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Ford Foundation President’s Support to Replace Rikers With Other Jails Criticized

The Rikers jail has for years been plagued with deplorable conditions and riddled with violence from staff and prisoners alike. Unjust detentions also have been part of the jail’s makeup.

New York City has long been planning to shut it down for good. Part of that plan is to build four smaller jails throughout the city. This proposal does not sit well with many people.

Activist groups have voiced opposition, saying building more lockups for New York City will only contribute to the mass incarceration problem facing our nation as a whole. More jails and prisons are not the solution, according to those disputing Walker.

One of the biggest grassroots organizations objecting to the city’s plans, No New Jails, has pushed back Walker’s support for the new jails. More jails means more people of color will be subject to unjust incarceration, according to the objectors. They want a different plan than more prisons, saying on their website that “billions of dollars budgeted for new jails should be redirected instead to community-based resources that will support permanent decarceration.”

Walker, an African American, sits on the Commission on New York City Justice and Incarceration Reform.

In his blog, he wrote,” I am proud of [the commission’s] work to propose reasonable, workable solutions to shutter this warehouse of inhumanity [Rikers] and to end its long history of abuse and injustice. This was heavy lifting, full of competing interests and complexity — of nuance.”

Walker went on to write “without question as a community, we will need to hold replacement jails to account, especially in light of the negligent affronts to human dignity at other New York City Jails.”

During a Q&A at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, Angela Y. Davis, a member of No New Jails, was asked about Walker’s blog post. Davis’ response was that a demonstration should be staged. With such blessing from Davis, a protest was organized outside the Ford Foundation.

An open letter, with former and current Ford fellows signing on, addressed Walker’s post stating: “[W]e take issue with the implicit characterization of organizations, activists, and advocates fighting for prison abolition as ‘extremist’ and ‘ideological purist,’ while situating those who support building new jails as taking a reasoned or ‘nuanced’ approach, particularly as you sit on the commission that developed the proposal.”

The letter went on to say that more jails lead to higher rates of incarceration and disruption of families. Shandre Delaney, director of Human Rights Coalition Fed Up! and a mother of a son who spent 10 years in solitary confinement, was quoted in the letter. She stated, “It doesn’t matter that you trade in the old dungeon for a new dungeon. The brutality, disparities and inhumanity of incarceration will still exist.” The producers of the letter encouraged more Ford Fellows to add their names to it using a Google form.

Walker did not remain silent. Instead, he published a response: “The Ford Foundation is unwavering in its commitment to ending mass incarceration. We envision a world where people are not locked up in cages, [are] treated inhumanely, and stripped of their dignity.” He added: “As a black man with many family members who have been ensnared in the system, I know, personally, that the distance between justice and injustice is perilously, painfully short—especially as a result of entrenched discrimination and economic inequality. I am proud of our work—all of it—to reform a discriminatory system that treats millions of people so unfairly.”

Two things remain certain. It’s time to close Rikers, and it’s time to come up with real solutions to end the era of mass incarceration. In order to achieve those goals, people on both sides must sit down and work together on common goals. 


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