister because judges are more likely to sort of hand it out like candy and it creates a kind of moral hazard. Can we talk about that?

Raven Rakia: Yeah, for sure. So, um, to start, I think we, what we should say what’s happening now in New York, so in New York to determine whether you should go to jail or be released, um, when you’re charged with a nonviolent felony or misdemeanor, you’re given a risk assessment. And the risk assessment, um, goes over things like do you have an address where you can go to? Did someone show up to your court hearing and things like that to determine if you’re a flight risk, um, which, you know, has all sorts of issues. Obviously if you’re homeless and you don’t have an address, it kinda discriminates against you a little bit.

Adam: Right.

Raven Rakia: But um, so that determines whether people are released or not. And most people charged with misdemeanors are released. And so the Lippman Commission, which is the commission that was encouraging pretrial supervision, um, said it should be the default option for those who are charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. The problem with that is, right now the default option, at least for misdemeanors and some nonviolent felonies are being the least on your own, you know, so you don’t go to jail necessarily. It’s kind of hard to explain, but since people go in and out of Rikers so much the people in Rikers, a lot of them are on misdemeanors but a lot of people also do get released. So I think the, the biggest problem with advocating for pretrial supervision in place of money bail, is they’re now advocating it for people who usually don’t get bail right now. So it’s going to be more punitive in that sense.

Adam: Right.

Raven Rakia: And then so pretrial supervision can mean a whole bunch of things. Um, it can mean house arrest, it could mean curfews, it could just mean, um, required drug treatment. It could mean getting calls or getting someone to remind you of when your court hearing is. So the, the problem with it being so broad is the way it could be handed out, it will be, it won’t be very easy to discern who should get pretrial supervision or who shouldn’t. The power will be in the judges and the prosecutors in terms of who gets what. And so yeah, I think that’s the main reason why it should sound the alarm.

Ashoka Jegroo: And we should really try to avoid this dystopian future where we breakdown the physical prison walls, but we turn pretty much wider society into a big prison where, you know, we have to watch where we go and we have to be home by seven and we have to stay in our house all day long because we have a monitor on our leg or whatever. Um, I don’t think that’s much of an improvement over just throwing people in cages when he just turn our whole communities into cages pretty much.

Adam: Yeah, it seems like in 2013 I was at South by Southwest and I saw this panel that was talking about a future with wall-less prisons like where you don’t have prisons and it sort of seemed very warm and fuzzy and of course you read the fine print and what they want is basically just a massive surveillance state with varying degrees of, of who controls information and who were the ones being surveilled. So it’s, it’s, you know, it’s like, yes, you’ve taken the tiger out of the cage, but you’re, you look around and you’re still in the zoo.

Ashoka Jegroo: I mean just imagine whole community with just like large chunks of the, of the population being under this kind of outside of jail supervision where everyone has to watch where they’re going and what they’re doing and what they’re saying as well. I mean it would be a horribly unfree society we’d live in. And it would encourage more unfreedom in the wider society as well I think. So.

Adam: Yeah it’s super important to stress this because I think a lot of like right minded, good people are fooled by this notion of monitoring as an alternative to prison, but it’s really its super dangerous and if you talk to people who are, who are experts, who are have been on electric monitoring, yeah they’ll be the first to tell you that oftentimes it’s worse than prison and in many ways it usually makes it much easier to sort of trip up and go back to prison.

Raven Rakia: Right. Of course, if you stay out at eight and your curfew is at seven, they’re putting you back in jail. So.

Adam: Right. This kind of pivots to one major topic, which is another, again, I feel like we’re touching on a lot of these kind of Orwellian liberal sort of sensibly liberal positions, one of which is this idea of “pretrial services,” quote unquote. This has been another popular kind of buzzword, “pretrial services.” It sounds sort of good and warm and fuzzy, but it’s actually very punitive. Uh, the Chicago Community Bond Fund did a study in 2017 that found that these pretrial services, despite their kind of lofty veneer, are actually really punitive and mess up families. Full disclosure, my partner does work for them. Now that I live in Chicago, I will constantly be promoting Chicago. Um, and can we talk about what pretrial services is, how they’re packaged and what pretrial service actually means?

Raven Rakia: Yeah. So the problem is it could mean really anything.

Adam: Right.

Raven Rakia: And they don’t really specify, even in to the general public in court, it will be a specific thing. So it can mean anything from getting calls to when your next court date is to required drug treatment to drug tests, um, and if you fail the drug test, you’re probably going back to jail. So those are the three main ones I know about. And of course, as we’ve been talking about, it’s basically more surveillance over petty issues that shouldn’t be dealt with with the criminal justice system at all. So yeah, I think that’s the, the main issue with pretrial services and the fact that it’s so general, like they don’t say the specifics is a major problem as well.

Adam: So going back to Rikers, what is the present status of Rikers prison and where will Rikers such that it is, be in five years in your, in your estimation?

Raven Rakia: That’s a great question. So Rikers right now has eight open jails. They used to have ten and I believe two of them have been closed recently. Um, so Rikers is basically in the same position it’s been in for the past decade.

Ashoka Jegroo: There was a, there was a recent federal report by a monitor basically saying that even with new leadership and increased resources, Rikers is pretty much just as violent and horrible as it was as it always has been pretty much. So there hasn’t been much change except maybe, I’m not even sure, maybe reduced, I guess a slightly reduced population according to de Blasio.

Raven Rakia: Right. There is a slightly reduced population, but we also have to understand like when it comes to Rikers jail population, it usually expands in the summer and decreases in the winter. So we’ve seen de Blasio come out with numbers of a decreased population earlier this year and late last year. But it is possible that during the summer those numbers will increase again. So de Blasio for the past four years has been trying to push so called reforms on Rikers, which have mainly been more punitive units at Rikers. Like the enhanced supervision unit, I believe it’s called, where if you’ve been in a riot or you, they think you’re in a gang, um, they can put you in that unit indefinitely. So yeah, there are a little units like that happening on Rikers as well.

Ashoka Jegroo: And there’s the silly kind of liberal reforms I guess, well not, I guess not silly, but like missing the point. Like there’s a, there’s a housing unit for veterans now and there’s a housing unit for trans people now as well. I guess those are, they sound nice, but I don’t want veterans and trans people in the prison to begin with in such a horrible torture chamber that Rikers is to begin with. So.

Adam: Right. So you write quote, “These reforms mainly focus on speeding up the process of putting someone through the system and improving their experience–not stopping people from getting in contact with the system in the first place.” What do you mean by that?

Raven Rakia: Yeah, so the main way that people get to Rikers is they are first arrested by the NYPD. And so de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers does not mention policing or the NYPD whatsoever. It mentions ways to speed up people’s trial court dates. Um, it mentions ways to get parole violators more quickly to state prisons and out of Rikers. So it mentions things like this, but they don’t mention the aggressive policing the NYPD does on a daily basis and how that affects the numbers at Rikers. Um, so that’s basically what we were pointing out.

Ashoka Jegroo: Yeah, like, like I said before, um de Blasio hasn’t said a word about ending Broken Windows. And I think he has pretty much an interest in perpetuating Broken Windows because he’s the guy who hired, of course, Bill Bratton, who was a, you know, a big pioneer and big lobbyist for Broken Windows and the NYPD pretty much still kind of runs New York all they have to do is turn their back one time on Mayor de Blasio and they get what they want and they like Broken Windows. They like being able to arrest people for jumping the turnstile or you know, smoking some weed in public or whatever. I’m not sure I will see de Blasio ever really address that. All he’ll do is, you know, these kind of window dressing reforms.

Adam: Yeah. It also doesn’t help that the NYPD runs the security detail for the mayor.

Ashoka Jegroo: (Laughs) Yeah, that too.

Adam: There’s a very good historical reason why the US military doesn’t run security for the president because the person who runs your security, it’s hard for you to give them orders traditionally.

Raven Rakia: And to be specific, the reason why we keep bringing up Broken Windows is because it basically criminalizes poverty. It goes after people for low-level offenses and it’s mainly people who can’t afford to pay for the subway, etcetera, etcetera.

Adam: Yeah. For those who aren’t familiar with, with what Broken Windows is, it’s a general philosophy of heavily criminalizing what we would generally considered to be petty or trivial offenses. The science behind it has been totally debunked, but basically what it is is a kind of Upper Westside cocktail-party-friendly way of saying we’re just going to throw black and brown people in prison for arbitrary reasons.

Ashoka Jegroo: Exactly.

Adam: Because it had a bunch of pseudoscience attached to it. Now that pseudoscience has kind of fallen apart, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still policy because the goal is to just create a regime where you basically get people on the grid early and often.

Ashoka Jegroo: And the NYPD actively lobbies for Broken Windows as well. I mean, whenever it gets brought up, uh, you know, you’ll see, Bill Bratton used to always of course lobby for it and his, his handpicked successor James O’Neill always lobbies for being able to, you know, arrest people for these petty offenses.

Adam: Yeah. So before we go, can we talk about what organizations in ya’lls estimation are doing good work in this space, both in terms of Rikers and Broken Windows?

Raven Rakia: So there’s a coalition to end Broken Windows, which is a coalition of multiple organizations including Why Accountability, um, the Police Reform Organizing Project and many others and they do a swipe it forward campaign where they raise money to swipe people into the subways free of charge during rush hours. Um, so that’s a great organization working against Broken Windows. And then against Rikers Jails Action Coalition has been doing work for years. They’re, they’re part of the main group that push to limit punitive segregation, which is solitary confinement in Rikers even though de Blasio took credit for that, it was mainly done before he was even in office by the Jails Action Coalition.

Ashoka Jegroo: Um, and, and yeah, I mean there’s obviously the activist groups on the ground doing a lot of work. I mean like NYC Shut It Down is always out there protesting against these types of policies and against police murders of black and brown people.


Adam: Alright. Thank you so much guys. That was really great.

Ashoka Jegroo: Thanks.

Raven Rakia: Yeah, thank you.

Adam: Thank you to Ash Jegroo and Raven Rakia. That was exceptionally informative. Definitely check out their work if you can at Thank you so much for listening. You can find us on Twitter @TheAppealPod and on Facebook at The Appeal Podcast. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The executive producer is Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much for joining us.