Up Front and Personal

Rikers Island Needs to Be Closed ASAP

by Father James C. Sheehan 

Weakness is not a nice feeling. 

With echoes of other David and Goliath moments and campaigns, I was aware of my growling weakness, empty stomach, and growing frustration as passionate talks were going on and on in Foley Square outside the City Council chambers on Aug. 31. 

We were about 80 fervent protesters, shocked but not surprised, that we were back again loudly protesting against the continuing of Rikers Island as the first stop — and often a long one — of people who get arrested in the five boroughs of New York. 

Like many New Yorkers, we had been optimistic about the seriously proposed closing of this expensive eyesore in New York, one of the richest cities in the world. To a large degree, that hope has been devastated and allowed to crumble. 

The people in Rikers are awaiting trial or sentencing, and more might die in the squalid and violent conditions of this city jail. The politicians, including our mayor, had won election on a platform promising the closing of this facility. As if in a fog, politicians in any system often seem to forget what was promised, but the poor do not. 

With my journey of 44 years of Catholic priesthood, all real Christian service still deeply moves me, like when folks do what the Bible tells us to do in Matthew 25. This is to visit the imprisoned and thus meet Jesus, who did time in the praetorian, a poor county jail in Jerusalem. Protest is part of this witness — as ineffectual as it may seem at first. 

The stories of the mothers of the detained move me. These are often voiced in anger or muffled with nervousness. Etched in pain, they tell of their radical concern that they may hear today that their daughter or son has died inside — allegedly due to medical reasons. 

The cries from the anguished significant others of detainees hurt me deeply too. The downward spiral in their lives continues to plunge. Their tales of being disrespected when they visit Rikers as visitors shakes me as I desperately touch the rosaries in my pocket. 

The often unnamed larger problem of racism smacks us protestors across our faces. We know that the inhabitants of this Dickens-style warehouse are disproportionately Black and Latino. 

Although encouraging, we are also almost embarrassed to see so many young protestors with their still-wide eyes so anxiously expecting the authorities to keep to their word. Once again, the holes in the rhetoric of their stated adult leaders adds to their fires of mistrust of authority figures of all stripes. 

With their different hair colors and their jeans with holes, they are visually stating quite strongly that the American dream is not for all. They seem to have obtained this hard-earned wisdom at an age that is far too young. 

I conclude these reflections with the emptiness and anger in my gut that I will not hear about this demonstration — or others — against Rikers in the holy words in our parishes and other houses of worship and agencies in our religious systems. 

Why not? 

We do pray about the Eucharist in traditional processions from medieval days. However, in our prayers of the faithful and in our homilies, we rarely touch upon the human bodies and souls — on both sides of the bars! — as the body of Christ is being torn apart in our city jails. 

In weakness I look at the 21st-century cross that is the continued existence of Rikers — named after a slave trader. 

I cry out: “Why?”

Father James Sheehan, a proud graduate of Cathedral College in Douglaston, Queens, is a Catholic priest serving in the Archdiocese of New York in Campus Ministry. He has been a victim of violent crime three times.

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