Lessons of loss from Rikers: The inhuman jail must be closed in 2027
On July 2, 2022, my life changed forever. My youngest child, Justin Baerga, was shot and killed in Richmond Hill, Queens, at his own birthday party. I had just passed by to drop off my homemade empanadas, his favorite, when a group of young men ambushed them. Three people were shot, but only my son’s injuries were fatal. He was just 24 years old.
The pain of losing my son has been unimaginable. But it deepens my pain to hear Mayor Adams talking about creating a “Plan B” to closing Rikers, and pointing to shootings like those that killed my son as the reason. New York has a plan in place to close Rikers by 2027, reduce the city’s capacity to jail human beings and instead emphasize diversion and alternative programs proven to promote public safety. For the mayor to move us backwards at a moment like this would be catastrophic.
As a mother, as a youth counselor, and as a New Yorker, I know that funneling more young men through a place like Rikers will only perpetuate cycles of violence and trauma in our communities. If we want truly safe communities, like I do, we have to stop looking just at the harm a person has done, and instead look at the root cause, and start to address their untreated trauma.
My son had been to Rikers, too. He experienced the inhumanity of Rikers firsthand. According to Eric Adams, that makes my son “a bad person.” He would never have said that if he met my Justin.
Justin was the type of person who wanted to make everyone smile. He was the friend everyone turned to for support, and he didn’t turn away from anyone in need — like the men who slept by the Van Wyck Expressway near our house, who he used to bring food to.
But Justin also had mental health challenges, and some learning difficulties. His father died of cancer when Justin was seven years old, and I could see how hard it hit him. Justin needed counseling at school, and robust community-based mental health treatment as he got older. But as a young man of color growing up in an under-resourced community, over policing was the norm and real quality services were scarce. I fought so hard to find the support he needed, but by age 11 he’d been arrested at school. It was just the start of him being targeted by the criminal legal system.
While I don’t know the young men who killed my son, I know this in my heart: there are no bad kids. And kids grow up to be adults. Rikers is filled with grown men who have never been given the opportunity to process the trauma in their lives, and boys who think they’re men because they’ve had to grow up too fast.
When we send people to Rikers, we throw them away. We have given up on them. They are put in a place where it is impossible to become a better person; a place where they are going to have to fight for their lives everyday. I think the mayor would agree that it would be wrong for Justin’s friends or family to retaliate with violence against the people who killed him. To me, Rikers is the same thing — it’s responding to violence with violence, and it’s not working. I realize there will be some harms that aren’t prevented, with consequences serious enough to result in incarceration for some period of time. But Rikers isn’t a solution for anyone.
Sometimes, I wish I didn’t feel the way I do. I can’t help but to think about the young men who took his life. I don’t know their pain, but I wonder what happened to them, that they thought it was OK to take a life? I want them to know that they are human beings and they can be forgiven. If they don’t believe that, why would they ever change their ways? If they come home, years from now, no more healed but far more hardened, who wins? Not me, not them, and not our communities.
The mayor says he wants to go “upstream” to address problems and that he wants our people to do better. If he plans to keep Rikers open, I don’t believe him. Even if we fill Rikers to capacity, I guarantee it will not end gun violence. Rikers perpetuates violence inside and outside the borders of that miserable island, and it’s not working for our communities. Real public safety is addressing root causes and investing in prevention. And when prevention fails and we need an intervention, that intervention has to be about helping a person come home better, not banishing them from our sight and our collective responsibility.
Herrera is an advocate and a member of Freedom Agenda.