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Roohi Choudhry

On Island: Journeying to Penal Colonies, from Rikers to Robben

Rikers Island (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, FILE), Robben Island (Roohi Choudhry)

Roohi Choudhry | Longreads | April 2017 | 14 minutes (3,556 words)

 

The Rikers Island jail complex, built on an island just off the borough of Queens in New York City, has been described as the world’s largest penal colony. It has seen its share of controversies, many of them involving issues of race. Rikers is no exception to the disproportionate and mass incarceration of Black and Latino people in the United States.

Over the past year, an independent commission, led by the former chief judge of New York, has studied the jail, and on April 2nd, it released its recommendation: shut down Rikers. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has also backed the recommended course of action, which aims to have the last inmate depart the jail within 10 years.

In place of Rikers, the plan proposes building smaller jails inside New York City’s boroughs to eventually house half its current number of inmates. At the heart of this proposal is the view that people who are sent to jail are from the community, not “other.” This view dictates that they should stay in the community during their jail term. That is, people who have been arrested or convicted should not be cast away on an island, out of sight, mind and empathy.

It’s an idea once espoused by the writer and activist Grace Paley in “Six Days: Some Rememberings,” the story of her time in prison, during which a fellow inmate tells her: “That was a good idea… to have a prison in your own neighborhood, so you could keep in touch, yelling out the window.” It’s also an idea in keeping with racial justice: Black and brown lives matter, and cannot be so easily discarded when they are seen.

In the following essay, originally published in March 2015 on The Butter, I explore these ideas by comparing Rikers to another racially charged penal colony that has already been closed down: Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. That island was once infamous for imprisoning Apartheid-era political prisoners (including Nelson Mandela), but is now a museum and tourist destination.

By commingling my journeys to both islands in this essay, I question what it means to banish our “unwanted,” whether because of crime, politics or disease, across the sea, far from the safety of our mainland. Is this impulse truly part of our nature? Using my experiences of these two places, I confront questions of nature, both of the land and of people, and how that nature collides with questions of race. Read more…