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At Rikers, Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Rebecca McCray,
Former Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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July 13, 2011

Every cartographer has to leave something out. Street names, landmarks, tiny inlets — a two-dimensional rendering of our world can’t possibly include everything. This kind of selective exclusion reminds me of a specific khaki-colored mass of unmarked land on a map that I often find myself puzzling over during my commute. It hangs on the wall of every train car in New York City’s subway system, and I suspect a few of the other millions of people navigating this city glance at it occasionally, too.

On that map, a smallish blob of unlabeled land rests just northwest of LaGuardia Airport in the waters between Queens and the Bronx. This island is not uncharted territory — this is New York City, after all; we know what we’ve got and we’ve packed every inch of it to the brim. This is especially true of Rikers Island, that unmarked land, which is home to 10 jails that currently house over 13,000 people. Most of those people are awaiting trial behind bars because they cannot afford their bail; others will be sent further away to prisons upstate. Since 1935, we’ve kept the people we’d rather not think about on this forgettable piece of land, which previously served the city as a floating trash heap before becoming a jail. Poetic, isn’t it?

Rikers Island isn’t alone in its invisibility. Most of our country’s thousands of prisons and jails are tucked away on isolated, undesirable plots of land where the 2.3 million people kept in them are more easily forgotten. For those of us who don’t have family or friends in jail or prison, it’s easier this way — we can think of them less if they’re kept in places to which we’d rather not travel (or in the case of the map on the train, places that can easily be forgotten because they go unmarked). For prison developers, the cheap cost of land and lack of conflict to contend with when building in economically depressed, rural areas has a unique appeal.

As someone who grew up in a state full of towns so tiny they couldn’t all make the map, I understand the need to pick and choose. But a country that incarcerates one in every 100 of its people has a responsibility to make those millions of people visible. Perhaps something as minute as a map on a train isn’t a bad place to start.

We can’t afford to go about our lives only acknowledging the pretty places on our maps, and the people who live in the places deemed worthy of naming. This invisibility is inhumane. It is negligent. And it is expensive. Between our state and federal systems, taxpayers spend $70 billion per year on prisons and corrections. Wouldn’t you like to know where that money is going?

The next time you’re on the subway, take a look at the map on the wall of the train car. Take a minute to consider that bit of land next to LaGuardia. Consider the places you aren’t trying to get to, where the trains won’t take you. The map might have you believe it’s nameless, but it’s not — and neither are the thousands of people stowed away on it. They have families and stories and lives in places that are named. And it is our responsibility to make the invisible visible again by remembering them; by acknowledging that island and naming it on our maps.

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