On September 29th, 2021, over 30 local faith leaders gathered to help improve conditions of the juvenile building at New York’s infamous Rikers Island jail complex. Introduction by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Photos by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.
Amidst a burgeoning crisis at New York’s infamous Rikers Island jail complex, more than 30 local faith leaders gathered recently to offer prayers and help rehabilitate conditions of part of the juvenile building. They came together under the leadership of Buddhist teacher Justin von Bujdoss, the executive director of chaplaincy for the city’s Department of Corrections. 2021 has been the deadliest year in the jail system in six years, with a total of 12 detainees dying at Rikers. Corrections officers have been staying home from work by the hundreds, which the city says is an abuse of the sick leave policy. The labor union says the officers’ absences are due to intolerable working conditions.
The September 29 volunteer event came as part of a deliberate effort to elevate conditions at the jail, particularly at the juvenile facility, which officials say is the most violent part of the complex. There, the faith leaders joined with some jail officials and detainees to repaint and clean a lounge area and cells. Jail officials have also assembled a task force of people currently being held in the facility to suggest improvements, plan to have more educational and cultural programs, and hope to have more volunteer events like this one.
“Some of the problems we see on Rikers Island we can see as like a tumor,” von Bujdoss said. “If you leave it alone, it grows. Bringing people onto the island helps to integrate it with the wider community. Human relationship sparks the greatest change.”
These efforts come under a new Department of Corrections commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, who took over leadership in June. Schiraldi made news at the event when, in addressing the group of volunteers and select few media present, he offered a public apology for mass incarceration, calling it “a direct outgrowth of Jim Crow slavery. It has no place in this country to this day. It has no place in a civil society.” He added, “Part of an apology is fixing a thing.”
The push for improvements is not meant to replace plans to close Rikers Island altogether, though that will be a massive undertaking for which no concrete timetable is available. However, the September event did provide an opportunity for faith leaders — including several Christian groups, a Muslim group, and a local Buddhist teacher, Leslie Booker — to see first-hand what it’s currently like inside Rikers, and to work for a day alongside about ten young men being held there. Corrections officer Rahman Telfair, who participated in the event, said he welcomed any way to make things calmer for both COs and those in their care. “Making things a little more comfortable will lower stress levels,” he said. “A horrible misconception is that we come here and think we’re just housing animals. We actually don’t want them to come back to jail.”
After the commissioner spoke, volunteers offered prayers in English, Creole, and Spanish, and Booker offered a metta blessing. Von Bujdoss added his own prayer: “May those here take seriously the sacred duty of doing the right thing.” Then everyone got to work, fixing an unfixable thing, but trying their best.
—Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Below, see a selection of A. Jesse Jiryu Davis’ photos from the event.