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Kerry Kennedy to Speak at Gracie Mansion Vigil to Close Rikers Island

By Danielle Tcholakian | December 3, 2016 10:04am
 Kerry Kennedy is bringing the weight of her father's legacy in civil rights to the fight to close Riker's Island.
Kerry Kennedy is bringing the weight of her father's legacy in civil rights to the fight to close Riker's Island.
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UPPER EAST SIDE — Kerry Kennedy is bringing the weight of her father's legacy to the fight to close Rikers Island.

Kennedy will join activists, faith leaders and formerly incarcerated New Yorkers outside Gracie Mansion Sunday evening to pressure Mayor Bill de Blasio to close the controversial jail complex.

"The conditions there are horrific," said Kennedy, a human rights lawyer who leads the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization, named for her late father.

Kennedy said she was drawn to the cause through activist Glenn Martin.

Martin was incarcerated at Rikers for a year, then at Attica for several more, after an armed robbery conviction in 1995. Since his release, he founded an organization, JustLeadershipUSA, that aims to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030, and more recently launched a campaign to close Rikers.

Kennedy said the problem with Rikers is inextricably linked to the bail system, as people who cannot afford to post bail are often held there without ever being convicted of a crime.

The vast majority of people who can make bail are never convicted, Kennedy said.

But of those who cannot pay, an equally vast majority "end up at Rikers" and then "end up with a guilty plea."

"It's not because they're guilty," she said. "You're sitting in a jail cell, and a lawyer comes and says, 'If you plead guilty, you can go home today.' They might have kids at home alone, and they might have a day job they have to go to, and if they don't show up to work, they're going to lose their job."

But while pleading guilty can get a person released, the long-term consequences can have a life-altering negative impact, Kennedy said.

"They can go get their 16-year-old kid back, but now they pled guilty to a felony and they can no longer live in public housing," she said.

If they get fired from their day job for not showing up while incarcerated, "they can't get a [new] job because they have a felony conviction."

"It is a terrible, terrible system, and it's a system we're all part of, and we have to shut it down," Kennedy said. "Rikers Island is run by our government, run by you and me. It's our taxpayer dollars at work."

And those who don't or can't plead out face violence, Kennedy said, particularly transgender and gender non-conforming inmates.

The Sunday evening vigil precedes a roundtable slated for Monday night, hosted by the independent commission on criminal justice reform that City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito tapped Jonathan Lippman, former chief judge of the state court of appeals, to form earlier this year.

But Kennedy maintained that Rikers is "beyond reform."

"That is not an option here," she said. "It's no place for a human being."

Mark-Viverito raised the possibility of closing Rikers in her State of the City speech at the beginning of this year, and as DNAinfo New York previously reported, de Blasio administration officials have been exploring options to relocate inmates to borough detention centers and two new jails.

READ MORE: City Hall Quietly Eyes Neighborhoods for New Jails to Replace Rikers Island

► READ MORE: Here Are City Documents on 'Effort' to Close Rikers That De Blasio Denies

READ MORE: Rikers Island: The Evolution of City Hall's Search for a Fix

But Kennedy said more jails are not the answer.

"What we really need to do is divert people to programs that are actually effective across the city," she said. "Community programs to address mental health issues, substance abuse — so that people can get services that address their problems."

The Sunday evening vigil at Gracie Mansion is scheduled to run from 4 to 5 p.m., at East 88th Street and East End Avenue. The Monday evening roundtable will take place on the Richard Harris Terrace at Borough of Manhattan Community College at 199 Chambers St. in Lower Manhattan from 6:30 to 8 p.m.