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Why I Support Closing Rikers Island Without Building New Jails: A Letter From Prisoner Hakim Trent

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 Hakim Trent, who is organizing from St. Brides Correctional Center in Virginia in solidarity with activists from New York.

Read more letters from incarcerated activists here.

Note: The letter was edited for publication. None of the content in the letter was changed.


Shadowproof: Why did you choose to participate in the development of this plan? Why is it important to you?

Hakim Trent: I chose to participate in the development of this plan because I feel that it’s important that we discover [alternative] options to incarceration. I feel that society operates off of the manual labor of prisoners and the prison industrial complex is a system that practice and promote perpetual slavery, chattel slavery, and modern day slavery through a means of incarceration and forced labor. In order to bring the truth to the light we must first embrace the fact that the prison/jail itself stands as a place of un-human, inhumane punishment that has placed humanity in a stage of desperation of wanting freedom. Freedom from a system that not only practices and promotes violence it teaches and breeds it.

I choose to participate because I believe in the evolution (change) of the minds (humanity); becoming reconstructed without the usage of prisons or brutal punishment. Anyone who’s an advocate of peace, the abolishment of any prison should be important to them and this is why it’s important to me.

Shadowproof: Can you share some of your experiences with incarceration?

Hakim Trent: I’ve been incarcerated over 50% of my life. I was tried as an adult at the age of 16 years old; I’m now 40 years old. Throughout my entire life I’ve been to 3 juvenile detention centers, 5 separate jails, 1 mental health institution for juveniles, 1 federal prison, 9 state prisons, and 1 group home for juveniles.

To describe the conditions of all of the imprisonment, I would truly have to say that the conditions are inhumane, inadequate, dangerous, unsafe, and barbaric. The overcrowdedness causes others to have to find refuge of sleep on the floor. The food does not meet the proper requirements of health. The medical staff fails to meet the propers standards needed to carry out their duties as professionals.

I believe this is one of the most important factors of the conditions of any jail or prison. Without the proper medical care one is left vulnerable and in danger of what could happen if they become hurt or ill. The jails are places that are not properly cleaned. This is a place where one will see infestations of rodents and bugs.

This is a place where one will find themselves exposed to MRSA, lice, TB, and many other viruses that will harm you. The jail is a place in the state of Virginia and many other states that will actually charge someone to stay at the jail; anywhere from $1.00 to $3.00 a day to stay at the jails. The commissary is extremely high meaning that the jails gouge the prices to at least double or triple the amount of the actual retail price.

The jail is a place of inhumane temperatures, where it reaches extremely high or hot temperatures, that are miserable in the summer and cold temperatures in the winter. The jails are an environment that lacks the essential tools needed to help further one’s education to the point they may receive a basic education or general. The jails practice discrimination and prejudice thinking that promotes hate of humanity in general.

Shadowproof: What do you think of New York City’s plan to invest billions in new jails over community services and life necessities like housing, health care, etc.?

Hakim Trent: I think this is a means for the city to be able to get out the back door what they couldn’t get out the front. Meaning that the city has a plan to expand their agenda of accumulating more money from the usage of more incarcerated bodies. The whole big picture is money that is built and invested through a greedy and crooked economical system. Any capitalist would tell you the same if they were sympathizers of the pure truth. It all comes down to money and the rich getting more rich. The poor and the minority have been singing this same song for centuries now. There’s a complete separation when it comes to those who aim to unite and uplift versus those who aim to destroy.

Shadowproof: Has the city given incarcerated people such as yourself an opportunity to weigh in on this plan? 

Hakim Trent: I believe that each incarcerated individual must take the initiative to get up, stand up, and fight for their rights as quoted by the late great Bob Marley. The prisoner is placed within a position where he or she faces strife, trials and tribulations, oppression, etc… through these obstacles one develops a mind state of rebellion.

This is a rebellion of a system that is corrupt and diabolical. The prisoner then gains a state of awareness that allows him or her to become what is defined as a political prisoner due to their predicament. To be aware of the social strugle of the masses, the enslavement of the minds, the enforced labor that makes up modern day slavery is all that makes up the ideology of the political prisoner who’s a freedom fighter.

The city aims to silence those who are in this category or possess this way of thinking. These freedom fighters become a danger to the livelihood of such corruption and a diabolical system. Why? Because freedom fighters aim to free the minds from hate and every form of negative energy (ether) that has consume humanity as a whole. So to answer the question directly the city refuses to listen to the incarcerated voice. I personally have written to several people of power with my thoughts, ideas, and concerns. This is why I’m not ashamed or afraid to let my voice be heard and my name known to the masses.

The only thing that I have to lose is the chains of enslavement and when one is at the bottom of the hell on earth purgatory labeled as the prison industrial complex, the only place to go now is to the top. I feel that the city is not giving incarcerated people the opportunity to be heard. They are examples of the parable: why would the lion tell the story of the giraffe? The city is telling the stories of the prisoners in the fashion that they want it to be heard.

Shadowproof: For you specifically, what are some of the services and ideas outlined in the plan that would have made a difference in your situation?

Hakim Trent: The issues that discuss in concerns of mental health and education. I consider that the abolishment of prisons is related to the fact that we must first abolish the prison of the mind that has us trapped in ignorance. The majority of the issues that the city, state or government refer to as being issues that cause one to be placed inside incarceration are issues that derive from mental health deprivation and educational needs. If this is provided adequately than a lot of the prisons, jails, etc… will find themselves isolated. In other words, this is the cure to the incarceration issue.

Shadowproof: What does safety mean/look like to you? What does justice mean to you? What does freedom look like to you?

Hakim Trent: My vision for safety is the absence of confusion. This is what defines peace: safety is being ensured and most importantly when it’s being applied mentally as well as physically. When we have confidence that we have peace, inner and outer, we develop safety. Safety is also unity, solidarity in a support system that comes together for one common cause. Safety is precautions, basic instructions, or guidance to help one sustain stability here on this planet.

Justice, to me, means a reward penalty from one ways and actions. Justice is performing a righteous deed in the midst of evil. Justice is the ultimate outcome of an unjust situation that’s corrected. A change for the better is justice. Equality being manifested to the people is justice. When love conquers all this is justice. The quietness after the storm is justice.

Freedom means, to me, to be free mentally. Lock my body, but you cannot trap my mind. I believe that true freedom is when one has the ability to think, act, and conduct themselves freely. This is free will and the option to exercise free will accordingly. When one is taught through assimilation to act a certain way, he or she is not free. They are now products of a higher authority other than their true selves. It’s deeper than prison walls. When your mind is trapped that’s the prison inside of a prison.

Shadowproof: Is there anything else you want to say to the public about this moment in the fight, this plan, or about anything else?

Hakim Trent: Yes, we must continue to stay focused upon the decarceration of the masses. We must look at humanity collectively in order to serve justice. We must focus upon the mental health issues strongly to bring forth change. We must look at options for jobs and community togetherness to fight poverty issues and homelessness. We must as freedom fighters become the message that we bring to the masses. We must become active in all aspects of the media, politics, educational resources, and economics. We must unite under the divine principles of love, truth, peace, freedom, and justice. 

Sign at the entrance to Rikers Island (satanslaundromat on Flickr)
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Shadowproof is a press organization driven to expose systemic abuses of power in business and government while at the same time developing a model for independent journalism that supports a diverse range of young freelance writers and contributors. It is intrinsically committed to elevating voices from marginalized communities, as well as dissenting perspectives which deserve greater attention.