Gendered Injustice on Rikers Island

Gendered Injustice on Rikers Island

Think about this, you enter the island and you hear a correctional captain or lieutenant say: ‘next victim.

At our New York City June 2016 event, which focused on the notorious Rikers Island, storyteller Xena Grandichelli, opened her story with this harrowing line.

At Mass Story:Rikers Island June 26, 2016

At Mass Story:Rikers Island June 26, 2016

Grandichelli, a trans-intersex woman and trans activist, was brutalized while she was detained at Rikers. Seven correctional officers and an incarcerated person beat and raped her while she was in their custody during the duration of December 30th, 2014 to January 3rd, 2015.

The police officers who had escorted Grandichelli to Rikers had proclaimed her a “troublemaker."

The frequency at which transgender individuals experience sexual violence is deeply alarming. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey report, 64% of respondents reported being sexually assaulted. More so, though, many trans people experience violence, like Grandichelli, while being detained in state and federal prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that of their surveyed sample of transgender respondents (surveyed in 2011-12), 33.2% had reported another detainee had assaulted them and that 15.2% had been assaulted by a staff member while detained.

When officers returned to the island on January 3rd, Grandichelli had experienced significant injuries from the violence inflicted upon her. Despite needing medical attention, the officers waited and then transferred her to another section of the facility. Upon arrival, someone luckily acknowledged the extent of Grandichelli’s injuries and questioned her condition. She was then escorted to a hospital where a rape kit was conducted. She was sent back to Rikers Island and denied time to heal.

I still wasn’t healed because there was no such thing as talking to a rape counselor.

Sexual assault is not the only atrocity that transgender and/or gender non-conforming people must face while detained or incarcerated. While the Department of Justice now strongly suggests that a detainee’s gender identity is taken into account when placing them in a facility, detention centers are not required to do so. Thus, people like Grandichelli, who is a woman, can be placed in a men’s quarter or facility based on legal documents (i.e., birth certificates) or anatomical organs. Doing this could increase the likelihood that these marginalized people will experience sexual violence and/or physical violence by staff or other incarcerated people while they are detained or incarcerated.

In recent years,  the mistreatment of trans people have become more known to the public. Notably, Chelsea Manning, who had released classified government documents to WikiLeaks, was denied access to hormone therapy by military prison officials for over a year. The details of her incarceration, which she and her attorneys have disclose, have helped reveal systematic problems in the way that transgender and gender non-conforming people are treated while being detained in prisons.

After a court case was opened, Grandichelli was released from Rikers. Yet, due to the violence inflicted upon her, she could not go home and was, instead, sent to the hospital.

She now works with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project which provides legal aid to those who have faced discrimination due to their gender identity.

 A Mother Uses What She's Got to Reduce Recidivism Rates

A Mother Uses What She's Got to Reduce Recidivism Rates

Cecelia Whitfield, is a mother, a respected community leader, and the founder of “Use What You've Got Prison Ministry, Keeping Families Connected, Inc”. When her son was arrested and convicted of a robbery, she turned her personal heartbreak into a community solution. She founded a weekly shuttle bus service to transport families to visit their loved ones in eight Indiana prisons.

We were honored to have Cecilia Whitfield agree to be one of our storytellers at a Mass Story Lab event in Indianapolis this past spring. For a packed house, she described how when her son, James, returned home from prison, she was unaware of how best to support him. Impressed with her passionate commitment to supporting families impacted by incarceration, after the lab, we interviewed Cecelia by phone. She spoke of driving her son James to meetings with his probation officer and attempting to find work for him, but she was unaware of his hidden struggle with drugs. After her experience with her son, Whitfield began to do her research and discovered that her family was not alone.

“80% of people in prisons have a drug or alcohol problem” and, due to insufficient resources in prison systems, many of these individuals do not receive adequate treatment. Consequently, there is a “75% recidivism rate when no treatment is received while incarcerated.”

When Whitfield’s son came home, it became apparent he struggled to feel like he belonged anywhere. She noted,

“Over time, I came to learn that my son was afraid of the outside world, the shame of the crime he had committed, and the stigma of knowing those friends he once had in high school no longer wanted to be around him.”

In response to her son’s incarceration, Whitfield founded the “Use What You've Got Prison Ministry” to eliminate one important barrier to successful reentry, a strong and sustained connection to family while serving time. Whitfield’s organization, which has existed for 28 years, offers a plethora of services including a shuttle bus service to Indiana State prisons, women’s retreats, Christmas programs for the children, and information about available services.

Article: parents of prisoner find a way to serve community

 Whitfield expressed her belief that by educating others about drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, and HIV testing, one can significantly help those who may not have been able to receive information and guidance through difficult times.

Finally, Whitfield conveyed that her personal goal is to provide “a more cohesive program that educates, supports and prepares everyone for the homecoming that will be difficult at best.” By doing so, she hopes that, in response, rates of recidivism will decrease.She proposed, “Something as simple as directories to services or an app to help find assistance would be a good start and I cannot help but believe that all the providers in the process would be encouraged with a reduction in recidivism which would come from better preparing all those who touch this returning individual.”

Prison Bus Shuttle Photo

Whitfield has dedicated her life to helping families impacted by incarceration. In Indiana, her work is bridging the divide between incarcerated people and their families. To learn more about her organization, visit their website and help support their mission.



Mass Story Lab is a storytelling platform amplifying the voices of people directly impacted by incarceration. Through our story lab events in communities around the country, we are leveraging the power of storytelling to inspire healing, dialogue, and more a restorative justice system.


Written by Lara Fayyaz, MSL Summer 2017 Intern

No Justice for Haitian Refugees

No Justice for Haitian Refugees

On May 23rd, the Trump administration will make a decision that could devastate some 50,000 Haitian refugees who immigrated to the United States after the destructive earthquake in 2010 that killed over a quarter of Haitians. Within months, Haitian refugees that survive under temporary protected status in the United States could be forced to leave after having lived here for many years. The Obama administration extended the temporary protected status many times, considering Haiti has not yet recovered from the earthquake. There are still housing shortages, cholera, economic damage, and limited access to medical care. However, the earthquake is not the only reason that Haitians seek refuge, and not everyone is lucky enough to obtain protected status. Many people end up detained and deported.

In February, we traveled to Miami, Florida for a lab focused on immigrant detention. Marleine Bastien, Executive Director of FANM shared her experience of arriving in 1981 as a young refugee. She volunteered at the Haitian refugee center, which at the time was the only agency providing legal services to newly arrived refugees. She spoke of how she had always thought of America as the beacon of human rights, but was gravely disappointed. Refugees come to America for a reason; to escape to a better life. She says that there are pressures that cause people to come, not just because they want to. They come in search of a safe haven, but instead they find themselves detained, and very few have the chance to state their reasons for seeking refuge.

A lot of [refugees] have histories of abuse and of trauma, so we need to create a space so that these refugees and these immigrants have a chance to explain in front of a court and we are obligated by law to create and afford them this basic right. [..] But more and more detained and incarcerated refugees and immigrants are not given that chance.
— Marleine Bastien

Since 2005, nearly a million people have been prosecuted for crimes related to illegal entry. Of those incarcerated, 2.5 million are deported. Some of this is due to overcrowding. Bastien states that detention divides families and there are often cases of physical and sexual abuse that go unreported. She advocates for spaces in which refugees can tell their stories and make a case for themselves.

It is best to afford them the right of due process. Create a space for them to tell their stories, and once they tell their stories, you’ll see that they have strong political asylum claims. And once they [obtain asylum] in a year they can become a permanent resident, and in three years they can become a US citizen.
— Marleine Bastien

Bastien is a licensed clinical social worker and the executive director of FANM, an organization with a mission to empower Haitian women and their families socially, politically and facilitate their adjustments to South Florida. At our lab, she recited a poem she had written in regard to Haitian women who seek refuge in the United States:

We are the women of the world

Lost in a foreign land.

Shamed, Denied, Violated

Tortured, Dilapidated, Maimed

Intimidated, Crushed

Victimized, Abused.

We are the wives, the fiancés, the mothers, daughters

Forced to leave our motherland in conditions not fit for human beings.

We risk our lives in not sea worthy vessels.

After many trials, adversities and tribulations

We make it to the land of the free.

The land of the free?

During our worst nightmare, the dream of being comforted

By the sweet arms of water liberty keeps us going.

Hoping that reality sinks in.

Our dreams are shattered

Steel iron bracelets on our ankles, scars deep in our flesh

Scars that last a lifetime.

Oh yes, we are wide awake right now.

The cold feel of handcuffs leave bruises.

It hurts.

The thumping of heavy metal doors takes away our last hope.

What crimes have we committed?

We are the women of the world in search of a safe haven,

Yet jailed? Treated like criminals?

Who have we killed? Who have we robbed? Who have we maimed?

Is it a crime to seek protection? Safety for our children?

Respect? Dignity? Humanity?

Is it a crime to fight death, desperation?

Is it a crime to want a future?

Is it a crime to year to be free?

Is it a crime to want to live?

Is it a crime to dream? Is it a crime to dream?

We are the women of the world.

Shamed, abused, tortured, dehumanized

Yet not broken.

We are the women of the world

And this is all of us.

We are life.

We are the future.

Support Mass Story Lab’s #MSLSpring25 fundraising drive and help us raise $25,000 to travel to more communities grappling with the impact of mass incarceration. Donate today!

By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab intern

What Happened to Speedy Trials?

What Happened to Speedy Trials?

Incarceration is no doubt traumatizing for those who experience it themselves, but their families also face vulnerability and turmoil. Having to see their loved ones held in horrifying conditions is difficult enough, but families face many other hardships that go along with having an incarcerated family member. Many families lose a significant portion of their income and drop below the poverty line. Some are forced to raise children alone and risk losing custody. Others experience guilt by association. Those possibilities aside, visiting a family member in a correctional facility can be a nightmare in itself. Not only are they often geographically isolated and challenging to travel to, families are often presented with inadequate visiting facilities in terrible condition and experience traumatic occurrences while only attempting to reconnect with their loved one. Sadly, an average of 45% of inmates lose contact with their families during their incarceration.

Our June 2016 lab focused on closing Rikers Island in New York City, storyteller Anna Pastoressa spoke about her experience as a mother with a son incarcerated in the Rikers Island jail complex. Her son, a talented artist and muralist, was incarcerated in 2010 and has been awaiting trial for six years, all the while being beaten, abused, and sexually assaulted. Her story centered on the first time she visited her son at Rikers. She notes that when she tried to find the jail complex on a map, she discovered just a gray spot in the water with no label. She was anxious as she traveled with many other women and children on the ferry, but the terror began once they all piled out onto the island.

When we landed on Rikers Island, we were greeted by screaming officers with guns. […]  Officers screaming instructions at us like we were cattle.  I had to go through metal detectors, shake my bra, open my zipper, show my underwear, take off my socks and shoes, move here, move there, get sniffed by the dogs… I was in total shock. I was traumatized.
— Anna Pastoressa

Anna had been under the impression that her son would only be on the island temporarily as he awaits trial. Instead, he tries to stay positive amidst the abuse by making toilet paper flowers and using Kool-Aid as paint because he isn’t allowed art supplies.

I’m an immigrant. I studied the ideas of this country, and I thought this country was the land of the free. I had to learn a different lesson. It is not the land of the free. […] What happened to speedy trials?
— Anna Pastoressa

The right to a speedy trial is a constitutional right stated in the sixth amendment but is hindered by current bail processes. 78% of people inside Rikers have not been convicted of the crime they are accused of.

Anna shared that her son had taken a plea deal the day before our lab. She expressed anger that the system had won, though she thought her son would have had great chances in court. “They scored their conviction,” she said. “That’s exactly what they like to do. Make people so weak they can’t face a trial.” She concluded by calling on the audience to work as hard as they can to close Rikers Island for good.

The #CLOSErikers campaign led by JustLeadershipUSA and  Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice recently won a huge victory when Mayor de Blasio announced that he would support plans to close the jail complex in the next 10-years putting a permanent end to the violence and corruption of Rikers Island.

Support Mass Story Lab’s #MSLSpring25 fundraising drive and help us raise $25,000 to travel to more communities grappling with the impact of mass incarceration. Donate today!

By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab intern

A Decade is too Long to #CLOSERIKERS

A Decade is too Long to #CLOSERIKERS

Rikers Island and violence go hand in hand. The notorious jail complex in New York, known for its brutality and abuse towards the incarcerated both by other occupants and correctional officers, is often described as dangerous, corrupt, and a place of suffering. Whether or not to close Rikers has been an ongoing battle. On March 31st, Mayor Bill de Blasio finally vowed to close Rikers Island and open a series of smaller jails based in the boroughs of New York City. This is provided that the number of people cycling through the system is reduced to 5,000; low enough to accommodate the transition to the new jails. De Blasio stated that the process could take more than a decade to complete. In the meantime, the violence on Rikers continues.

In June 2016, we held our first Mass Story Lab in New York City focused specifically on the negative impact of Rikers Island. Six storytellers spoke of the horrors of the complex. One of those storytellers was Johnny Perez. He was incarcerated as a child at sixteen years old. During his time on the island, he faced extreme violence. Gang violence, he said, was very prevalent.

If you’re not in a gang, you have to fight. You have to fight for your food, your commissary, your sneakers… you have to fight to keep your sanity. You have to fight like there’s no tomorrow because if you don’t, there probably won’t be.
— Johnny Perez

Johnny became physically violent to fend off the gang members, and was thrown in solitary confinement for sixty days. At sixteen years old, he sat completely alone in a concrete room for two months.

At 16 years old I couldn’t understand how I could be placed in a situation where I felt hopeless. My self-esteem was shot. I was angry at myself. I hated myself. I thought about committing suicide.
— Johnny Perez

He recounts how the suicide prevention aid he was provided belonged to the same gang as the fellow detainee that he fought. The staff member tortured him when he was on duty, depriving him of food. Violence by Department of Corrections staff against detainees rose every year from 2008 to 2014. Johnny couldn’t understand that the same people that were sworn to protect him from harm would actually allow it to happen.

You’re either the prey or the person who’s being preyed on. I learned that if I was going to survive, I would have to speak the language of Riker’s Island,” he stated. “The universal language of Riker’s Island is violence.
— Johnny Perez

In the recently released Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform Executive Summary, it is stated,

“All 27 members came together behind a vision for a criminal justice system in New York City that embodies the civic values of liberty, equality, dignity, justice, and public safety. Central to this vision is the primary recommendation of the Commission: Rikers Island must be closed. The Commission has concluded that shuttering Rikers Island is an essential step toward building a more just New York City. Refurbishing Rikers is not enough. Our current approach to incarceration is broken and must be replaced. Acknowledging this, the Commission recommends permanently ending the use of Rikers Island as a jail facility.”

Read the commission’s full report to learn why it’s important to close Rikers Island now.

While progress is being made, 10 years is too long. Justice for people like Johnny cannot wait.

On April 24th, the #CLOSERIKERS campaign is hosting a Rally on the Steps of City Hall. The rally will take place between 10:30am-12:00pm. We urge you to join in the efforts to close Rikers faster. Do your part to end the violence and suffering. Join the #CloseRikers campaign and take action.

Support Mass Story Lab’s #MSLSpring25 Fundraising drive and help us raise $25,000 to travel to more communities grappling with the impact of mass incarceration.

By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab intern