Barbaric conditions in Rikers built into capitalist ‘justice’ system

October 4, 2021

Below is a statement issued Sept. 20 by Róger Calero, Socialist Workers Party candidate for mayor of New York.

The brutal conditions at Rikers Island are an indictment of the workings of the capitalist system and how the U.S. rulers use their prisons to protect their class interests. 

Rikers has been one of the country’s most notorious jails over its 90-year history. The barbaric methods employed there — solitary confinement, overcrowding of inmates in small windowless cells, lack of adequate medical care, mistreatment of mentally ill inmates, general filthy and inhumane conditions, and brutality — are not unique to this jail, however. 

Neither is the punishment inflicted upon tens of thousands of workers and working-class youth in this jail and across New York state who languish in prison awaiting trial — often for years — not convicted of committing a crime.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and other liberal politicians, like Gov. Kathy Hochul, are using the crisis at Rikers to push their “vision” of a “more humane” prison system. But, despite “bail reform” measures and calls to end reincarceration for minor parole violations, the numbers imprisoned after an initial drop have been steadily climbing back up to previous levels. Even in the middle of the COVID pandemic, of the 31,000 federal prisoners who applied for compassionate release after the virus began spreading through the prisons, the prison bureau approved a mere 36 in 2020! 

The current crisis at the Rikers Island complex is not about understaffing, nor is the “solution” hiring more guards. Prisons under capitalism are a reproduction of the social relations of the dog-eat-dog capitalist world. It’s no secret to the millions of working people who have been incarcerated or have a relative, neighbor or friend who was thrown behind bars. As in capitalist society in general, the rulers’ prisons foster violence, gangs, the drug trade and racism. The Socialist Workers Party candidates don’t need “fact-finding” trips to Rikers to learn about this.  

The root of these barbaric conditions is found in the very reason prisons exist under capitalism — to defend the prerogatives, private property and profit system of the ruling families. To break the physical, moral and mental integrity of the millions of working people that get snarled up in the rulers’ so-called justice system. To remind working people of what awaits us if we don’t accept their inhuman and irrational system of capitalism. For the capitalist rulers, the working class is a criminal class, whose crime is their willingness to fight for a different kind of social order.

There is no such a thing as a fairer and more humane justice system under capitalism. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the uprising at Attica, where inmates protested conditions that included chronic overcrowding, one shower a week, one roll of toilet paper a month. Their main slogan was, “We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.” 

They demanded an end to brutality, to racism, to censorship of their mail, as well as wretched and demeaning living conditions. The response of the state was tear gas and a barrage of gunfire. Police fired indiscriminately, killing 29 prisoners and 10 hostages and wounding 89 more. 

Only struggles by inmates to bring the conditions they face to light and demand change, backed by solidarity from workers outside prison bars, can begin to make life more bearable. And to defend hard-won rights like the presumption of innocence and to a speedy trial, as well as protections against being railroaded under the notorious plea bargain system.

The Socialist Workers Party campaign calls for an end to solitary confinement, to overcrowding and abuse, and for medical care and culture. Workers behind bars remain workers, with worth. We demand improved conditions for all.

We join in defending the right of prisoners to have access to books and periodicals of their choosing so they can think for themselves and be part of the struggles to oppose, and ultimately eradicate, this system of exploitation and oppression. 

More workers are repelled by the conditions imposed by the capitalist rulers on working people — in and out of prison — and are looking for ways to resist. Many of them will be inspired by revolutionary leaders of the working class like Malcolm X, who turned his back on his youth as a hustler, thief and pimp, and used his time in prison to teach himself the “discipline to read, to study, to work  at thinking about what he was reading,” wrote Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party in Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power. It contributed to him becoming one of “the most truly educated, capable revolutionary politicians of our times.”

The working class as a class is capable of that transformation, as we come together to fight, no matter “what color you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth,” as Malcolm X pointed out. This is the only real road to dismantle the capitalist rulers’ criminal “justice” system.