Remembering Rikers Island: Nonprofits and foundations partner for reparative justice

A coalition of storytelling organizations, supported by strong philanthropic partners, is documenting and revealing the harm one of the U.S.’s most notorious jails has wrought.

Written by: Troy Price

Date: October 03, 2019

Updated Oct, 7, 2019 to include additional information about the Rikers Public Memory Project and the David Rockefeller Fund’s involvement.

A collaboration between criminal justice reform advocates, storytellers and a pair of funders has birthed a new project to support the growing movement to close New York City’s Rikers Island jail, and serves as a model for how grantmakers can support reparative justice work.

The Rikers Public Memory Project: A Community Truth and Healing Process was started by NCRP member Create Forward, JustLeadershipUSA and Humanities Action Lab to record and make visible the stories of those impacted by Rikers.

The Rikers Public Memory Project arose from the broader #CLOSErikers campaign, a coalition of more than 170 organizations across New York City who demanded in 2016 that Mayor Bill de Blasio close Rikers Island.

For more than 80 years, the jail nicknamed “Torture Island” has been synonymous with violence and corruption.

A  Justice Department report found that a “deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive” at the facility, with corrections staff routinely using excessive force and solitary confinement to control the jail population.

Within a year, de Blasio, an independent commission and everyday New Yorkers alike called for Rikers Island to be closed.

The mayor’s plan to do so still has many contentious steps ahead, but the will to build some kind of a more just alternative is mighty.

The Rikers Public Memory Project will ensure that whatever the future of Rikers Island, the city will not forget its history. The community-based, participatory initiative will answer:

  • What should we remember about Rikers Island?
  • How should we remember Rikers Island?
  • Why should we remember Rikers Island?

The project has 3 core components:

1. An oral history archive of 95 stories, which offers a people’s history of Rikers Island.

2. A mobile exhibit that documents the history and impact of Rikers Island.

3. A public health initiative that will research the public health consequences of Rikers Island on the neighborhoods that have been most impacted in order to make the case for reparative justice and a reinvestment in the communities most harmed.

The idea is to use this process of collective memory as a strategic organizing tool in the movement to close Rikers Island.

The Nathan Cummings Foundation provided the project with a planning grant, which allowed the coalition to get input from community members, form an advisory council and solidify the partnership between the 3 organizations.

In providing the time and resources for the project to better collaborate with this variety of stakeholders, the partners were able to be more intentional in designing the project than they would have been with less flexible funding.  

The David Rockefeller Fund is investing in the building of an oral history archive that will include 95 stories of people impacted by Rikers and the design of a mobile exhibit on the history and impact of Rikers.

The fund has introduced the project to other potential funders and networks and invested in its success beyond the money it has contributed to the collaboration.

This holistic investment in the work means not just that the immediate project is funded. It also provides oxygen for the vision of using a collective memory process to pursue reparative justice beyond the #CLOSErikers campaign. 

Funders interested in similar practices should check out NCRP’s Power Moves sections on sharing power and wielding power.

Troy Price is NCRP’s former membership and fundraising intern. Follow @NCRP on Twitter.

Image by Tim Rodenberg, used under Creative Commons license.

NCRP members