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“We Can Make Justice Truly Just”: Drawing on Experiences in Rikers to Reform a Broken System



First Person | By Leviticus Mitchell | June 2017 Newsletter

“My mother, eight months pregnant, came to see me when I was in solitary at Rikers. ‘Where’s my dad?’ I asked. ‘Gone,’ she said. ‘Gone. Dead.’

I was 19. I went back to that 6-by-4-foot box, knowing my life had to change.”

Everything started to go out of control when I was 14. I was hanging with the wrong crowd. One day, several of them did something wrong. I got swept up in it.

I got sent to juvenile detention in the Bronx and Brooklyn for 2 ½  years. At 18, I ended up at Rikers Island. Rikers is like the National Geographic show where a pack of wolves sees a sheep and rips it apart. One afternoon in the cafeteria, someone grabbed a guy’s head and pummeled him. Another time, I saw a corrections officer stomping on a kid’s face, knocking out a tooth.

This was shortly before New Yorkers really began paying attention to Rikers in 2015, when Kalief Browder committed suicide after being bullied and beaten there.

For me, the lowest of the low came when I was 19. My mom told me my grandmother had died.My dad was very close to his mother, and I worried about him. I phoned two weeks later and my mom avoided every question about my dad. She came to visit and started sobbing. She told me he was gone: He had taken his own life.

My dad was my best friend. I think he was overwhelmed because I was locked up, he lost his mother, and very soon our family was going to have another mouth to feed.  I will never forgive myself for causing him so much pain.

I had been maintaining my innocence, but with this crisis I knew I had to move on. I agreed to go to an alternative-to-incarceration program run by the Fortune Society, and in exchange my case was dismissed and sealed. 

When I walked out of Rikers, I didn’t have a bank account or an ID. Luckily, my counselor at Fortune mapped out a plan for me to graduate. I moved back with my mom in the South Bronx and went to my neighborhood high school with a sense of urgency. I got my diploma in six months. 

Now I work part time as a project assistant at the Fortune Society, in the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy. I know we can make the justice system truly just. I’m helping organize a conference on criminal and social justice issues. Also, I work with clients as young as 16, teaching skills for jobs. In my free time, I see plays because I’d like to be an activist who does some acting. 

I have seven younger siblings and half-siblings. I tell them, “I don’t want to see you hanging with the wrong people, getting in the predicament I was in. Find your passion and just keep feeding that.” 

While I was locked up, one of my younger brothers started getting derailed. Not anymore—now he’s into boxing, and I’m right there with him in the ring. He’s gonna make it. 

Leviticus Mitchell, 22, works for criminal justice reform in a Fortune Society program supported by The Trust. He told his story to David L. Marcus of The Trust and Clare V. Church, a Trust fellow.



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