For many teenagers, going back to school means sharp pencils, fresh sneakers, and a stylish new backpack, but for the ones imprisoned on Rikers Island, it represents something they do not currently have: freedom.
Right now, more than 300 teenage New Yorkers ages 16 and 17 are behind bars in the Bronx jail complex, more than 85% are black or Latinx; more than 90% are awaiting trial, and some have not yet been convicted of any crime, except that of being poor. Because their families usually cannot pay bail, which is often as low as $250, these teenagers are locked away in one of the most infamous prisons in the United States, which Preet Bharara, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, described as having an enduring “culture of violence.”
Activists have long called for Rikers’s closure, and earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio finally announced a 10-year plan to close the jail complex — but that change would come far too late to keep black youths like Kalief Browder safe. Browder was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack in 2010, and he spent three difficult years on Rikers because he could not make his $3,000 bail. Most of his time behind bars was spent in solitary confinement, and he attempted suicide three times. He was released with no charges, but by then, it was too late. In 2015, five years after his arrest and imprisonment on Rikers, Browder killed himself. He was 21.
Browder’s story and the many others like it have since become a rallying cry for those who seek criminal justice reform and prison abolition, and it is an example of the brutal injustice of the American bail system, which disproportionately affects the city’s black and Latinx populations. With that in mind, the Bronx Freedom Fund — New York City’s first licensed charitable bail organization — is working to ensure that Browder’s fate is not repeated. Located in the South Bronx, the fund’s stated mission is “to keep people in their communities while they await trial — and to fight for a system that does the same.”
Bronx Freedom Fund’s director, Ezra Ritchin, sees the bail system as fundamentally broken and in need of major changes. “Our bail system tears apart the lives of New York’s most marginalized residents on the basis of race and class,” Ritchin tells Teen Vogue. “It forces them to endure the trauma and collateral consequences of jail stays on Rikers Island, one of the country’s most notoriously violent jails. It’s no place for anyone, especially not children, who should have the opportunity to be with their peers in the classroom.”
That is why the Bronx Freedom Fund has launched its Classrooms Not Cages campaign, which aims to raise money to bail out as many high school–age teenagers as it can by tomorrow, September 7, the first day of classes for New York City public schools. In the spirit of Mama’s Bail Out Day’s celebrated decarceration efforts, Classrooms Not Cages seeks to reunite teens who have been arrested on misdemeanor offenses with their families and communities for an important event: the crucial first day of school, which has been proved to have a demonstrable effect on a child’s future academic success.
Youth Represent, an organization that provides criminal and civil legal representation to youths 24 and under, and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a human rights advocacy organization, are equally involved in the campaign. “It’s unconscionable that we spend almost $500 per night to incarcerate a presumptively innocent child, when we should be investing in their education, communities, and future. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights is committed to ending this injustice, and working to ensure all New York’s children are free to go back to school this fall,” Sierra Ewert, a program director at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, tells Teen Vogue.
The initial idea for the campaign sprang from a conversation between the three organizations, but it gathered steam after they became aware of the plight of 17-year-old Pedro Hernandez, who was being held on $250,000 bail and was in danger of losing his college scholarship. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights paid Hernandez’s bail, and he got to go home — and now, thanks to the combined efforts of the groups, so have many other young New Yorkers.
“Since then, the Bronx Freedom Fund has paid about a dozen bails for young people on Rikers, and we’re going to help other organizations post many more,” Ritchin says. “Our city overpolices and underinvests in the black and Latinxxf communities that these children are growing up in. New York state has already agreed that we need to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, but it’s going to take them over two years to get all the 16- and 17-year-olds off of Rikers. In the meantime, we’re here to do our part to get them back home.”
Classrooms Not Cages is aiming to raise $100,000 by tomorrow, September 7, and with the deadline fast approaching, it has already met more than two-thirds of its goal.
“It’s wrong to put children in cages,” Rena Karefa-Johnson, a staff attorney for Youth Represent on a Harvard Public Service Venture Fund Fellowship, tells Teen Vogue. “It’s even worse to keep them there solely because they can’t afford to pay their way out. Incarcerating anyone — especially a young person — changes them in ways that are hard to explain, ways that are difficult to heal and ways we cannot take back. This fundraiser says that black and brown youth matter, and we will fight to protect their future.”
Donations can be made here.