Book Review: Lockdown on Rikers


rikersLockdown on Rikers: Shocking Stories of Abuse and Injustice at New York’s Notorious Jail  (2015) by Mary E. Buser focuses on Buser’s transition from an “idealistic [social work] intern” to a burnt-out administrator who realizes that because of the mentality that anyone who isn’t part of the Department of Corrections (DOC) is considered a “guest in their house,” she can’t do anything to change conditions on Rikers, which steadily grew worse during her tenure in the jails on the island.

For people who are unfamiliar with jails and prisons in America, this book outlines it well. Many people who are  detained on Rikers are simply too poor to afford bail, and may wait years (yes, years) for their case to go to trial. Some, though certainly not all, are in for nonviolent crimes such as jumping turnstiles or drug offenses. In one instance, Buser recounts a joke that if drugs were legalized, that Rikers would be nearly empty.

The thing is, it’s not really a joke.

Although Buser never dives into the particulars, part of the population explosion at Rikers was due to Giuliani’ & Bratton’s “broken windows” theory of policing New York. People were being swept up en masse, and some people being swept up (some would argue many) just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, the clogged judicial system meant that people could say in Rikers, and in borough jails, for years awaiting trial.

Buser pulls the reader into particular cases: a woman who was brutally raped, a woman who developed schizophrenia as a result of drug use, a man who by all accounts was following all the laws when his motorcycle hit a boy who ran out into the street, men who were so desperate to escape the Bing (solitary) that suicide seemed like the best option. She shows herself becoming numbed to the atrocities at Rikers, and tries to help readers understand how little she thought she could help inmates because she was a “guest in [the DOC’s] house,” and because if she reported cases of inhumane treatment or abuse by the guards, the prisoner(s) in question might face even more brutal retribution.

In other words, Buser pains a picture of a system that is “broken,” — though of course it isn’t broken. It’s function exactly the way it’s designed to do, and which those of us who sit by complacently, give our implicit or explicit approval to.

And this is where Buser’s writing fails.

She doesn’t do much to critique the system, or those of us who allow it to continue. She doesn’t do much to really demand that we consider the Dostoevsky quote that is mentioned a couple of times in the book:

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

or its implications about the society that we live in — one that is, if we buy into this quote, brutal and dirty and highly racist and highly fearful. One that tortures people through extended stays in solitary confinement, despite the lip service given to avoiding inhumane punishment. She doesn’t go so far as to critique these things or, the societal choices we make when we say, for instance, that black people who don’t want to be murdered extrajudicially by police shouldn’t have broken the law (by jaywalking, for instance, or selling loosies, or I don’t know, not breaking the law and being a 12-year-old boy holding a toy gun on a playground in an open carry state).

It’s easy to assume that everyone who is in a jail has broken the law. But jails are, largely, not filled with prisoners. They are filled with people who, although detained, are presumed innocent until a court decides otherwise. Prisons are filled with prisoners, who the courts have deemed guilty. Rikers is a jail, and so some of those in its walls are, in fact, innocent. Many of those people will take plea bargains anyway.

Because our system is set up to encourage that.

This is what Buser keeps returning to: those who are innocent. Those who are not innocent, but are being locked away for years, or the rest of their lives, for nonviolent crimes. Those who would be better served by adequate mental health care in the country. Those whose outcomes might be different if only the could have afforded bail.

I think that people should read this book. I think that is especially true, if you can get people to pick it up, for those who believe that everyone in jail is a criminal. I think it’s a good book to hand people if you’d like to help them understand why we need prison reform or why someone might be a prison abolitionist or the problem with using jails as a way to house people who need additional mental health support. If you’re already versed in these issues, the book will probably be less insightful.

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