Rikers Island will no longer exist after 2027. By law, New York City will close Rikers and replace it with four also controversial borough-based jails. Some will remember Rikers by its headlines — dead inmates, failed attempts at reform, negligence. 

A sign at a rally to shut down Rikers in February 2022. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Anna Pastoressa, who had a son incarcerated for six years, remembers bed sheet scraps. Her son, Jairo Pastoressa, cut and transformed them into canvases then became exhibit-worthy art pieces after he used Kool-Aid and coffee beans to make paint. The bed sheet scraps, and the distraction it provided, is how Pastoressa said her son survived Rikers and that’s how she’ll remember the island. 

After Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to close Rikers in 2018, three organizations, Freedom Agenda, Create Forward and the Humanities Action Lab, came together to collaborate on how Rikers should be remembered. Together they created the Rikers Public Memory Project, a community-based, participatory initiative that seeks to think through ways to collectively remember Rikers Island when it closes for good. 

“The organizations spent a year doing community engagement, going around and having town hall meetings with the people that Rikers have directly impacted about how it should be remembered,” says Regina Campbell, director of oral history and engagement for the Rikers Public Memory Project. “From these conversations, the Rikers Public Memory Project was born. It was clear that the community did not want a place like Alcatraz, which you can visit and is a tourist spot. It was important for them to create a space for education, healing and justice.” 

Remember, repair, redress 

Through the conversations with the community, the project was shaped into three pillars: 

  • To remember: the project’s oral history component, where people who lived in Rikers and their families can share their stories. 
  • To repair: this will bring art and community healing workshops into communities through a multimedia exhibit.
  • To redress: this will include the project’s reparative justice initiative, which will document the public health impacts of Rikers and advocate for reinvestment in the communities it harmed. 

“Our vision is to collect and make visible the stories of the people most impacted by Rikers,” Campbell added. “We are trying to mobilize action toward repairing its generational harms. We want to interrupt some of these dehumanizing narratives about people harmed by Rikers. That is the focus of our project.”

Rikers Island

The truth comes out when you hear it from the people who lived through it

One of the most important elements of the project is its oral history component.

“We want to make sure that as we preserve records, history is told through the voices of those directly impacted,” Campbell says. “We want to ensure that the people who drive the narrative are not the city or the Department of Correction — the people that have done harm. We want to be careful about who is driving the narrative, who is telling the history.”

This is important for Pastoressa, as she wants people to know that Rikers did not only impact the inmates, but also their families. When she would call her son, she didn’t have to ask about what it was like inside because she could hear it through the phone.

“I would hear screaming and yelling in the background. Then, he would tell me, ‘Oh my God, I have to go. They’re fighting.’ I knew something really bad was going on there and I didn’t have to understand the details,” Pastoressa says. “After that, I wouldn’t hear from him for three or four days. He would later tell me it was because they were on lockdown.” 

She believes it’s important that people at Rikers and their families speak up because when Rikers closes, she doesn’t want those stories to be thrown away. People deserve to know what happens inside.

“Even though they were abused, these people are not people to be thrown away. They were and are humans. Some may have made a mistake, others didn’t make a mistake. Some didn’t deserve to be there at all. For whatever reason, they ended up at Rikers,” she says.

One of Jairo Pastoressa’s paintings from his time at Rikers. Photo: @freelinkslicka

Marion Rodriguez, who was incarcerated at Rikers for a year in 2002 believes that people should learn about Rikers from the people that were directly affected by it. 

“There’s plenty of stories and stuff written about Rikers. Writers, historians, scholars, a lot of people have a lot to say, and it’s all appreciated. But the truth comes out when you hear it from the people who have lived experience,” she says. “That’s when the truth comes out.”

For Rodriguez, the Rikers Public Memory Project has been an outlet to claim her personal power and remove stigmas people have of people like her. 

“This project helps people like me, a formerly incarcerated person, to have a voice. It also gives me a wider audience rather than speaking to just each other,” she says.

‘They need to know everything that went on there.’

In 2024, the Rikers Public Memory Project will have an exhibition that will make its way around New York City and teach New Yorkers about what went on in Rikers. 

“One of the elements of the exhibit is an audio bus tour that will allow people to experience what it was like to cross that bridge and go over to Rikers Island, what it was like to go through intake,” Campbell says. “This will bridge the physical separation that Rikers Island had from the rest of New York City.”

This interactive event as part of the exhibition is very important for people like Pastoressa. 

“They need to know everything that went on there. The [Q100] is a sad bus. It was a bus full of mothers and wives and daughters of incarcerated men. Sometimes men that were related to incarcerated women,” Pastoressa says. “They need to know that New York City is the capital of the world, but it was home to the worst penal colony in the United States.” 

People will also see a memorial quilt that will honor those who died at Rikers. The project features portraits that include a barcode that allows visitors to listen to that people’s oral history and hear their story in their own voice. 

Lastly, the exhibit will feature a section called “I Survived Rikers by…”that will show items which helped people get through their time at Rikers. Like Pastoressa’s son’s art, such items humanized people’s Riker’s experience.

For Rodriguez, finding ways to feel beautiful helped her survive Rikers, she believes that the creative solutions to beauty that the women would come up with should be remembered. 

“I love the fact that I met so many creative people and we found ways to survive. [For example] threading our eyebrows. We would take off threads from linen, bed sheets and do eachothers eyebrows,” she says. “We would use tampons as hair rollers, people would make statues out of soaps. I met all kinds of beautiful and talented people. Even in jail, creativity would come out.”

While there were glimmers of humanity during her time at Rikers, Rogriguez hopes people remember the damage it did to people like her.

“They should remember all of us who experienced trauma. We should count by the seconds in a day,” she says. “They should remember that Rikers is a trauma filled place, and we were traumatized every second we had to live there.”

Art was what helped Jairo Pastorossa survive his time at Rikers. Photo: @freelinkslicka

History can’t repeat itself

“It’s not just memory that’s important, but it is important to ensure that it continues not to happen. You have to remember the past to not repeat the past,” Campbell says. 

The Rikers Public Memory Project website also provides a glimpse of what the jail was like during the pandemic’s peak and the history of the overall history of the island. Short podcast episodes will also be available for people to hear formerly incarcerated peoples’’ stories. Campbell says that the more people learn the more they can advocate for change.

“We can all play a part in interrupting these dehumanizing narratives. As soon as you learn what’s happening at Rikers, speak about it. There are things you could do to make an impact and change the harm being done,” she says. “You can support our project, call your city council member or do advocacy work. Just educate people on what’s happening. These are things that individuals can do to interrupt the narratives and repair the harm that is happening.”

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