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Why I Support Closing Rikers Island Without Building New Jails: A Letter From Prisoner Lee Doane

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 Lee Doane, who has extensive experience with detention and incarceration in New York City juvenile lock-ups and jails. He wrote to us from Elmira Correctional Facility in Elmira, 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.


I hope this finds you well. I am recently in receipt of an openly addressed letter written by you that was sent to me by Nadja Guyot of No New Jails NYC.

I was recently transferred from Sullivan CF on September 26 to my present facility and my mail has just caught up with me. Ever spend 6 hours on a state prison bus shackled to another person? All I can say is that using the loo is tricky. That said, I will do my best to lend my perspective to the questions you’ve posed. But first, allow me to introduce myself and provide you with some background.

My name is Lee Doane. I’m a white male of 46 years of age, and I am presently serving a life sentence for murder in the second degree. I enjoy horseback riding, crossword puzzles, and long walks on the beach. No, im joking. Due to my security status and a record of escape attempts, I am confined to administrative segregation (SHU) and spend 23 hours a day in this cell.

I do enjoy crossword puzzles though.

I was first incarcerated at the age of eleven for committing arson. Just a kid playing with matches and things got out of control. I was sent to the Division For Youth (DFY) and retained there until I turned 16. The Division for Youth was comprised of edifying maximum security facilities such as Tryon School for Boys, Industry State School, Monroe County Detention Center, Harlem Valley Secure Facility, Masten Park Training Center, etc., i.e. prison for kids, where adolescents were enlightened by witnessing rapes, participating in assaults, and refining their resentment.

Remember Brian [Sonenstein], this was the Eighties. Abuse and neglect largely went unreported. There was zero oversight and accountability wasn’t a word yet. During the fourteen months I spent at Industry State School outside Rochester, NY, four boys died.

Such it was.

I saw Attica State Prison at the age of sixteen when I was arrested on burglary and robbery charges. I served six years on a 4 to 12 years sentence.

Once paroled, I remained at liberty for a few months and was arrested for armed robbery and received a determinate six year sentence.

Again, I was released and I made an attempt to walk the straight and narrow but discovered quickly that only works for trapeze performers and I was arrested for assault on a police officer and possession of a weapon; ergo, another four years.

That was followed by a year back to back in the chemung county jail for a minor criminal mischief and destruction of property rap.

I was sprung a day after Valentine’s Day 2009 and arrested for murder the night of July 3, 2009. It was a bad scene: SWAT was involved as I had barricaded myself in a residence with a rifle. Yeah, I’ve seen better days.

I’ve never driven a car nor possessed a driver’s license. I’ve never had a job, a bank account, or seen the internet. I’ve never been married or had children. Between the age of eleven and present date, I’ve spent less than one year in the outside world. By all statistical accounts, I am a product of the system. So I believe that I am somewhat qualified to give an opinion on the present state of corrections and related matters.

Ever spend time in Rikers? If you have, then I do not have to explain why I have chosen to get on board with a movement focused on its closure; it’s personal.

Institutions like Rikers are largely responsible for making me who I am today. They breed criminality, foster negativity, and anathematize the minds that are exposed to them.

Do you think Mayor de Blasio, or any member of the city council, would ever sit down with someone like me and listen to my views? No, not without handcuffs, shackles, and a room full of guards. But I am the end product, the result of their decisions; thousands of inmates whose stories mirror mine. Nadja Guyot was the only person who took the time to seek out how I felt, who made me feel like I was a significant and contributing part of something with a purpose.

The eleven billion dollars slated for the construction of new jails in New York City should be diverted to give to individuals, such as myself, a purpose. The incarcerative setting by its very nature is designed to strip away an individual’s purpose, their identity, and individualism. Sure there are a bunch of guys in suits who would step forward with their penal ideologies and fancy words, “the deterrent model,” “incapacitation,” “ the treatment model,” “restorative justice,” and hardly have any one of them ever stepped foot in a prison except on a tour as a requisite for a criminal justice course credit, much less been playing cards on the big yard when a riot sets off. Their degrees will do them little good then.

It all comes down to what purpose is being served by continuing to put people in cages. An ideal “model” would be a process of making prisons and jails unnecessary by means of community-based solutions to social problems. How can society expect me to be rehabilitated when it cannot rehabilitate itself? Maybe that’s what Dostoevsky meant when he wrote, “the degree of a civilization may be measured by entering its prisons.” (I’m paraphrasing; “Notes From The Underground” was one of the books that they confiscated from me some time ago. A dry read but relative to today’s issues).

Sadly, the powers that be do not want to even consider the “ideal model”; god forbid! No prisons?! No, the institutions that control our society and the people in power who run them do not want that to happen. It touches too many wallets within the framework of our present capitalist, profit-driven hierarchies.

The controversy surrounding Rikers concerning jail expansion and city hall is not a new one. The history of abolitionism and criminal justice reform is an extensive one, stretching back to John Howard’s (1760-1790) push for parliament to enact the Penitentiary Act of 1779, to the modern era’s reforms following the Attica and Lucasville riots.

Rikers only represents today’s measure of entropy in the system. It’s nothing new. Eventually, concessions will be reached within this controversy and the kid with the biggest stick will still rule the playground. Disorder will continue to turn a dollar.

Years ago, I read [John] Steinbeck’s “The Grapes Of Wrath,” and I remember there’s a part in the book where the elder Joad is ruminating upon the hulking corpulence of the banking system and comparing it to some great beast that had grown too big to tame, and beyond any one person or committee’s control. It is an apt description of the state of present-day corrections. It’s far too gone for anyone to pull the plug.

I mean, how successful have we been in bringing about real change? Sure, we’ve had minor successes. Most notably, the entire question of mass incarceration has been brought from total invisibility into the mainstream of political discourse and conversation. Incarceration issues that went unheard and unseen only a decade ago are now at the center of the national debate: solitary confinement, imprisonment of juvenile offenders and the mentally ill, drugs and incarceration, bail, etc.

Sure, there’s been some changes on the ground; it makes good filler in election years. But the overall U.S. prison and jail population is still pretty close to its high point of 2.3 million, with almost twice that number on parole or probation. Even where there are changes they still leave untouched most of the “mass” of incarceration. But hey, at least the conversation has been started, right?

I have had several journalists contact me this year, and I have taken the time to share my views with them. The last one was a freelance journalist from the New Yorker who was doing a piece for the New York Review of Books, and do you think he extended the courtesy of providing me with a copy of his article? Nope, nada, nothing.

I got feelings too, and it doesn’t take much to make me happy: a quote, a nod of recognition. And I ask that if you do reference any point I’ve touched on please use my full name. Many inmates are hesitant about having their names used and wish to remain anonymous. I do not have these concerns. Even though I was just transferred to Elmira, I have been here twelve times over the years and the administration knows what I’m about. They also know my pen never strays far from my hand. This is what I do.

I spend most of my waking hours engaged in some form of litigation or another. I assist other inmates in filing non-frivolous grievances, correspond with the courts and their attorneys, prepare and file documents relevant to their criminal cases, appeal disciplinary dispositions, and challenge the conditions of their confinement.

No, I am not a “jailhouse lawyer,” I actually detest the term; most who don that title have misplaced motivations or simply don’t know shit. They’re the penitentiary’s version of ambulance chasers. I am actually in the books. I have literally bled for this.

At present, the administration’s only weapon is keeping me in ad seg; I don’t mind. Its relatively quiet and I have access to the facility’s law library. I used to work there but that didn’t last long. When you’re effective at what you do it will affect you in adverse ways and it’s hard to fly under the radar. I know this well. But I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.

Prison is an ugly place. Please keep in mind that I live in the trenches. Life is difficult in here even when you’re immune to discomfort; hell, I’ll likely have to trade my chow tray to obtain a stamp to send this to you; things that you take for granted in your everyday life out there in the free world are accorded great weight behind these walls. I once saw an inmate stabbed to death over a bag of commissary coffee. I don’t mind though. It’s potatoes with meat gravy. If you believe in what you’re doing then so do I. Potatoes be damned.

Remain well and thank you for your letter. Stay in touch.

Lee Doane

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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.