Tag Archives: Rikers Island

In Court: Watching Bail and Injustice


Laurie says:

My brother Mike does ongoing serious work on issues of incarceration and I asked him to write this post for Body Impolitic.

21 year old Shahiem Winbush of Bushwick NY, charged with felony assault with bail set at $25,000. His case was dropped 8 months later by the Court for lack of ANY evidence.

Michael Edison says:

Once a week I sit in Manhattan Criminal Court for four hours and watch the parade of Black and Latino men and women get arraigned for misdemeanors and felonies (90 percent are Black and Latino; 90 percent of the judges, defense lawyers and ADAs are White). An organization called Court Watch is trying to document what happens in court, particularly with bail to Latino and Black men and women. They hope to bring to light, through verified statistics, the oppression of the poor and disenfranchised in America.

Bail, for the poor, is really just the criminalization of poverty. A $5,000 bail or bond demand from a judge, to someone who hardly makes enough to survive, is more than the million dollar bail set for Harvey Weinstein. Harvey Weinstein had the million to put up, while thousands don’t have the $500 necessary for a bail bondsman to get out of Rikers Island (a notorious jail in NYC). Bail is supposed to assure that a person charged with a crime returns to Court for their trail. By law, their means are supposed to taken into consideration. But in America it is a form of punishment, jailing people for the crime of being too poor to pay.

I helped a young man raise bail for a crime he didn’t commit. His bail was $25,000, arbitrarily set by some judge in Brooklyn. He has no criminal record. He was charged with assault, but he was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time and Black. His mother is on food stamps and is raising two children, and didn’t have subway fare to bail him out (literally), let alone $2,500 for a bail bondsman. His trial kept getting delayed because the DA could not produce the evidence of his crime (because there was none), and finally 8 months later the case was dropped, and he was set free. He would have spent 8 months in jail for a crime he didn’t do for the crime of being too poor to raise bail.

Kalief Browder, a 16 year old Black boy, was sent to Rikers Island accused of stealing a backpack. He didn’t commit the crime, and refused a plea offer (most poor men and women accept the plea to get out of jail, something that ruins their life because they can’t live in public housing, nor get a decent job with a criminal history…a true Hobson’s choice). Kalief sat in prison for 3 years awaiting trial. And finally when his situation was brought to light, he was released because the police had no proof of his crime. Like Shahiem, he was guilty of being Black and poor. Kalief committed suicide when he was released, because the horrors of his 3 years in Rikers, where he was raped, beaten by gangs, and emotionally overwhelmed by his treatment by the guards.

While no white collar criminal was ever prosecuted for nearly ruining the American economy with their greed in 2008 (and for the most part for various illegal acts today), Black and Latino men and women are arrested every day for seemingly minor offenses and put into America’s prison-industrial complex. NYC still has, despite statements to the contrary, stop and frisk. A young Black or Latino woman stopped while carrying three condoms can be charged with prostitution. It is considered prima facie evidence of prostitution in NY State (that is changing, thank God, on Aug 1, 2018). A young male with a small amount of pot, found while frisked, for the crime of being Black, goes into the system. Can’t afford bail? Then it’s Rikers. They have a choice to plea down and have a criminal record, or await trial for 6 to months to a year in prison if they can’t afford bail.

The Harvey Weinstein’s of the world get a “Get out of Jail Free” card because of wealth; the poor men and women of America get prison, their rights revoked, and lives ruined for the crime of being Latino or Black and/or poor.


Freddie Gray, Kalief Browder: Revealing Police/Jail Violence


Debbie says:

The Undisclosed podcast, hosted by Rabia Chaudry, Colin Miller, and Susan Simpson, got its start as a spin-off of the wildly popular podcast, Serial, hosted by Sarah Koenig.

Season 1 of Serial, and Season 1 of Undisclosed, examine the case of Adnan Syed, an American of Pakistani origin, who still in prison for a 1999 murder for which a judge has required a new trial–but he can’t get out of jail while the state of Maryland is appealing that ruling. Syed was 17 in 1999. Chaudry is a personal friend of Syed’s, and got the ball rolling with Serial, and then moved on to start her own more detailed podcast about the crime. Season 2 of Undisclosed digs into the case of Joey Watkins, also still in prison for a murder he cannot physically have committed.

In Season 3, after completely drawing me in to the stories of Syed and Watkins, Undisclosed took a brief look at the case of Jamar Huggins, and has now moved on to an extremely deep dive into the globally publicized death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

As most people know, Gray was arrested in January 2015, and never spoke or walked again after his arrest. A highly-publicized trial of six Baltimore City police officers resulted in no convictions. The Undisclosed team reporting on Gray’s arrest and subsequent death are Rabia Chaudry, journalists Justine Barron and Amelia McDonell-Parry, and Dr. Marcia Chatelain (professor of African-American Studies at Georgetown University).

Barron and McDonell-Parry have taken amazing pains to deconstruct what happened to Gray, second by second, based on the Baltimore Police Department’s story, the stories of eye- and earwitnesses (many of whom voluntarily came forward to the police and the press but were never interviewed or testified at trial), the mysteriously convenient cameras which watch the low-income Gilmor Homes neighborhood where Gray lived and will never return (but somehow don’t seem to watch the police), and more.

This series, now five episodes in, is very painful to listen to. When I want to turn it off, I remind myself that Freddie Gray didn’t get to turn it off, and neither did his family, friends, and neighbors. Nor do they still. Besides, if you can hear anything through the pain, it is also fascinating.

The Undisclosed team is among a huge chorus of voices recommending Time: The Kalief Browder Story, a six-episode TV series from SpikeTV, produced by Jay-Z, Harvey Weinstein and David Glasser (viewable online at the link until 7/30/17).

Browder, again as many know, was arrested in 2010, at age 16, for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was never tried, let alone convicted, but he spent three years in New York’s notorious Rikers Island prison, undergoing unspeakable assaults. Jenner Furst, the director of Time, somehow obtained some extremely rare and apparently inexcusable footage of what actually happens at Rikers Island, including documenting the complicity and participation of the prison guards. In addition, Browder spent a substantial portion of his Rikers Island time in solitary confinement (now illegal for inmates under 21).

Browder was released in 2013, and committed suicide in 2015.

I don’t want to watch Time. But, as with the audio of Freddie Gray, I remind myself that Browder didn’t want to and should not have gone through his ordeal. So I will.

For me, listening to and watching these accounts is an act of bearing witness, a way of making myself remember how racist and corrupt the “system” of police/prosecutors/judges/prison guards is, and how relatively protected I am. Spending time in other people’s hells is not for everyone. I understand and support your right to choose your own level of immersion in other people’s pain. If you’re white, if you’re privileged enough to make that choice, knowing that these stories exist, paying as much attention to them as you can afford, is one small piece of committing to a time and place when they can be told as history, and not as news.