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Faith organizations launch coalition calling on mayor to ensure safety of those returning from Rikers Island

Photos courtesy of Tiani Jones

BY FANNI FRANKL

Faith leaders at Trinity Church have recently called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to enact immediate measures to provide safety and support for those being released from Rikers Island during the coronavirus. 

Prominent faith organizations, including The National Action Network, led by Rev. Al Sharpton; Central Synagogue; and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, launched a coalition, Faith Communities for Just Reentry, to demand the mayor to execute their three-point policy agenda. This agenda seeks to provide safety for people released from incarceration during the coronavirus, ensure that justice-involved individuals have stable homes and develop a coordinated reentry system to modify the justice system in New York City.

Trinity Church has been committed to advocating for justice reforms centered around issues such as systemic racism, housing and school reform and food insecurity. They feel it is their moral obligation to serve those they observe to be underrepresented in the justice system. Trinity Church is devoted to championing a new reentry system, starting with closing Rikers Island prison, home to New York City’s main jail complex.

Rev. Winnie Varghese of Trinity Church Wall Street, a member of Faith Communities for Just Reentry, emphasized the importance of prison reform in New York City and the effect coronavirus has had on those incarcerated.

“This is a really tragic moment that has illustrated racism in our nation and is illustrating what a horror show prisons are,” she said. “ We can’t isolate anyone from the sickness, especially the vulnerable who rely on the services the city provides. 70-75% of those previously incarcerated end up returning to jail. These cases are really falling through the cracks.”

Trinity Church encourages the idea of redemption instead of fueling a justice system focused on “isolation and punishment” with its citizens, according to Susan Shah, the Managing Director of Racial Justice at Trinity Church.

“New York is a snapshot of what is happening in the country,” she said. “We still have a system that is focused way more on punishing people who are suffering from addiction and poverty as opposed to helping them. We are committed to setting up New Yorkers to heal. We need services that do not penalize people.”

The church has since been involved with spreading their message in engaging in a number of congregations, including in Albany, advocating for policies and law about criminal justice reform. 

The mayor has not responded to these demands, but in September has made it part of his agenda to close Rikers Island by 2026 and replace it with a smaller network of  “modern and humane” borough-based facilities.

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