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