Former Prisoners Share Harrowing Stories as the Movement to Shut Down Rikers Island Gathers Pace

Jul 01 2016

Former Prisoners Share Harrowing Stories as the Movement to Shut Down Rikers Island Gathers Pace

July 1st, 2016

Earlier this week, people who have been incarcerated in Rikers Island jail complex or otherwise been affected by it gathered at the New School in Manhattan to share their stories in an event co-produced by JustLeadershipUSA, an organization dedicated to decarcerating America. The event was part of a new project called “Mass Story Lab,” created by Piper Anderson, a writer and professor at NYU, to share the stories of people directly impacted by mass incarceration in order to help communities “redesign justice.” Mass Story Lab will travel to 20 US cities to help them grapple with the impact of incarceration and “envision a world beyond prisons.”

A movement is under way to shut down Rikers, as The Influence has recently reported.

The stories I heard at this week’s event were numerous, moving and damning. Here are some of them.

Johnny Perez

Perez spoke about the culture of violence at Rikers—but emphasized that people are violent because they are oppressed, not because they are violent inside. “You have to fight like there’s no tomorrow because if you don’t, there probably won’t be.”

So he fought, and as punishment served 60 days in solitary at age 16. The person assigned as the “suicide prevention aid” belonged to the same gang as the guy he had gotten in a fight with. So every time that guard was on duty, Perez didn’t get fed.

He couldn’t tell anyone, because then he’d be a snitch, and if you get labeled a snitch “then you’re not going anywhere.”

Watch this moving clip from his story:

Khalil A. Cumberbatch

“The first thing I heard when I walked into Rikers was applause,” Cumberbatch began. “‘That’s what I’m talkin about,'” cheered a CO. “‘Job Security!'”

That gave Cumberbatch a taste of how he’d be seen while on the island.

Cumberbatch was released in 2010, after serving almost seven years in the NYS prison system. In December 2014, he was one of two recipients of an Executive Pardon from NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Xena Grandichelli

For Xena Grandichelli, who identifies as an intersexed trans woman, “speaking up about my rights was the only thing I did wrong” in Rikers. She is a survivor of rape and sexual assault that was perpetrated on Riker’s Island within the last two years.

She told her story without sparing the audience the truth: She was “beaten bloody for three days straight” and dealt with “pain and suffering” that broke her down “physically and mentally.” “Rikers Island is not what people think,” she concluded. “It needs to be shut down now.” She also said that the seven COs and captain who perpetrated the assaults on her were set to be indicted the following day.


Anna immigrated to the US from Italy in 1980. She spoke about her son, who was arrested and sent to Rikers in 2010. He has been there as a pre-trial detainee for six years. She spoke about how, while there, he has been beaten physically, sexually and mentally abused.

“Now,” she said, “they say he’s mentally ill and want to give him meds. But he was never mentally ill before he got to Rikers.” Yesterday, she said, he took a plea deal. She thinks he could have beaten his case if he ever went to trial, but “he’s so broken down at this point. They make them so weak that he just can’t take trial. So they get to score their conviction.”

“I’m an immigrant,” she said. “I thought this was the Land of the Free.What happened to a speedy trial?”

Her son was an artist, she said, and has continued to make art while incarcerated. She showed a flower he made her out of toilet paper, and paintings he made on torn bed sheets and a pillow case, with Koolaid for paint.


 Darren Mack

Mack was sent to Rikers at age 17. “I had many horrible experiences there,” he said, “but the most humiliating was returning [to Rikers Island] from court,” upon which prisoners were subjected to dehumanizing strip searches by guards. Usually, Mack said, he had to do this once or twice a month, but when he was on trial it was “every weekday for three weeks straight.”

As a pre-trial detainee for a misdemeanor, it was actually illegal, as ruled by a federal court, for him to be subjected to strip searches. Yet Rikers staff continued the practice throughout three trials that cost taxpayers well over $100 million. “Something is really wrong there,” he said. “They stripped away my humanity. Rikers Island is beyond reform.”

Vidal Guzman

Vidal Guzman was sent to Rikers at age 16, while being tried as an adult. He was released, but then incarcerated again at 19 for a five-year sentence upstate. He got out about a year and a half ago, but spoke about how getting home doesn’t mean the nightmare is over.

“Every time I close my eyes too long it felt like any minute someone could attack me,” he said. Jail “destroyed my mind, body and soul. I lost my belief in God.”


After the stories, there was time for audience members to ask questions or comment.

One young black woman, her voice quavering, said that she had gotten out of Rikers recently, and wanted to ask the speakers: “How do you keep your mind normal when you’re out? Because after being in Rikers, you have a savage mentality when you get out.”

Grandichelli responded that she reminds herself that “her mother didn’t raise a savage,” and that counseling and meditation help, as well as the support of many of the organizations present.

Another audience member spoke, who identified herself as a “retired CO.” “I’d love to stand and say what the storytellers say is not true,” she said. “But it’s so true.”

Throughout the event, artist Crystal Clarity created a live “graphic recording” of the events. Here’s a sample:

IMG_3913 (1)IMG_3914

After the stories, everyone lined up in the room along a continuum, with “Shut down Rikers” on one end, and “Reform” at the other. Speakers at all points on the spectrum spoke about their beliefs about what should happen, and what they thought would actually happen with Rikers. On the one hand, someone towards the Reform end said: “Riker’s isn’t the issue. There will be another Rikers. There’s too much corruption in the system.”

Someone at the “Shut Down Rikers” end said: “Mass incarceration is the new slavery. And you can’t reform slavery. You just need to shut it down.”

The group discussed what would even happen if it did get shut down. Where would people go?

Participants discussed the possibility of sending people to smaller, local jails, so that it would be easier for family to visit them, and so they wouldn’t be relegated to a hard-to-reach island that is literally not even labeled on the map.

Piper Anderson, the creator of Mass Story Lab, acknowledged the different voices present. “There is a culture of punishment that lives in our country,” she said, “and until we address this culture of punishment, nothing will change.”

“At the same time,” she said—using the helpful construction “both/and”—”closing one of the largest jails would send a huge message.”


There were stations set up around the room with post-its and prompts, such as: “If you could invent one thing that communities harmed by Rikers Island need, what would it be?” and “Write a six-word story about Rikers Island.”


In response to the six word short story prompt, one person wrote: “His next court date is 2025.”

The event ended with a performance from a newly released EP titled “Die Jim Crow.”

But the performer wasn’t in the room. Instead, Charles “C-Will” Williams, one of the artists featured on the EP, called in from Warren Correctional Institution in Ohio to perform a spoken word poem. He is doing a life sentence for a murder he says he didn’t commit, and has been locked up since he was 19.