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As Protest Gears Up, Over 100 Ford Fellows Criticize Ford Foundation President’s Support of Prisons to Replace Rikers [UPDATED]

In the open letter, they write, “The evidence is clear, more jails – no matter how ‘humane’ – lead to higher rates of incarceration, perpetuate the disruption of families (especially in communities of color), and are harmful to human health.”

A view of Rikers Island prison (center left) which is connected to Queens by a bridge and sits adjacent to LaGuardia airport in the East River. (photo via Doc Searls/Flickr)

This week, prison abolition activists have been mobilizing in protest of the Ford Foundation after its president, Darren Walker, published a controversial blog, “In Defense of Nuance.” The post focused heavily on New York City’s plan to close the Rikers Island prison complex — which is notorious for its inhumane conditions and unjust detentions — and instead build four smaller detention facilities. The plan has been heavily critiqued by activists who demand the reexamination and overhaul of mass incarceration. Grassroots abolitionist organizations like No New Jails have been among the plan’s biggest opponents, calling it a harmful continuation of mass incarceration’s abuses. Today, over 100 former and current Ford Fellows repudiated Walker’s request that prison abolitionists and city policymakers come together to create “a journey away from the extremes.”

Walker, who sits on the Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, writes, “I am proud of [the Commission’s] work to propose reasonable, workable solutions to shutter this warehouse of inhumanity [Rikers] and to end its long history of abuse and injustice. This was heavy lifting, full of competing interests and complexity — of nuance.”

“Without question, as a community, we will need to hold replacement jails to account, especially in light of the negligent affronts to human dignity at other New York City jails,” he continues. “And, more broadly, we must work together to address the root causes of mass incarceration — to develop and deploy a more just approach to criminal justice. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of progress. If we skip steps, we risk creating a new kind of gap — a gap of missed opportunities and lost alliances.”

Days after the blog was released, Angela Y. Davis participated in an intergenerational conversation about “catalyz[ing] change within the criminal justice system” at Riverside Church in Manhattan.

During the Q&A, a member of No New Jails NYC and Take Back the Bronx asked what activists should do to combat the “strong position that the Ford Foundation has taken … to close Rikers Island and to build new jails.”

Responding to the question, Davis said that with Walker’s blog post, the Ford Foundation, “which is known to have funded so many progressive organizations and scholars, legitimizes this effort to completely cancel out the impact of calling for the closing of Rikers Island.” She urged the staging of a demonstration, adding, “This is the kind of work we will have to do if we want to continue to make abolitionist ideas available to masses of people in this country.”

In the following days, grassroots organizers in New York City heeded the call of the historic activist, announcing a protest outside of the Ford Foundation on Friday, September 27 at 10:45am.

Today, over 100 former and current Ford Fellows released an open letter addressed to Walker, asserting: “[W]e take issue with the implicit characterization of organizations, activists, and advocates fighting for prison abolition as ‘extremists’ and ‘ideological purists,’ while situating those who support building new jails as taking a reasoned or ‘nuanced’ approach, particularly as you sit on ​the Commission that developed the proposal.”

They continue:

The evidence is clear, more jails – no matter how “humane” – lead to higher rates of incarceration, perpetuate the disruption of families (especially in communities of color), and are harmful to human health. For these reasons, we join the directly impacted organizers and their family members mobilizing against new jails in New York City, and the over 220 public health advocates and professionals who wrote ​a letter​ in support of the ​No New Jails​ campaign. Indeed, reformers nationally call for the end of prison systems that purport to create better conditions – because they are still prisons.

The group is encouraging Ford Fellows to add their names to the letter using a Google Form. Read the letter, reproduced in full, below:

Dear President Walker:

We the undersigned are Ford Fellows and allies. We engage modes of research and scholarship that work to disrupt the structures of oppression and exploitation disproportionately impacting Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and other marginalized and under-resourced communities.

We write this letter to register our collective repudiation of your recent blog post, ​In Defense of Nuance. Specifically, we take issue with the implicit characterization of organizations, activists, and advocates fighting for prison abolition as “extremists” and “ideological purists,” while situating those who support building new jails as taking a reasoned or “nuanced” approach, particularly as you sit on ​the Commission that developed the proposal.

Taking a stance against building more prisons is well supported by the compendium of complex and nuanced social science research. The evidence is clear, more jails – no matter how “humane” – lead to higher rates of incarceration, perpetuate the disruption of families (especially in communities of color), and are harmful to human health. For these reasons, we join the directly impacted organizers and their family members mobilizing against new jails in New York City, and the over 220 public health advocates and professionals who wrote ​a letter​ in support of the ​No New Jails​ campaign. Indeed, reformers nationally call for the end of prison systems that purport to create better conditions – because they are still prisons. In the words of Shandre Delaney, Director of ​Human Rights Coalition Fed Up!​ and mother of a son who spent ten years in solitary confinement, “​It doesn’t matter that you trade in the old dungeon for a new dungeon. The brutality, disparities and inhumanity of incarceration will still exist.”

In your post you also discuss climate change, Indigenous communities, development, capitalism and new jails in a manner that misses the complex and nuanced ways in which these issues are interrelated. Some of us are Indigenous scholars who joined the water protectors at Standing Rock, many of whom were targeted by the police and incarcerated for protecting the lands and waters of the ​Oceti Sakowin. ​These protectors were similarly characterized as being in the way of “progress” and as extremists. Indigenous families and children have also been disproportionately targeted and incarcerated on what is now the U.S., Mexico border. For all these reasons and more, Indigenous water and land protectors have long worked with prison abolition movements and against predatory capitalism. We are not “open to development” that entails the building of new jails, because we understand mass incarceration as one of the cases that is, to use your words, “so morally odious and corrupt” that they defy nuance.

In closing we contend that ‘no new jails’ is justified based on decades of relevant research and activism. Carrington Keyes, who works for the ​Abolitionist Law Center​ in Pittsburgh after being imprisoned for 19 years, compared the “new jails” proposed in your statement to, “selling mass incarceration by dressing it up.” ​As a society, we need to support prisoners and their families, ​not by being “patient” and “inclusive” in pursuing incremental change that leaves offending structures unchallenged,​ but by doing the hard, visionary work of building alternative solutions to a carceral system that has never served in the interest of our communities.

As such, we appreciate the work that the Foundation did to advocate for the closure of Rikers Island. This is an important departure from ​Ford’s legacy​. Moving forward, we want to state categorically that new jails do not serve the aims of justice – or the mission of our sponsor, the National Academies, and its support of science and research-driven policy. Instead, we urge you to join the collective voices of formerly incarcerated organizers and their families, public health professionals and advocates, and community-engaged researchers calling for investment in “community based, trauma informed, low-threshold clinical, therapeutic harm reduction and housing programs that allow community members to thrive and live with dignity” (​Public Health Letter, 2019​). In taking this step, we ask that you retract your statement and pledge no more Ford Foundation money toward the construction of new jails.

Sincerely,

  • Sandy Grande, Ford postdoc (2000), Senior Ford (2019)
  • Meredith Alberta Palmer, Ford predoc (2015), Ford dissertation (2019)
  • Jasmine Salters, Ford dissertation (2014)
  • Carla Willard, Ford dissertation (1992), Ford postdoc (2002)
  • Javier Arbona, Ford dissertation (2011)
  • Shandre Delaney, ​Journalist, Director of Human Rights Coalition ​FED UP!
  • Justin Helepololei, Ford predoc (2016)
  • Carrington Keyes, ​Jailhouse Lawyer, Member of the Dallas 6, & ​Paralegal, Abolitionist Law Center
  • Christina Sharpe, Ford postdoc (2001)
  • Rebeca Burciaga, Ford Dissertation Fellow, 2007
  • Adriana Estill, Ford predoc, 1992
  • Robin L. Turner, Ford Foundation Diversity Pre-Dissertation Fellowship, 2001-06
  • Martín Alberto Gonzalez, Ford predoc (2017)
  • Rafael Vizcaino, Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, 2019-2020
  • Ruby C. Tapia, Ford Predoctoral Fellow 1996
  • Donovan Anderson, Dissertation Fellowship 2010
  • Elise A. Mitchell, Ford Predoctoral Fellow, 2014
  • Arturo Nevárez, Ford dissertation (2019)
  • Déborah Berman Santana, Ford Predoctoral Fellowship (1988-91)
  • Prof. Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, Ford Dissertation Fellowship 1992
  • William Martinez, Ford Dissertation 2013
  • Kency Cornejo, Ford Dissertation Fellow, 2013
  • Django Paris, Ford Dissertation Fellow (2006)
  • Rebecca Wanzo, Ford Foundation Predoc 99, Postdoc 06
  • Chris Johnson, Ford predoc (2009)
  • Andrew Jolivette, Ford Postdoctoral Fellow 2004-2005
  • Elizabeth Pérez, Ford Dissertation Fellow, 2006–2007
  • Koritha Mitchell, Ford Diss (2004), Ford Postdoc (2007)
  • Danika Medak-Saltzman, Predoctoral 2002, Dissertation 2007, Postdoc 2015
  • Jorell A. Meléndez-Badillo, Ford Dissertation Fellow (2016-2017)
  • Christopher Perreira, Ford Postdoctoral Fellow, 2017-2018
  • Claudio Santiago Rivera, Predoctoral (2011)
  • Jimmy Patiño, Ford Predoc (2005), Postdoc (2013)
  • Rihana Mason, Ford Predoctoral (2000)
  • Alexandrina Agloro, Ford Postdoctoral Fellow 2018
  • Michael Reyes, Ford Predoctoral Fellowship 2015
  • Allie Martin, Ford Dissertation, 2019
  • Hilary Malson, Ford Predoctoral Fellow 2019
  • Taneisha Means, Ford Postdoc, 2019
  • Leisy Abrego, Ford Dissertation 2005; Postdoc 2013
  • Joo Ok Kim, Ford Dissertation Fellow, 2012
  • Fernando Montero, Ford Dissertation Fellow, 2018-2019
  • Camilla Hawthorne, Ford Predoctoral Fellowship 2014
  • Katherine Maldonado, Ford predoc 2019
  • Ebony Coletu, Ford Predoctoral
  • Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Ford Predoctoral (1996-1999), Dissertation (1999), Postdoc (2003) 
  • Gina Marie Pitti, Ford Postdoctoral Fellowship 2005-2006
  • Wayne Yang, University of California San Diego
  • Leslie Patrick, Ford Fellow 1994
  • Bianet Castellanos, Ford Predoctoral Fellow 1996, Ford Postdoctoral Fellow 2006
  • Leslie Patrick, Ford Postdoctoral Fellowship, 1994-95
  • Laura Isabel Serna, Ford Dissertation 2004
  • Whitney Pirtle, Ford Postdoctoral Award 2018/2019
  • Brandy Nālani McDougall, Ford Postdoc 2013
  • Regina Freer, Ford Predoctoral Fellow 1990, Dissertation 1994
  • Magally A. Miranda Alcázar, Ford Predoctoral Fellow ’19
  • Bayley J. Marquez, Ford Dissertation 2018
  • Sarah Whitt, Ford Dissertation, 2019
  • Eve Tuck, Ford Foundation Postdoc (2011-2012)
  • Amrit Trewn, Ford Predoc 2016
  • Ellen D. Wu, Ford Postdoctoral 2010
  • Teresa Delgado, Ford Predoctoral 1991-1994
  • Katrina Roundfield, Ford Predoc (2009), Dissertation (2012), Postdoc (2016)
  • Nevette Bailey, Ford Dissertation 2016
  • Lilia Raquel Rosas, Ford Dissertation Fellow 2005
  • Gillian Johns, Ford Dissertation Fellowship (1997)
  • Melina Pappademos, Ford Dissertation
  • Albert Ponce, Ford Dissertation 2013
  • Marisela R. Chávez, Ford Postdoctoral Fellowship, 2006
  • Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel, Ford Fellow Predoc 1990, Dissertation 1996,
  • Rudy P. Guevarra Jr., Ford Dissertation (2005), Senior Ford (2018)
  • Inés Hernández-Ávila, Ford postdoc, 1991
  • Yomaira C. Figueroa, Ford Postdoctoral Fellow 2017-2018
  • Ileana M. Rodríguez Silva, Ford Postdoctoral Fellow 2008
  • Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming, Ford Predoctoral Fellowship (2004)
  • Sara Clarke Kaplan, Ford Predoctoral Fellow, 2001-4
  • Shirley Thompson, Ford Predoctoral Fellow (1995-1998)
  • Clint Carroll, Ford Postdoc, 2013-2014
  • Krystal Strong, Ford Dissertation Fellow (2013)
  • Amelia Simone Herbert, Ford Predoc 2016
  • Rico Kleinstein Chenyek, Ford Predoctoral Fellow, 2014-17
  • Earl J. Edwards, Ford Predoctoral Fellowship (2019)
  • Ly T Nguyen, University of California, San Diego
  • Anna Haskins, Ford Dissertation Fellowship 2012
  • Carlos Medina, Ford Pre-doc (2017)
  • Caroline Gabbard Sinavaiana, Ford Dissertation Fellow 1988
  • Kidada E. Williams, 2002 Dissertation and 2008 Postdoctoral
  • Rosamond S. King, Ford Predoctoral Fellowship, 1997-2001
  • Sylvia Chan-Malik, Ford Dissertation Year Fellow, 2006-07
  • Erick Castellanos, Ford Dissertation Fellowship (2001-2002)
  • Rodolfo Rosales, PreDoc 1995 and Post Doc 1992-93
  • Jonnelle Walker, Predoctoral Fellowship 2019
  • Shana E. Rochester, Ford Predoctoral Fellow (2014)
  • Belisa González, Dissertation 2006
  • Eric A. Vázquez, Dissertation, 2013-2014
  • Rosalie Rolón Dow, Ford Dissertation Fellow (2001), Ford Postdoctoral Fellow (2008)
  • Socorro Castañeda-Liles, Ph.D., Ford Dissertation Fellowship
  • Deborah E. McDowell, Ford Fellow 1982
  • Cynthia A. Young, Dissertation Fellow (1997), Postdoctoral Fellow (2002)
  • Evelyn Valdez-Ward, Ford Predoctoral 2017
  • Cristina Pérez Jiménez, Ford Postdoctoral Fellowship 2019-2020
  • Rosemary Ndubuizu, Ford Dissertation Fellow
  • Neil Foley, Ford Postdoc 1992
  • Andrea Negrete, Ford Predoctoral Fellow, 2016
  • Pedro E. Nava, Ford Dissertation Fellowship, 2010
  • Ana Ramirez, Ford Predoctoral 2019

UPDATE, Friday, September 27, 10:20am ET: Ford Foundation President Darren Walker has published a response to New York City’s criminal justice community, which is organizing the protest at the Ford Foundation today. He writes: “The Ford Foundation is unwavering in its commitment to ending mass incarceration. We envision a world where people are not locked up in cages, treated inhumanely, and stripped of their dignity. To work toward this goal we support a range of initiatives and organizations working to eradicate the harmful footprint of mass incarceration and protect and promote the humanity and dignity of all people.” He adds a personal note, “As a black man with many family members who have been ensnared in the system, I know, personally, that the distance between justice and injustice is perilously, painfully short—especially as a result of entrenched discrimination and economic inequality. I am proud of our work—all of it—to reform a discriminatory system that treats millions of people so unfairly.”

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