At the foot of the bridge to Rikers Island in Queens, New York, this past Saturday, Akeem Browder turned his back on the crowd he was speaking to, and addressed the many police officers that were standing guard.
"The Department of Corrections is corrupt. They dehumanize our brothers at a pay rate of $38 an hour. Where's the officer who beat my brother? Is he here? Is he here?," he said.
No officers stood up to take claim for the many abuses done to Akeem's brother, Khalief Browder, who was wrongfully arrested at the age of 16, spent three years awaiting trial at Rikers Island, two of those in solitary confinement, and ended up committing suicide after his release in June 2015.
Since then, Browder has become a martyr in the push to reform, and potentially close, New York City's largest and most controversial jail. Saturday's march and rally was the latest in a series planned by the #CLOSERikers, a group formed this past April.
Levele Pointer is 48-years-old, and he's been to Rikers twice, most recently for an accused drug sale. He took to the streets last weekend to voice his concerns.
"The first time I was on Rikers Island, I was almost raped. I had the tendons in my hand cut. I had my ribs broken. These are the kinds of things that happen on a regular basis," he says.
It's part of a "culture of violence" endemic to Rikers, according to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, one that changes you for good.
"You're working on instincts of survival now," Pointer said, echoing Bahrara. "[You think], 'This is the only way I'm gonna survive. This is the only way I'm going to talk to my children is if I bust somebody in the head.' And so by the time you go through a year, two years of that, it's like an indoctrination period that changes you from a normal person to this, I hate to say it, but this real animal."
Pointer continues: "It's like going to war, coming back from Vietnam, you're totally screwed. When I came home, I didn't know — I didn't know that I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I didn't know that. I didn't know that for years. Finally I get [sic] diagnosed and it makes sense to me. I didn't even realize how much my mentality had changed. Like Rikers Island is a place that manufactures criminal mentality. And when we're going into these places, it's just, it's just killing us."
In response to the growing chorus of voices, New York City and New York State have enacted a series of reforms, including adding new surveillance cameras, reducing the use of solitary confinement, adding hundreds of new officers with body cameras, and even federal monitoring. And there are signs that its working. A federal reassessment of Rikers released in May found that there do seem to be some improvements, noting a drop of 17 percent of assaults on staff.
But on Saturday, many activists conveyed similar sentiments — that the facility is beyond repair; that it's a forgotten warehouse cut off from the rest of the city.
"I mean there have been changes made, but I don't know how much better it is," said Paul Prestia, a lawyer for Khalief Browder's family. "We're still hearing those stories, we're still hearing those abuses, we're still hearing about sexual assaults and violence against women. And if it is in fact not improving after all the 'changes.' Maybe the best thing to do is just close it down. It's too broken, too sick."
Prestia also represents Candie Hailey. Like Browder, Hailey spent three years at Rikers in pretrial detention, only to be found not guilty. Most of her time was spent in solitary confinement, where she attempted to commit suicide eight times.
"I came out today because I'm a solitary survivor," Hailey said. "It's amazing I'm still here. Sometimes I don't believe I'm still here."
Hailey is in her early 30s now, and has been diagnosed with borderline character disorder, mood disorder, and anti-social personality disorder. In a suicide note in 2014, Hailey wrote: "I can't endure this abuse evermore. The truth will come to light, while death shall set me free."
She is currently facing a felony charge for criminal mischief for breaking a chair in jail.
"I have memories every day — just using a lavatory is a problem because I had to hold my urine for so many hours being in solitary confinement that I damaged my uterus," Hailey says. "And not only that, even a bottle of water brings back memories because I was denied water for so long. Even taking a shower brings back memories because I was denied a shower so long. I would be in there for days without a shower, days without recreation, days without, months, without contacts to the outside world. So sometimes I feel nervous about being around crowds. I feel nervous about being around officers. And I was very nervous about coming here today because it's so close to Rikers, I was just afraid that I was going to get arrested again, or beat in front of everybody."
Still, Hailey, like many of the others gathered on Saturday, feel an obligation to get out and go to the Rikers Island Bridge, to have their story heard.
"The Candie before was outgoing, outspoken, fun, loving. Now the Candie now is, I like to be inside, I don't like being outdoors, I don't like speaking, I don't like crowds, but I know that Khalief Browder lives inside of me and I'm fighting to tell his testimony as well. So I can't be selfish. I have to tell his story, and I have to tell my story."