September 10, 2011

Rikers Island Prisoners Were Left Out Of New York’s Evacuation Plan

Hurricane Irene is gone and the damage was done across the eastern coast of the U.S. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the shutdown of the city's transit system, and the evacuation of a quarter of a million people in low-lying areas. But the city had no plans to evacuate the 12,000 prisoners on Rikers Island. There was no plan because there is no plan, no plan in place to evacuate these incarcerated individuals in case of a disaster.

Really now?

I can't help but believe that if the island was occupied by investment bankers or other "important" people worthy of protection, perhaps like the Hamptons, maybe things would have been a little different. After all, prisoners are perhaps the least regarded segment of society. And while no harm was visited upon these prisoners this time around, what will happen the next time? Given the effects of global warming, more hurricanes and tornadoes surely will come--more frequently and more intense.

Disasters - whether environmental or financial, both of which include those created by human beings - impose a system of triage that negatively impacts the poor, neglected and politically powerless.

The U.S. saw that in action in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina six years ago. The impoverished black residents of the Lower Ninth Ward caught Hell, to be sure, and suffered the most damage as an indifferent federal government looked the other way. And the men, women and children who occupied Orleans Parish Prison at the time, the second-class citizens that they are, suffered some of the greatest injustices of the storm. Stray pets received better treatment. Guards left their posts unattended, with prisoners locked up without water, food or ventilation, and sometimes up to their chests in dirty water. As New Orleans was being evacuated, the sheriff declared "The prisoners will stay where they belong."

And that spirit of callous neglect is evident in today’s financial crisis, the product of an unsavory mix of greed on Wall Street, and greed and deregulation in Washington. Through their water carriers, plutocrats and oligarchs are using the recession as a pretext for austerity measures, a job-killing assault on poor, working and middle-class families. As a Koch Brothers-funded Congress and Tea Party-endorsed governors and state legislatures slash budgets and taxes for the rich in the name of deficit reduction, everyday folks are blamed for getting the country into the mess we’re in. And the everyday people are left to suffer in this bad economy.

But back to Rikers. It should not escape us that Rikers Island is about 95 percent black and Latino. The students in the New York City public school system, the largest district in the nation, are overwhelmingly of color--86 percent. Mayor Bloomberg controls both. And it is not such a stretch to suggest that the Big Apple's richest man and the thirteenth richest American may have interests that clash with New York's prisoners and public school students.

Black males in New York City have a 28 percent high school graduation rate and a 50 percent unemployment rate.  

Moreover, the mayor's two previous schools chiefs demonstrate a tendency to view public education as a commodity to be exploited by business executives for profit. His immediate past chancellor, Cathie Black, is a magazine executive with no education experience who suggested birth control as a means to solve classroom overcrowding. The man who headed the schools before Black, Joel Klein, is Rupert Murdoch's right-hand man and consigliere, hired to investigate (perhaps clean up) a scandal-plagued News Corp., and head up the corporation's new for-profit education division. Murdoch's hacking scandal just cost Wireless Generation, his education technology business, a $27 million contract with the state of New York-- most likely because hacking into students' records is generally frowned upon. I can't think of any corporation more averse to the interests of people of color than News Corp., the parent company the New York Post and Fox News, the former employer of madman and hatemonger Glenn Beck.

And so, the inmates at the Rikers penal colony likely have few champions, an unpopular constituency lacking any highly-paid lobbyists to do their bidding. Surely some of these captives have committed some heinous crimes. Others are caught up in the criminal justice system through no fault of their own, or due to racial profiling, or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And let’s not forget, Rikers Island also holds people awaiting trial who couldn't afford their bail, some awaiting bail hearings and even those awaiting arraignment - all of whom are innocent under our justice system. Whatever the reason, the occupants of Rikers Island, Orleans Parish Prison and elsewhere are human beings entitled to basic human rights. One would think that these rights include the right to not be left to die during a hurricane.

Sadly, from the time that slaves were thrown overboard for the "safety" of a ship, whether ostensibly to fight the spread of contagion or to collect the insurance money, people of African descent have been no strangers to triage. The circumstances have changed since then, but have they really?

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Jeremy said...

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