Why I Support Closing Rikers Island Without Building New Jails: A Letter From Prisoner E. Paris Whitfield
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As New York City lawmakers prepare to cast a critical vote to invest billions of dollars in new jails as part of an effort to close the Rikers Island jail complex, Shadowproof exchanged letters with incarcerated people who are part of the abolitionist No New Jails NYC campaign.
These incarcerated people worked alongside outside activists to craft a plan, titled “We Keep Us Safe,” for closing Rikers Island without building new jails.
Criminal justice reformers and nonprofits backing Mayor de Blasio’s multi-billion dollar jails plan have responded to No New Jails’ plan, and the legitimate critiques and analysis it included, by taking to major media platforms to characterize abolitionists as unserious, uncaring, not-in-my-backyard critics.
These prison letters undermine the contention that those opposing jails in favor of investments in housing, health care, education, and non-carceral approaches to harm and accountability, are ignorant of the wishes and experiences of actual incarcerated people.
Below is one letter we received from a prisoner named E. Paris Whitfield, who was held pretrial on Rikers Island for three years. He wrote to us from the Eastern NY Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York, where he is currently incarcerated.
Read more letters from incarcerated activists here.
*The letter was edited for publication. None of the content in the letter was changed.
I chose to participate in the development of this plan (closing Rikers), for the simple reason: if not me, then who? I am tired of waiting for ‘some’ hero to arrive, fight the struggles, do for me what I can do for myself (and others), and this is why I chamption to end the uses of Rikers Island.
Initially I was processed at the 134th precinct. They were slick with their lies—I hadn’t even known I was being interrogated and booked until I was transferred to One Police Plaza; as you can suspect, by that time—I had been manipulated and lied to so thoroughly—I could not tell my arm from my bottom! The precinct, scene, will never leave my memory—even after 17 years (17 years and 9 days to the date of this letter). There were all kinds of people I had only seen in movies. Drug addicts, scammers (of every variety), young men/old men, gang-members, all types.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see those cold, rock hard, baloney sandwiches (called bull-pen specials) being handed to the prisoners in the filthy piss smelling ‘bull-pen.’ The precinct smelled of sorrow and filthy desperation—mixed with stale cigarettes (this was back in 2002, although I am sure smoking had been banned, also, back then). Everything was a formality. Before I saw the judge (at arraignment), and this really surprised me, a lawyer—who barely remembered my name or how to properly pronounce it correctly (keep in mind my name is ERIC PARIS WHITFIELD, not exactly Greek or German you know?). Anyhow—my life’s hanging in the balance and for this big production of arraignment, I am given ten minutes, at best, to speak with my newfound lawyer who never remember my name—and barely remember any of the facts—but was supposed to be my Godsend! Well, I tell you right now—he was no ‘Godsend’—I knew nothing about the law, but to this day I know I could have done no worse than what he did!
I stayed on Rikers for nearly three years (790 days), struggling to have my day in court—hoping to prove my innocence. Trial was more of a sham then arraignment. What made it worse? For so long, I had penned by hopes and held on to a sliver of hope—that my day in court—where I would have my chance to take the stand would lead to my vindication. Then, I’d be able to finally mourn (the murder of my late friend); I would be able to hug my mother (siblings—other family members—as a free human being). Well, none of that happened as you probably guessed from where this letter is being sent from. However, I did get to hug my mother (and even my siblings—at least some of them). I’m still struggling to have my voice heard—but until they hear my voice regarding my wrongful conviction, I plan on raising my voice to bring awareness to EVERY issue i see within the incarceral system (sure do!)
The City’s (NYC) plan to invest billions on “new—better-prisons” is equivalent to handing out Oxycotin (phonetic spelling) to a bunch of heroin addicts. That’s not hyperbole either. Here’s my point, it’s easy for politicians to sell ideas of “protecting the public.” But we all know that’s really not what’s happening. The criminal justice system sees Black and Brown lives as unimportant (especially with matters relating to gender—LGBTQNIA etc.). Until those who are in a position of power (District Attorneys, Police, and Judges) see people of color lives as equally significant (as other demographics), over-policing, because of racialized policies, will lead to subsequent convictions of Black and Brown people.
Back to my analogy (Oxycotin pills to an addict…). The new plan is a waste of resources, simply put. Throwing money at the problem is not the same as looking for a long term solution to curve the trend of even needing ‘new’ spaces to house bodies (because let’s face it prisons/jails isn’t, and likely has never been, a place of ‘correction’ or ‘redemption. People in prison are humans—just like any other human—on earth. My point, no person can grow holistically without 1) the environment to do so and 2) tools to help facilitate growth. Sadly for many in prison, their lives aren’t much different than the projects/housing/neighborhood they already came from.
Let me paint that picture for you: white people (who are running things, for the most part, in prison: as often is the case in the areas from which one who is in prison is adept at seeing in their own spatial conditions); cramped roach infested small quarters to live—while in prison; dependence on a mom (or mother-like person) for sustenance/validation, etc.; and, lest we forget—many prisoners have grandfathers, fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers—all of whom are locked up together. It’s not an ideal place to hold a family reunion—but what did anyone (in power as mentioned before) think—when the status quo has been to lock people of color away at staggering rates compared to any other demographic (arguably since Reconstruction).
I knew, intuitively, something was wrong when entering the prison yard (even if I had not considered it while being at Rikers)—for as far as I could see in the prison yard were people of color (with a sprinkle of whiteness as if almost placed there as an afterthought).
The No New Jails plan hopes to provide mental health services for pre-release and post-release prisoners. I think that is a fabulous idea. In fact, I hope to obtain my masters in public health (hopefully from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University) and work in the field of public health, specifically I am interested in mental health. Housing is another important aspect to this proposal. I know when a person is invested in a community s/he (‘them’) feel more connected to that community. It’s not a hard concept to follow. When anyone is part of something greater than oneself—that person will tend to have more support in doing the right thing by themselves and others. I did not see myself as having a future—so I, once lived like I would not live to see my future (relatives had passed away, 9/11 had just happened), it had been easier for me to just remain numb to the rest of the world that remained around me—when really all I had been experiencing was trauma! But, we know people of color are not afforded that ‘luxury’ of experiencing trauma—we are supposed to just muscle through—until we don’t, then there’s death or prison for us (people of color).
Plainly put, there is no such thing as ‘justice’; that concept for me is an illusion. I know for certain that justice can’t exist. My friend, Wesley I. Penn Jr.—it’s important for me to say his name because he deserves to be remembered—was brutally murdered (through a savage beating, in which is hyoid bone had been broken and he suffocated) at the hands of his roommate who apparently had a serious axe to grind (who also had recruited two guys from my neighborhood to do his bidding).
Every one of those who planned and participated in Wesley’s death are all home—took plea deals, pointed the finger of blame towards me—and was still afforded a 5th Amendment right to not testify, during my trial (when obviously no right was warranted since one who pleads guilty must admit guilt). They are all back in society—while I have slept/set/stood in a space no bigger than a Manhattan City apartment’s bathroom—for a crime I did not take part in nor benefited in any way from.
That said, for myself, there’s no such thing as justice. And I am not the victim—Wesley is the victim—let’s be clear about that, he and his family—because they never got justice. Neither has my family. They all are the victims. I am aggrieved, but I am still alive and able to keep raising my voice, now, for others (and always for Wesley).
Safety? Well, I will try to be succinct. For society, there ought to be multiple efforts put forth to ensure safety. More specifically, a one-size-fits-all policy does not work. Mental health should always be taken into consideration. Environmental factors ought to be weighted as part of treatment. And, I support alternatives to prison programs (drug treatment, drug courts, juvenile courts, etc.—with oversight watch groups). Those are ideas that are forward thinking in solving the issues leading to crime and subsequent incarceration.
Safety, on the inside of prison? For starters, make it a priority that people, especially the most vulnerable in prisons, are not housed, some times, hours away from their city of residency (or base of support from family or friends). Maintaining and continuing to build strong social bonds is a fundamental pro-social behavior. That begs the question: How does anyone believe that you can house a human being like an animal—because let’s face it the confinement for prisoners is draconian, at best, with little to no participation in quality education or training; yet we expect that person—who will likely have PTSD because of prison (for any duration of time but certainly for those who have served over 5-years or more) to be “corrected”? Building and maintaining family ties and more progressive policy toward holistic rehabilitation, rather than punitive policies, actually make for a more-safe prison environment.
Moreover, to the last point made above, give a person a chance to actually work towards gaining not only their freedom back with prosocial development programs, but also a sense of purpose for returning to society with a plan (and places to connect them with resources to fulfill those plans). I suppose our elected leaders would have the political will to enact progressive reforms needed if that masses of incarcerated people looked like/or came from the same neighborhoods as our elected leaders are from.
Freedom. I have thought about freedom for a long time. Then one day, I understood that it is my liberty that has been stolen, my freedom of mind, and fortitude to strive in my personal growth and development—something no one can ever take from me! I am free to think, learn, grow, into a better human being—from right where I am, I strive to do just that.
Less philosophically, however, freedom will be having the ability to walk into my mother’s house a free man. To be able to give my mother a chance to see all of her children (seven of us) sit at a table and eat together (also with nieces and nephews I have yet to see face to face.) Freedom would be me insisting, not in words but in action, that my late friend Wesley’s death not be forgotten and work tirelessly to prove my factual innocence—and if need be, work to have the New York felony murder law changed. Because I know if what happened to me (a person with no prior criminal history—at the time this crime happened I was 27 years old, in blackness I was well past the expected age to being a life of criminal activity!) reveals likely I am not the only person who has fallen through the legal cracks and have been affected by this vague (“catch all”) law.
Freedom will never look the same to me. The hardest part of being locked away, wrongly or otherwise I suppose, is listening to those you love, on the outside, feel helpless, as sometimes I see/hear them do, pondering over my situation. To know that after so many years the only comfort loved ones for myself consist of my mother and siblings console themselves by making sure that I have the things that assist in making the time (I am sentenced to do) easier by making sure I do not go hungry, dirty, and forgotten. It does help. Yet, I cannot tell them that my having what I do have (to make ‘doing my time’ less cumbersome) does afford me the ability to greater see that many, too many, don’t have any support from ‘home,’ if they even have a place to call ‘home’ (many were homeless before prison, some fell through the cracks of the broken foster care system, GBTQNCIA [from the LGBTQNCIA community] and the elderly are another group of people who have little to no support). So while I strive to raise awareness about many of the problems that persist within the prison industrial complex, I also must navigate this space gingerly. It is a place that is so demoralizing and spirit breaking. And without a strong support system, someone to hold you, and the facility and its staff, accountable, even I can fall into the many pitfalls prison culture consists of.
Something is happening—that I really can not believe is happening — in reforms. People are demanding accountability on many levels. I am in prison for a crime I did not commit. Yet, I know there is a choice to become bitter by the fact, or, I can let that fact be the motivational reason for why I wake up each day with purpose and determination to make EVERY day I am blessed to see counts for something. That energy that has taken hold out in the world is truly penetrating through these walls pushing many of us past our own tiredness, because through hard work, which is required, substantial changes occur.
I know how a slave, in antebellum, must have felt to see another slave escape from the old plantation (part happy that there’s a possibility that at least s/he may make it to freedom, somewhere better than what can only be compared to as being buried alive). Then, there’s that moment of reflection, the gravity of someone—besides myself that has managed to leave—instinctually, I wish that was I who left. I have witnessed a lot of men go home, back to society wherever that is for them. I’ve even helped people to file the necessary papers with the courts in hopes that they will make it back to society. I’ve seen people leave—and the look on their faces having to leave others behind.
Prison is a waste of human life, I would not wish this kind of life on anyone. The ‘freest nation in the world’ has the largest prison population in the world, most of that population are minorities. Most, who are imprisoned, or a part of incarceral system, descended from slaves. The optics, or irony, of that, if that is all anyone cares about, says exactly what incarceral system (specifically in the United States of America) role is/and has been, and that’s to continue the policing of Black and Brown bodies—even after so called slavery has ‘ended.’
E. Paris Whitfield