I want to say first that I never wanted to write this. I didn’t have my child so he could end up on Rikers and then in the Vernon C. Bain Center, aka “the Boat,” tortured and murdered. My son was Stephan Khadu, but he’s also now known as Casualty #12 — the 12th person to be killed by Rikers Island in 2021, one of the 36 people to die in the custody of the New York City Department of Correction in the past two years.

The last 16 months have been a nightmare for me. My son’s death constantly replays itself in my mind. My life has stopped. Many days, I can’t even think straight enough to go to work. I see a therapist, and have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. I’ve lived a productive life, contributing to my community, and taught my kids the same. So why must my family and others continue to go through these ripples of harm, all because our city can’t keep people safe in pre-trial custody?

My son’s mistreatment by the City of New York started well before they put him on Rikers. As a child, he was continually racially profiled by the police. He would be stopped for no reason while coming home from school, weightlifting, or football practice. They didn’t care about my boy; they just saw him as a potential threat. As an immigrant from Trinidad, I know this is not what my family expected when we came here. We thought the United States was a place where each person’s civil rights are protected. It seems like there’s a different standard for our Black and brown boys.

When he was picked up and sent to Rikers and then the Boat, I thought he would go through some things and then come home fine. That, of course, didn’t happen. I still haven’t been given answers about what led to him contracting meningitis, but I know that it is not typically a deadly disease if detected and given proper medical treatment. His friends on the inside told me how they felt about losing him, watching the DOC’s lack of care that led to my son’s death.

Many people agree Rikers Island needs to close, for good reason. But the Boat is just as bad, and needs to be closed, too, as part of the plan to close Rikers. I experienced the full force of this when I went there on July 7, 2021, the day after my son was first hospitalized. 

My first reaction when I came upon it was, “Oh, my God, it’s really a boat.” My second reaction was to the terrible smell: garbage, feces, rotten eggs. It was a maze to get into, and I thought at least once I would have to walk right into the water to get onto the facility. All the time I was thinking, If it’s like this here, what’s it like inside?

I cried all the way home after I left. The DOC never did let me see my son, and the staff gave me no care or respect. They acted like it was a joke when I said my son’s name. “DOC doesn’t go over CHS [Correctional Health Services],” one of them said. “But he’s not dead.” Within two months from then, he was dead.
When I hear our mayor talk about people incarcerated at Rikers as “violent” or “bad,” I see an active effort to dehumanize others and make it easier for New Yorkers to look away from the 36 deaths in DOC custody over the past two years. My son was a good person. He refused to be that “criminal” they expected him to be, even in a jail floating in the Long Island Sound.

Recently, I saw the mayor show some kindness to asylum seekers when he went to spend a night with them at the homeless shelter at the marina. Maybe it was mostly a press stunt, but I felt like by doing that, he was recognizing them as human beings at a basic level. 

As I saw that, my first thought was, Why don’t you get a pillow and go spend the night at Rikers? The mayor is selectively empathizing, like it’s acceptable to empathize with immigrants but not someone we call a criminal, even if they haven’t been convicted of anything. That’s what Rikers and the Boat are designed to do: make us think that some people deserve to be sent far away, forgotten, and treated with indifference and cruelty.

Just as incarcerated people need empathy, our communities most affected by incarceration need support. The mayor frequently says, “If you don’t educate, you will incarcerate,” and I agree. Jail starts with the lack of education, but so far, he’s chosen to cut funding for education, jobs, and housing, but keep the dollars flowing for policing and punishment. We need to flip this script, go upstream, and invest in communities, instead of institutions of death like the one that killed my son.

Lezandre Khadu is an advocate and a member of Freedom Agenda, one of the organizations leading the Campaign to Close Rikers.

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