On the night of Friday, October 1, Emily Gallagher, a member of the New York State Assembly, took a seat on the second wooden bench in the audience area of a quiet courtroom. She was there with State Legislative Senator Jabari Brisport to watch the “night court” or indictments of individuals charged with crimes in the Brooklyn Criminal Court. When the handcuffed people came before the judge, lawmakers could hear screams and crying from a room to the right of the judge. These were the screams of a man waiting to be charged – “a fitting soundtrack for our night,” Congregation member Gallagher told me grimly.
Gallagher and Brisport represent boroughs in Brooklyn that overlap slightly, ranging from Greenpoint and Williamsburg in the north to Red Hook and parts of Sunset Park in the south. They are two of a dozen elected officials, most of them progressive state lawmakers, who have prosecuted charges across New York City for the past ten days. This ongoing court observation, coordinated by Neighborhood protection service in collaboration with other public defense offices in the city, is an attempt to get public officials to learn about and publicize the role of district attorneys and judges in sending people to Rikers Island.
Eleven people have died in this infamous, sprawling prison complex this year; and nearly 6,000 people are caged there every day, many of them because the bail has been set at an amount they cannot afford. Legislators know that every time a bail is taken, an assistant district attorney (“ADA”) has requested the bail and a judge has granted that request. You want to see this process with your own eyes – to witness the bureaucratic ritual that paves the way for the horror of Rikers Island – and publicly share the cumulative impact of memorized legal declarations by ADAs on the bodies of Black and Brown New Yorkers.
Congregation member Gallagher allowed himself to be watchedD. (and then written about) Conditions on Rikers Island less than two weeks earlier when she and other lawmakers in attendance saw people piled in cages full of feces, urine, and cockroaches; forced to go to the bathroom in plastic bags; and denied food and medical care. Lawmakers even saw a man trying to kill himself before them. The sights, sounds and smells were traumatic and unforgettable; Gallagher says she hasn’t had a quiet night since then.
In contrast to the acute pain and suffering on Rikers Island (and at other prisons and prisons across the country), Nighttime dish can seem banal. It’s hard to hear. The assistant prosecutors bring the charges, referring to the numbers in the law without explanation, and decisions are made in minutes or even seconds. Still, it is these decisions, particularly those relating to bail, that maintain the continuum of violence in the criminal system – violence that begins when the police decide to arrest someone and can end in death and misery in prison or jail.