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JustLeadershipUSA — Campaign to Close Rikers

JustLeadershipUSA President, Glenn E. Martin, participates in a demonstration in front of the White House to urge President Obama to sign an Executive Order to "Ban the Box" in hiring decisions for Federal jobs (photo courtesy of JLUSA)
Organization Name 
Award Date 
Grant Amount 
To support JustLeadershipUSA's campaign to close Rikers Island
Topic (focus area) 

Published: February 2016

JustLeadershipUSA staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

Criminal justice reform is one of the Open Philanthropy Project’s focus areas within U.S. Policy.

JustLeadershipUSA, a national advocacy organization formed in 2014 to advocate for reforms to reduce incarceration, with a focus on training and lifting up the voices and leadership of formerly incarcerated people as advocates, has proposed a major campaign to create public demand and secure political commitment to close the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City.

We believe that this campaign is well-positioned to take advantage of a unique opportunity within criminal justice reform, with the potential to positively impact criminal justice reform nationally in addition to its direct benefits in New York City. Chloe Cockburn, our Program Officer for Criminal Justice Reform (“Chloe” throughout this page), believes that the campaign’s leadership team, as well as the specific opportunity that Rikers represents, make this a particularly promising campaign. Based on these considerations, the Open Philanthropy Project has decided to recommend a $900,000 grant to JustLeadershipUSA to support its #CLOSErikers campaign.

The cause

This grant falls within criminal justice reform, one of our focus areas.

The average daily jail population in the U.S. is about 731,000 (compared to about 1.3 million in state prisons and 200,000 in federal prisons), and about 12 million unique individuals are jailed each year.1 The issue of over-jailing in America, especially of the poor, is summarized well by a report from the Vera Institute of Justice.2

We believe jails may be a relatively tractable target for advocacy (compared to other potential targets within criminal justice reform) for several reasons:

  • Because most people in jail have not yet been convicted of a crime (unlike people in prison), it may be easier from a communications perspective to advocate for reducing jail populations than prison populations.
  • Because most people remain in jail for only a short time, policy changes could lead to population reductions fairly quickly (in contrast to prisons, where sentencing reforms might not result in significant population reduction for several years).
  • Our understanding is that people exiting jail may have an easier reentry experience into society than people exiting prison, since they have typically been away from home for a shorter time.

Some policy reforms have the potential to significantly impact jail populations if implemented across the country. However, because jail policy is usually determined at the local level, advocacy for broad-based policy change can be challenging. (Most states, with a few exceptions, do not have central, state-level oversight of jails.)

We see targeting a single, high-profile jail for closure as a potential way to address this decentralization challenge. A successful campaign to close a high-profile jail would likely draw significant attention to the issue of over-jailing, and has the potential to shift the Overton Window in a way that increases the chances of similar reforms being implemented around the country.

The campaign

This grant proposes to target Rikers Island jail complex in New York City for closure. Rikers, the second largest jail in the country, has received media attention over the past few years due to especially harsh conditions and numerous abuses.3 Our understanding is that there is a pending Department of Justice investigation into abuses at Rikers, as well as various ongoing lawsuits.

In part, we believe, due to this increased attention, calls to reform Rikers have begun to shift toward a demand to close the facility altogether. Over the last six months in particular, we have seen support for closing Rikers in some influential circles.4

While attention from politicians and other elites is probably helpful, Chloe believes that the failure of two previous major efforts to close Rikers suggests that community engagement, especially from communities most impacted by mass incarceration, will be critical to the success of this campaign. While it is Chloe’s impression that the attempt to close Rikers under Mayor Koch in the 1970s failed only in part due to the lack of community engagement and leadership, a second attempt under Mayor Bloomberg in the 2000s appears (to Chloe) to have failed largely due to opposition from highly impacted communities that were not engaged in developing the plan.

The organizations

JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), an organization founded in 2014 to train formerly incarcerated people as leaders in criminal justice reform advocacy, will lead the #CLOSErikers campaign. The Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, a new criminal justice and drug policy reform campaign, policy and organizing non-profit, will provide consulting expertise. This will be JLUSA’s first major campaign, as well as the first campaign for the recently-formed Katal Center.

JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA)

Glenn E. Martin founded JLUSA in 2014 with the mission of equipping the people most affected by the criminal justice system as advocates for criminal justice reform, with a goal of reducing incarceration by 50% by 2030.

JLUSA plans to staff the campaign with leaders who have been directly impacted by mass incarceration. This is intended to help the campaign avoid developing solutions that are harmful to or unwanted by the communities most impacted by over-jailing in New York.

In addition to training advocates in states around the country, JLUSA has trained 40 formerly incarcerated advocates in New York, who now work for other criminal justice reform agencies. JLUSA plans to partner with these individuals for this campaign to share information, attend events, and gain the support of their organizations.


Katal is a recently-formed organization with a mission of advancing health, equity, and justice for communities through advocacy, organizing, policy development, leadership development, and strategic communications, with a particular focus on ending mass incarceration and the war on drugs. The #CLOSErikers campaign will be a long-term project of Katal.

Leadership team

Our expectations for this campaign are based largely on the previous successes, strong reputations, and combined experience of its leadership team, which includes Glenn E. Martin of JLUSA, and gabriel sayegh and Lorenzo Jones of Katal. Chloe believes that Martin, sayegh, and Jones are some of the best advocates currently working in the field of criminal justice reform. However, we view this campaign as an ambitious project even for such a qualified team.

The following descriptions are based on Chloe’s knowledge and opinions of Martin and sayegh’s experience. (As Jones is based in Hartford, he will not be involved in day-to-day campaign activities.)

Glenn E. Martin (JLUSA)

Glenn E. Martin is a national criminal justice reform advocate with a background in New York policy, who was formerly incarcerated in New York for six years. Prior to founding JLUSA, Martin served for seven years as Vice President of Development and Public Affairs at the Fortune Society, a New York-based prison reentry service provider.

Chloe’s impression is that Martin played a major role in the campaign to reform the New York Rockefeller Drug Laws, which resulted in a 2009 legislative victory. These laws, which included many severe mandatory minimum sentences for relatively minor drug offenses, sent several thousand people in New York to prison over several decades.5 At the culmination of the campaign, Martin emerged as a particularly visible formerly incarcerated leader, with a reputation as a highly effective and energetic advocate. Martin served as a frequent spokesperson at rallies, trained other formerly incarcerated leaders as reform advocates, and worked to maintain the support of elected officials for the proposed reforms (including intervening with particular legislators who seemed to be considering withdrawing support).

gabriel sayegh (Katal)

gabriel sayegh has worked in criminal justice and drug policy reform for nearly 20 years. From 2003 – 2015, he served at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), most recently as Managing Director of Policy and Campaigns. sayegh has led numerous efforts at the state and municipal levels, including the following (which we see as particularly relevant to the Rikers campaign):

  • At the state level, sayegh led the coalition of numerous organizations, volunteers, and organizers for the Rockefeller Drug Laws reform campaign. This multi-year campaign involved influencing multiple legislative sessions, resisting opposition from a key District Attorney in Albany, and creating substantial public demand for change.
  • At the city level, sayegh designed and managed the campaign to end the New York Police Department (NYPD)’s policy of arresting large numbers of people for marijuana possession, which was broadly criticized as racially biased.6 Our understanding is that the success of this campaign was responsible for a sizable and ongoing decrease in people arrested per year for simple possession (from a high of about 50,000 arrests in 20107 to about 18,000 in 2015, as of October8). The strategies and tactics of that campaign (e.g. collaboration with numerous groups across the city to build public pressure in favor of reform, facilitated by substantial funder investments that allowed re-granting) resemble what will be involved in the #CLOSErikers campaign.

Proposed activities

JLUSA and Katal plan to bring together a coalition of community organizations, grassroots organizers, service providers, and other institutions to develop a visible, accessible, citywide campaign.

This campaign plans to educate the public on the situation at Rikers in order to generate public demand for closure. It will also work to develop political capital to implement the necessary policy changes to make closing the facility possible. The campaign plans to produce specific demands that will leverage existing reform efforts and apply political pressure.

Major expenditures that this grant will support include:9

  • Hiring a Director of Policy and Campaigns and community organizers
  • Engaging a PR firm to consult on the campaign
  • Collaborating with a media production company to create visual imagery about the campaign, including “video narratives”, which can be disseminated to news outlets
  • Arranging a health impact assessment of Rikers Island

Demanding the closure of a high-profile jail amounts to a call for significant, sustained changes to many aspects of the criminal justice system. At a local level, demand to close Rikers could serve to motivate a range of key policy reforms which would be necessary to reduce the jail population enough to fit in smaller local city jails. (The average daily population of Rikers is about 10,000,10 and the estimates Chloe has seen show that it will need to shrink to around 5,000 inmates to allow for closure.) These reforms might include:

  • Bail reform
  • Reducing case processing times
  • Reform of prosecutorial practices
  • Reducing arrests for low-level crimes
  • Increasing the use of citations in place of arrests

Rather than advocate for such reforms individually, the campaign will focus on closure of the jail itself. In addition to being a single point of focus to motivate policy reforms, Rikers is also intended to serve as a symbol of the effects of mass incarceration.

A major reason for our interest in this campaign is our belief that passing these reforms in New York is likely to make attempts at similar reforms in other states significantly easier. To help advocates across the country take advantage of the momentum that the Rikers campaign generates, JLUSA plans to draft updates for its allies about strategies that have proven effective and how these could be adapted for other jurisdictions. JLUSA has contacts in Los Angeles and Cook County, IL (which have the first and third largest jails in the country), as well as a nationwide network of advocates who have been trained through JLUSA’s leadership programs for formerly incarcerated people.

In our view, a successful campaign would ideally:

  1. Substantially reduce the number of people in jail in New York City
  2. Place directly-impacted people in leadership roles to develop criminal justice reform solutions
  3. Empower advocates across the country to put pressure on other major jurisdictions (e.g. Chicago, Los Angeles) to either implement similar reforms or plausibly defend the necessity of such large jail populations
  4. Become a nationally significant story, in which the closing of a major facility is seen as a signal of a broader commitment to ending mass incarceration

The main portion of the campaign, up through securing political commitment to close Rikers, is expected to last about three years. However, it is difficult to predict how long it would take to actually close Rikers once a commitment is made.

Case for the grant

We see this as a high-risk, high-reward grant. We consider advocacy of this kind to be risky in general, and this will be the first large public campaign (to our knowledge) aimed at closing a major city jail, as well as Katal’s first major project and JLUSA’s largest project to date. There are many potential points for failure. However, we expect that a successful campaign would be a major step forward for criminal justice reform, potentially amplifying the message that large jails do not meaningfully increase municipal safety and that current incarceration practices have severe negative impacts, especially on the poor.

In conversation with Chloe, Glenn E. Martin quoted a prominent criminal justice reform advocate as saying “If there was ever a chance to close the facility, in the 100 year history of Rikers, the time is now”. However, closure of the facility will still depend on advocates taking advantage of this opportunity effectively.

Chloe estimates that this campaign has a 70% chance of resulting in New York leadership making a commitment to close Rikers and outlining a plan. The likelihood of Rikers actually closing may be substantially lower, given the many possible failure points and uncertainty about maintaining the necessary political momentum over the several years it will take to close the jail. We have used a 20% chance of success as an operational estimate, but are not particularly confident in this number.

Direct impact

We expect that closing Rikers would have a major positive impact on the lives of the many thousands of people in New York who are released from or not sent to jail as a result, as well as their families and communities.

As a very rough estimate, we see a campaign that results in a 5,000-person reduction in jail population over a ten year time horizon, at an expected cost of $3 million, with a 20% chance of success, as yielding a cost-benefit ratio of about $300 per person-year of jail-time averted, or an expected return of about 180x.11

We find this kind of estimate helpful to give us a sense of scale and to expose some of our key assumptions, but are hesitant to place too much weight on it,12 given that we are highly uncertain about each of the inputs.

Indirect impact

In addition to the direct benefits of closing Rikers, we also expect that a successful campaign would have several indirect positive impacts, especially on the context in which future advocacy to reduce incarceration in other jurisdictions occurs (though the direct impact on New York City would be substantial enough that we might consider this grant worthwhile even if its indirect impact were not a factor).

Impact on other advocacy efforts

We believe that a large, credible campaign to close Rikers could expand perceptions about what is possible to accomplish in terms of criminal justice reform.

There is some reason to believe that the success of reforms in one place (e.g. passing drug law reform, changing the funding structure of local jails) grants legitimacy to advocacy efforts for similar reforms elsewhere. For example, according to Chloe, the successful advocacy campaign to close the Baltimore City Detention Center, led by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Justice Center, was later cited by advocates elsewhere in the country, including Daryl Atkinson (Southern Coalition for Social Justice) and Gabe Gonzalez (Center for Community Change), as inspiration for their work.

A high-profile conversation determining that Rikers is not needed could help challenge the assumptions that underlie the maintaining of other large jails. When old jail facilities are phased out, our understanding is that policymakers typically debate how large the new facility needs to be (or whether a new facility is needed at all), and that currently, jails often end up being built larger than necessary. Closing Rikers could impact these conversations by providing evidence to advocates to support jail downsizing, or to go even further and argue that large central facilities are simply not needed.

JLUSA itself plans to act as a channel for translating lessons learned and effective messaging from the Rikers campaign to other jurisdictions. JLUSA is pursuing grants from other foundations to provide community organizing and communications support for other jail reform initiatives in several large jurisdictions (e.g. Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston).

We believe that media attention will likely be another key channel for spreading the campaign’s impact. We expect that New York City-based media outlets, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Marshall Project, are likely to devote significant attention to this campaign.

Contribution to a national narrative

Based on her own advocacy experience, Chloe believes that narratives with a single, strong focal point are often most effective at communicating and engaging public attention. A commitment to close a major city jail could serve as a referendum on mass incarceration’s operational excesses in general and be framed as the beginning of a larger movement to reform incarceration practices across the country.

Supporting formerly incarcerated leadership

Chloe believes that investing in JLUSA to lead this campaign could be valuable as a signal of support for leadership by those most impacted by the criminal justice system in designing solutions for mass incarceration. She believes that an increase in leadership by impacted people could positively impact the field overall. For example, the success of the 2009 Rockefeller Drug Laws reform effort (which contrasts with earlier, unsuccessful reform efforts) seems to Chloe to be largely attributable to the involvement and leadership of formerly incarcerated people. Her understanding is that formerly incarcerated leaders were well positioned to mobilize networks of their peers to create a robust, geographically representative, statewide grassroots campaign for reform. Additionally, stories shared by formerly incarcerated people about the criminal justice system’s impact on their lives appear to have played a role in shifting the positions of many key legislators on the need for reform. It is Chloe’s impression that reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws has reduced incarceration significantly, though we do not have an explicit estimate of its impact.

Budget and room for more funding

It is our understanding (based on conversations with JLUSA and Katal) that, without this grant from the Open Philanthropy Project, the #CLOSErikers campaign would not have enough funding to hire staff and launch prominently as planned (though JLUSA would continue to engage with the issue in a more limited way in traditional and social media).

With a more limited budget, JLUSA might:

  • Hire community organizers at different times throughout the year (e.g. one hire per quarter)
  • Hire only an individual to run public relations, instead of also engaging a public relations/communications firm
  • Remove its planned health impact assessment project
  • Remove its proposed digital media and videography partnerships
  • Reduce or remove sub-grants to partner organizations

We believe that this scaled-back version of the campaign would probably represent a significant reduction in efficacy.

Risks and offsetting factors

  • We expect that energy will be highest following the announcement of the campaign and during its initial stages, and that sustaining the campaign through to the actual closure of Rikers will be a difficult, long-term effort.

  • This campaign will be Katal’s first project and JLUSA’s largest project to date. The relative newness of both of these organization means there are many unknowns about how they will handle the campaign, and success will depend on the ability of these organizations to handle rapid growth and the campaign’s intensity.
  • We also expect a campaign of this size to require strong leadership from Glenn E. Martin and gabriel sayegh, at a level that represents a step up for Martin, and that sayegh has not previously done on criminal justice policy outside of the DPA.
  • While we generally feel confident in the abilities of these groups to work well together and deliver good results, this is a high-intensity campaign that will rely on the sustained collaboration of a few people working under pressure. Problems might arise if working relationships become strained.
  • Unanticipated political factors might hinder or prevent the formation of the effective, multi-group coalition that we believe the campaign will need.
  • A number of external events might occur over the course of the campaign (e.g. changes in public opinion, a series of high profile crime incidents, loss of political power by the mayor, or sustained opposition from the NYPD), with the potential to significantly slow or halt progress.
  • If more moderate demands to reform (rather than close) Rikers become more organized and influential, it might be difficult to sustain momentum for outright closure.
  • Opposition to reform by corrections guards may present a particularly difficult challenge.
  • The campaign expects to be able to successfully navigate resistance from the communities to which people currently incarcerated at Rikers would be moved, but this opposition may prove stronger than anticipated.
  • If this campaign fails prominently, it may lead to excessive pessimism about similar campaigns in the future. If it succeeds prominently due to idiosyncratic factors, it’s possible that it would lead to excessive optimism.
  • It’s possible that we are incorrect on the merits about whether closing Rikers (and making the reforms necessary to do so) would be desirable. Chloe feels confident that the most likely reforms would have great benefits and would do little harm.

Overall, we see this grant’s high potential impact as justifying the risks and potential for failure.

Follow-up expectations

We expect to have a conversation with JLUSA every 3-6 months over the course of the grant, with public notes if the conversation warrants it. We also plan to perform a check-in around 18 months into the campaign to evaluate its success in building public demand and political momentum. If there appear to be issues, we may set new benchmarks for the campaign to meet over the following 3-6 months. If there are still significant issues at the 24-month mark, we will be less likely to continue supporting the campaign.

Towards the end of the grant, we plan to attempt a more holistic and detailed evaluation of the grant’s performance.

Our process

Chloe Cockburn has existing relationships with the team behind this campaign. After becoming aware of the planned campaign, she discussed their plans and funding situation with them in more detail.


Blau and Rayman 2015Source (archive)
Department of Justice 2014Source (archive)
Drug Policy Alliance 2009Source (archive)
Drug Policy Alliance 2011Source (archive)
Goldstein et al. 2015Source (archive)
JustLeadershipUSA Close Rikers Budget NarrativeSource
Mathias 2015Source (archive)
New York Civil Liberties Union 2008Source (archive)
New York Times 2013Source (archive)
Short 2015Source (archive)
The Marshall Project 2015Source (archive)
Vera Institute of Justice 2015Source (archive)
Winerip and Schwirtz 2014Source (archive)
  • 1. “There are more than 3,000 jails in the United States, holding 731,000 people on any given day…In the course of a typical year, there are nearly 12 million jail admissions.” Vera Institute of Justice 2015, pg. 4
  • 2. Vera Institute of Justice 2015
  • 3.
    • “Brutal attacks by correction officers on inmates – particularly those with mental health issues – are common occurrences inside Rikers…alarm has grown this year over conditions at the sprawling jail complex…[A study by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene] found that over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered ‘serious injuries’ – ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat – in altercations with correction department staff members.” Winerip and Schwirtz 2014
    • “…inmate-on-correction-officer violence increased at the end of last year and in the early part of this year. Over the past four years, there has been an 1,800 percent increase in reported assaults on medical staff… the violence goes both ways and is persistent.” The Marshall Project 2015

  • 4.
    • “That idea – to close one of the country’s largest jail complexes – has in recent months inspired op-eds, protest signs and a hashtag. On Wednesday, the idea got the endorsement of a New York City lawmaker [City Council member Daniel Dromm]…Martin Horn, former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has also called for Rikers to be closed.” Mathias 2015

    • “City Controller Scott Stringer said it was time to close the notorious jail during a speech at the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School in Manhattan. ‘Right now, Rikers Island is a case study in poor outcomes,’ he said. ‘We need to create a system that is a national model, rather than an urban shame.’” Blau and Rayman 2015

  • 5. “Almost 12,000 people are locked-up for drug offenses in NY State prisons…6,148 new prison commitments under the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2007.” Drug Policy Alliance 2009, pg. 1
  • 6.
    • “The NYPD arrested and jailed nearly 400,000 people for possessing small amounts of marijuana between 1997 and 2007…a figure marked by startling racial and gender disparities” New York Civil Liberties Union 2008
    • “African-Americans are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though studies have repeatedly shown that the two groups use the drug at similar rates. New federal data, included in a study by the American Civil Liberties Union, now shows that the problem of racially biased arrests is far more extensive that was previously known — and is getting worse. The costly, ill-advised “war on marijuana” might fairly be described as a tool of racial oppression.” New York Times 2013

  • 7. “In 2010 the New York Police Department made 50,300 arrests for marijuana possession” Drug Policy Alliance 2011, pg. 1
  • 8. “Police cuffed 18,120 stoners through Oct. 20” Short 2015
  • 9.

    JustLeadershipUSA Close Rikers Budget Narrative

  • 10. “…A facility that holds, on average, more than 9,700 prisoners.” Goldstein et al. 2015
  • 11.

    The expected return is based on:

    • Assigning jail-time a disability weight of 50%, and using our standard figure for the value of a quality-adjusted life year in the U.S., $50,000.
    • Adding to that the financial costs of incarceration, estimated at $28,000 per person per year (based on the mean state cost of incarceration, from Table 2 in Department of Justice 2014).

    50% * $50,000 + $28,000 is $53,000 per person per year; $53,000 / $300 is 176.7.

  • 12. More in this blog post.