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Racism in the criminal justice system

The Rough Ride

I use the N word in this essay not to be provocative, but in an attempt to further illuminate the intentional hate reinforced architecture found in every area of the Criminal Injustice System. To show that it is not just an adjective that evokes, but one that also walks with negative expectations. It is simply and plain, a violent verb. This word has power as long as we allow the source of that power to remain intact, and that source is systemic racism.  I ask that as you read this, please be wary of those that would concentrate more on my usage of the word, than the content of this essay, it is a distraction.

Part I of IV Essay on Racism in the Criminal In Justice System

The N.Y.S. Criminal Injustice System vs. The Nigger Councilman Ruben Wills

“I am not your brother, I am not a Nigger, I am a black Canadian!”

Life is a mix of twists and turns and it was my turn to twist through this transitional season.  On August 10, 2017, the private and public life that I created for myself drastically changed.  As a man, a father, and New York City Council member, my family, friends, and the public witnessed the defining moment when the judge sentenced me to two to six years of state incarceration.  This decision began a series of necessary and unprecedented life changing events.

Prior to the sentencing, my attorney forwarded my medical documents to the judge for review. Due to my medical history, which included numerous surgeries, the judge issued a confine and commit order authorizing the N.Y.C Department of corrections to admit me to the Intensive Care Unit on Rikers Island.  Before being escorted to the ICU on Rikers Island, I was escorted to a holding cell in the lower part of the courthouse. 

Initially, I was transported to Rikers Island but very quickly I understood, the plan had changed. When I arrived on Rikers Island, instead of taking me to the Intensive Care Unit, I was transferred to a van with a dividing wall separating the two sides going from front to back down the middle.  While in motion, I remember thinking it is odd that we were driving back across the bridge away from Rikers Island and away from the medical building. It was an extremely rough ride.

The motion of the van violently threw me back and forth up and down. I yelled several times to gain the attention of the correction officers; the pain was immense.  “Please Stop!”  I yelled over and over, but to no avail my calls for help were met with inattention and silence.  It could have been minutes or maybe hours, but all too soon, we reached our destination.  They brought me to the Boat (The Vernon C. Bain Center), a N.Y.C correctional facility in the Bronx.  At that time,  I was unconscious due to the pain.  It was time for me to exit the van and enter the facility. When I tried to take a stand, I could not do it on my own.  Standing on my own had become almost impossible.


Part II of IV Essay on Racism in the Criminal In Justice System

Unfortunately, as soon as I began receiving the medical attention I needed, I was transferred off of Riker’s Island and into the custody of The Department of N.Y.S Corrections.  I spent the next month at The Downstate Correctional facility, a maximum security reception center where they tried to stabilize my health.  Thereafter, I was transferred to the Marcy Correctional facility.  When I arrived at The Marcy Correctional facility, members of the facility along with various ranking corrections officers gathered around me in an impromptu fashion.  They directly addressed me, stating, “We know who you are!  We know that what happened to you is bullshit!  We don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but we’re glad that you are here!”  

My face showed exactly what I was thinking, what the fuck, you’re glad I’m here?  They continued to explain, “We do not mean that we are glad that this happened to you.  We know who you are because we have done our research on you.  Your high profile is an influence on those in power.  If you say something, those in authority will listen.  We ask that you remember everything that happens while you’re locked up, but for your own safety, say nothing until you are released.  Then promise us that you will come back and fix this shit!  We do not like what goes on here.  Nor do we like what we have to do anymore than you’re going to like what may happen to you.  So yes, we are glad that you are here!” 

I knew that life behind bars would be hard, uncomfortable and trying.  In this facility, I experienced the highest level of the prison culture, vulnerable to inhumane conditions perpetrated by the criminal injustice system.  I experienced this culture first hand when I had to answer questions on an intake evaluation.  It is the standardized protocol to evaluate the mental health of an incarcerated person. 

This experience taught me that the eighth amendment has no power in the N.Y.S Department of Corrections.  Cruel and unusual punishment would be the rule on many days.  This experience taught me the full weight of being behind bars.  

During the intake evaluation, I answered a series of redundant questions.  Some of the questions are listed here.  Do you wish to harm yourself?  Do you wish to hurt anyone else?  I answered no. Then no, then another no.  During the interview portion of the evaluation, I was asked, do you have anything to look forward to?  I answered it by saying, “I am a black elected official recently convicted and incarcerated for 2 to 6 years for a crime I didn’t commit, yet I’m still here.  I am in a wheelchair.  What do I have to look forward to?”  After I answered that question, the interview immediately stopped.  

After the interview ended, the counselor told me that I would be escorted to my housing unit.  To my surprise, a few high-ranking officers approached me and began to explain that I was being taken to the Segregated Housing Unit also known as “the box or SHU.”  I asked why?  They rolled me into a room to review my interview form.  In a respectful manner, (emphasis on respectful because not all corrections staff carry themselves in unprofessional and racist manner) the officers explained to me that my answer triggered a 24-hour suicide watch.  The officers in the SHU had a different mentality than the escorting officers.  They treated the incarcerated persons less than human.  I was stripped naked and given a smock to wear.  Then, I was placed in a cell with no heat, no blanket, no pillow.  I had nothing essential, with the exception of a hard narrow bench and a dim lit light fixture.  When the cell door slammed, the loud banging started.  It lasted all night.  The correction officers were singing suicide over and over.  They kept asking me, ”Did you kill yourself yet?”  “What’s taking so long? Hurry up!” 

They drew a picture of me with an image of me actually hanging myself.  They displayed the picture at the window of the cell.  This behavior occurred all night long.  I began having back to back episodes, anxiety attacks.  Each one more debilitating than the first.  This behavior in solitary confinement is accepted as normal, it is a part of the system’s culture.  Incarcerated persons are supposed to be protected by officers, yet the same officers create and maintain unsafe psychological and physical environments.  The events that took place the next morning demonstrated the depth of the normalization of this harmful behavior.  I was transported from my cell to a clear room and shackled to a desk.  I was exhausted from the trauma that I experienced through the night.  The constant banging and singing of Sean Kingston’s song Suicide was disturbing.  I could not concentrate in the room because the banging and singing started all over again.  The anxiety attacks began again.  

A woman supposedly a counselor entered the room, as I held back my tears, I asked her, “Why am I here?”  “When can I leave?”  “Do you see and hear what they are doing?”  She replied, “Well, this is disciplinary housing, a more adversarial atmosphere.”  In disbelief, I asked, “Aren’t you court mandated to report this?”  She explained that the way I was presenting yesterday and today is why I was sent to the SHU.  Her explanation caught me off guard because I felt fine yesterday.  As a matter of fact, I was told that I was placed there because I answered a question on the evaluation incorrectly.  I reasoned, “this makes no sense, my paperwork shows that I suffer from anxiety from previous medical experiences.”  “Do you see what these officers are doing?  Are you not going to do anything?”  I questioned, “Is that why the tape recorder is empty, so that there’s no real record of what happens here?”  

She promptly stood up and left the room.  Our conversation brought more harassment my way. The officers entered the room and said, “Oh, so you want to report something boy?”  “We will give you a whole bunch to report.  You must not know who you are or where you are!  These are our mountains!”  They spoke directly to me, showing me how things work there, an unspoken warning, warning me to keep silent.  This was not a dog whistle.  It was spoken directly to me, a party of one.  This is a universal warning that has been spoken to tens of thousands of black people.  It’s a matter of switching out the word mountains for venues and institutions like restaurants, banks, real estate offices, and white women which historically have carried a deadly consequence. Because I questioned her role as an authority figure and mandated reporter, the officers demonstrated their institutional power using their rank and authority to threaten and degrade me using tactics of aggression.


Part III of IV Essay on Racism in the Criminal In Justice System

Recently, I received an education by Dr. Jeff Gardere, my rockstar psychologist, one of the greatest Therapeutic wellness coaches Ms. Kheperah Kearse of Gemnasium LLC., and Ms. Jolisa Beavers chairwoman of 4ward Inclusion Inc., Dr. Divine Pryor Senior policy advisor for Community Capacity Development and Mr. Glenn Martin Founder of GEM Trainers, LLC, two Generals in the criminal injustice reform movement, on unconscious bias and racism and how someone can not even know their actions even the most subtle can show racist reflexes. 

These intense conversations led me to understand a term I call Negative Race Transference (N.R.T.). Negative Race Transference takes place when negative feelings, and prejudices transfer from one group to another group of a different race. It can also present in instances of overwhelming institutional pressures affecting people in a connected diaspora. This is an extension of racial incongruity.

For example, some believe that some black men should not live, work, or frequent upscale neighborhoods based on their race and wardrobe. I met an officer who embodied the essence of true leadership. He had a laid back demeanor enforced the rules without creating a culture of violence and hatred. Prison is the type of toxic environment that can have you conflicting your self preservation instinct with the needs of the greater population. I found myself wishing he were a training officer at the same time understanding if he was that professional capacity would almost guarantee his inability to be here ensuring the weaker men were protected.

Each morning at 5:30 am, he had a routine, he would blast a radio playing a rock song heard over the house microphone. It was like an alarm system. He said, “Good morning, no this is not a dream, you are in prison somehow you fucked up and got here, and if you’re white your life is really fucked up .” Every morning, I thought to myself, I guess because white men are the minority, they need more protection to survive which increases their stress because of the imminent danger they face. I learned that my thoughts were incorrect.

Let me explain with an illustration given during an interview with Dr. Jawanza Kanjufu, noted educational consultant and author, who responded to a question from a black woman. “Why does it seem like our black men want white women rather than us?” He answered by explaining that people were tricked, they have been told that long hair, light complexion, and light eyes are the standard for beauty, but that’s not the trick. The trick is, if that’s what they’re saying is beautiful then they are saying, the opposite is ugly.

When the officer said, “If you’re white, your life is really fucked up”, I am fully persuaded he was speaking through N.R.T. (Negative Race Transference). The criminal injustice system was built on a racist belief illustrated by James Baldwins’ quote “It means you need him” (the nigger) and Dr. Kanjufu’s “Which one works?” This has carried from leased prison labor to the nefarious contrast in prison populations all driven by economic stabilization and then security for others. The belief is if you’re white and have made it to a place created and reserved mostly for the black in America “Your life is really fucked up.” This is the defining quintessence of negative race transference.

French Canadian

Part IV of IV Essay on Racism in the Criminal In Justice System

One of the facilities that I was transported to was The Ulster Correctional Facility.  During my time there, a black corrections officer and I were involved in a verbal confrontation.  While on my way to the mess hall (cafeteria) my medical condition was aggravated by a change in weather.  The temperature dropped by at least 15 degrees during the transition from my  owning facility (you’ve read correctly, owning facility, does it sound like anything to you) Marcy Correctional Facility.  I experienced excruciating pain, muscle spasms, muscle atrophy and an ear infection.  Due to the corrections department policy, I was underdressed.  I did not have a hat on my head.  I wore a short sleeve green shirt issued by the facility.   

For context, correction officers have the role of transporting incarcerated persons throughout the facility.  They were directing the flow.  This was an order to manage the movements of the men, stop and go.  I rolled myself in the wheelchair as quickly as possible.  One stop line.  Next stop line.  Then the next stop.  That is when he approached me.  The corrections officer walked to the front of the line.  He stood over me, looking down, with sarcasm, he said,  “Slow your roll!”  At first, I chose to ignore his consistent jabs,  and snubs.  After a while, it became ridiculous.  He had a smirk on his face.  He seemed pleased as if his corny jokes had shown some high level of comedic intelligence.  I kept looking forward.  

He continued to make snide jokes until I replied, “I wasn’t moving to be out of order, I was moving so I would not aggravate my condition any further.  Clearly, you can see that I am in a wheelchair!  Clearly, you can see that I do not have on any warm clothing!  I do not have a hat on and the side of my face is swollen!  My ear looks like a cauliflower!  It’s raining and cold out here!”  What would you have me do?”  He continued to chastise me without acknowledging my question or statements. I finally interrupted him and said, “No disrespect intended brother.”  His reply was quick and precise, he shouted, “Brother! Brother, I ain’t your fucking brother, I am not a Nigger, I am a French Canadian.” This officer who resembles both physically and in mannerism the character Uncle Ruckus from the animated series, “The Boondocks.”  He was the Black Canadian.  

Hearing those statements was extremely offensive but more than that, they were sad because these statements were spoken by a black corrections officer.  The residents were shocked, it showed in their body language, they leaned backward, and with disbelief, they elongated the word, 

“whhhhhhaaaattttt?” They whispered among themselves, in awe, asking rhetorical questions, “Did he just say that? What’s wrong in his life?  Dude thinks he’s white?” 

The words were spoken as a definitive declaration, spoken from the depths of an ethnic ethos, developed over time through a cultural normalization of a hate of those in certain conditions, which then justified inhumane treatment. This officer’s statement displayed his lack of concern and care for all those incarcerated.  He was present and absent at the same time.  

While incarcerated, I learned a lot about the culture.  I learned that the culture is punitive especially to those who put in a grievance for unfair treatment at the hands of officers.  When an incarcerated person files a grievance to obtain fair treatment, they are considered a “problem inmate.” This label has consequences which are usually met with a punitive response by the H.O. boys, a prison code for Hands on Boys .  Officers who hand out beatings like it is a sport. 

The statement he made was extremely disturbing because he was born a black man.  In disbelief, I questioned if he really said those words.  Yes, he did say it, and by the confidence in which it was said you knew at once he had made the comment many times prior, it now seemed to be a personal mantra, “I am not a Nigger.”  In the next minute or so my mind flashed around and bounced back and forth between thoughts and when it finally stopped it rested on a phrase I remembered, “I am not your Negro” spoken by the Honarable James Baldwin. My mind tried to reconcile these two phrases spoken, one by a black corrections officer to a black inmate.  I believe his intent was to degrade me but on a deeper level, his words were a cover up to shield him from the racist judgements he was confronted with from some of his white counterparts on others who look just like him, just like me, just like the majority of the men in this facility. This phrase, I believe, was his inoculation, a self-constructed boundary from the negative images that our people are incarcerated.  

Although this confrontation was sad, it also inspired me to think. This moment reminded me of two quotes.  One by James Baldwin and the other by Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu.  James Baldwin stated,  

“The future of the negro in the country is precisely as dark or as bright as the future of the country…… a question he asked to white people, why is it necessary to have the nigger in the first country…… a question he asked to white people, why is it necessary to have the nigger in the first place?  The country as a whole North and South, because it is one country, for the negro there is no difference between north and south except for the way they castrate you, I am not a nigger I am a man, but if you think I am a nigger it means you need him. You created him, ask yourself why?  This statement is profound.  James Baldwin concluded that those who label a black man a “nigger” is dependent on that man or woman.  This statement is an example of the entire condition of racism. 

The second quote by Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu stated, “Where do black boys see black men?”   The answer more often than should be is in prison. The cost of educating a student in America, beginning in a Head Start, early education program is $10,000 per child/ year.  In comparison, it costs $36,299.25 per federal inmate per year. N.Y. S Deptartment of corrections $167,731.00 and N.Y.C Department of corrections spends $337,524.00  to house one individual in the prison system annually.  The duration of Head Start early education ranges from one to five years, until the child matriculates into kindergarten.  A prison term can last from a few months to a lifetime.  Head Start early education through higher education are the better options as opposed to the prison system because it costs less to educate people than to incarcerate them.  Education has the potential to develop people who add value to society.  The stated mission of the prison system is that it is designed to rehabilitate incarcerated persons and to decrease the recidivism rate.  On the contrary, the system is punitive and strips away the dignity and respect of the human being.  Statistics show that up to 85 percent of the people who are released from prison, return. 

The rapper Chuck D of hip-hop group Public Enemy has stated Hip Hop is the news media of our neighborhoods, reporting to the masses what is going on. His statement resonates with me because we are our own voice.  More than three decades later, Dr. Jawanza’s assessment is still on point, and to underscore its time proven truth this reality has been reflected in many rap songs most recently in the Yo Gotti lyrics on G Eazy’s 1942 track that said, 

“I don’t follow rules and they don’t like that, 
I was skipping school to get my sack right, 
My girl text me and asked me why I don’t text back, 

Yes my dog got out of prison and went right back, this is the 85% Dr. Kunjufu spoke of.  

How do we justify these statements of two black men, one a correction officer, that is supposed to supervise and keep the prisoners safe, and the other, one of our greatest scholars, on black people’s struggle in America when we Juxtapose them in circumstances side by side interpreted by myself a third party but a party nonetheless, like the hundreds of thousands of other black men subjected to all instances spoken of.  

How do we face and resolve this racism when the given examples and many more are so pervasive within the institution of the department of corrections? While at the same time understanding to some, it may be too provocative and instigating that the very thought of a black officer in many instances, is just as guilty of N.R.T as a white officer. The fact that this reality may be so insulting that it is unthinkable to the very people who are needed to correct it. 

The Black Canadian is the living embodiment of silence breeding contempt, and his indifference is synonymous with hatred. I would go as far as to say self-hatred. The officer is physically holding a space but is not present; he is silent which is an injustice to all around him. He himself is an offender. I believe this emphasizes the pure reality that the black man’s struggle in America cannot be compared to or understood by any other group except the black woman in America. The black woman has carried the black man in her womb. She understands the struggle because she has been made to endure it in triplicate. 

The Department of Corrections illustrated an abundance of negative images which led to the rhetorical question, “Where are the black men?” This dichotomy is far from reductive!  The issues that stem from racist policies, procedures, and laws can be considered conflated in as much as my experiences with the direct racism demonstrated in this statement “these are our mountains boy” is with the examples of N.R.T  

Some of my closest friends told me to wait until I get home and off of parole to discuss and release the context of my experience with The Department of Corrections. They were cautious because they wanted me to avoid acts of retaliation. This conversation caused me to reflect on the words spoken to me by the corrections staff when they said, “Remember everything, but for your own safety say nothing until you are released, then promise us you will come back and fix this shit.”  

Self-preservation is the first rule of nature, but if never checked the preservation of oneself can lead to the death of the many. This had left me, the me that was beat down, suffering from depression, post traumatic stress and incarceration disorders, in a constant confidence deficit and conflicted. Then one day while listening to The Honorable John Lewis, a fuck that came over me. He said “Get in trouble good trouble; When you see something do something; Get in trouble, necessary trouble; I am back and I will keep my promises.”

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Section 1

establishes legislative intent

Section 2

establishes procedures and parameters for sealing criminal convictions.

Section 3

establishes requirements for sealed records.

Section 4

establishes authority to promulgate forms, procedures, and processes for the sealing of records.

Section 5

incorporates records sealed under this legislation into exist-ing prohibitions against discrimination.

Section 6

address sealing of corrections records.

Section 7

establishes a private right of action.

Section 8

establishes severability.

Section 9

the effective date.