Formerly Incarcerated New Yorker Now Fights for Prison Reform for the Youth

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Rikers Island: Smiling man in red work jacket, matching red cap sits on red stairs of Times Square.

Photos by Clarissa Sosin

Herbert Murray on the famous red steps in Times Square nearly two years after the launch of the #CLOSErikers campaign.

NEW YORK — Herbert Murray, more than 6 feet tall and beanpole thin, held his clipboard and began to walk along the line of people outside City Hall Park in lower Manhattan who were waiting to join the one-year anniversary rally for the #CLOSErikers Campaign.

"Anyone need to sign in?" he asked the crowd as he made his way down the block.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logoA woman with glasses and her hair in a bun beckoned to him. She rested her sign against her legs — it was black with “$247,000 to detain a person at Rikers for a year” in large pink and white letters — and flipped through the pages to find her name.

After she returned the clipboard, he continued down the line, slowly thinning out as people filed through security and joined the growing crowd on the steps of City Hall. Cries of “Shut it down!” and “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Rikers Island’s got to go!” rang through the air.  
After signing in a final straggler, Murray said, “All right. We can start heading in.”

One year later — the two-year anniversary was Tuesday — much has changed. The campaign has seen huge strides in its goal to close the state’s largest jail.

10 years became 3 years

JustLeadershipUSA, an organization with the goal of halving the prison population by 2030,  launched the campaign in April 2016 in partnership with the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. The campaign’s platform is that reform attempts in the state’s largest jail are not working and that it needs to be closed, with its resources funneled into the communities that need the most help.

Murray, 60, is a member of JustLeadershipUSA and an active supporter of #CLOSErikers, helping with event planning and outreach.

"I volunteer myself,” he said. “I don't get paid for this. I'm just doing it out of my passion of trying to get to half by 2030 and the immediate situation is trying to get Rikers closed."

Last year, in the weeks leading up to the one-year anniversary, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced a plan to close Rikers Island in 10 years, a timeline that activists said was too long. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office condemned Rikers Island in a February report about the state’s most problematic jails. They recommended that the city speed up its plan to close down the jail.

Now, de Blasio is working with a three-year timeline and plans to move the population housed in Rikers Island to new jails scattered throughout the boroughs.

"That will be my glory if I can see Rikers Island close,” said Murray about the new timeline. While he feels heartened, by the new timeline, he is skeptical until he sees real plans. He said he thinks the city’s politicians are playing politics and that the desire for change is not in their hearts.

Murray’s story

He believes wholeheartedly in JustLeadershipUSA’s mission because he was formerly incarcerated. In 1979 at the age of 21, Murray was arrested, tried and convicted — wrongfully, he said — for murder. He was sentenced to 15 years to life, was denied parole eight times and released in 2008 after serving 29 years. Now 60, he has spent as much time behind bars as free.

Being willing and able to tell his story is his real contribution to the campaign, Murray said.

“When I tell my story I can see the people. They're devastated. They don't believe it,” he said.

Murray shared his story with the Lippman Commission (formal name: the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform), a yearlong study into conditions on Rikers Island. It recommended in April 2017 that the city close down all detention facilities there. Among its reasons: it costs the equivalent of one year’s tuition to an Ivy League university to detain one person on the island for a year, and there is a culture of violence that goes deep into the institution’s core.

While the commission’s focus was Rikers Island, it examined conditions in the city’s smaller jails too, such as the Brooklyn Detention Center. He told the group about his experience there, something he found difficult to do, he said.

Brooklyn Detention Center

That day, he stood on the sidewalk, looking up at the tall, inconspicuous building on Atlantic Avenue that is the Brooklyn Detention Center. As he stared at the rooftop, which serves as the recreation area for the jail and is the only place detainees can get fresh air and sunshine, memories of his detention there came flooding back.

He and the other prisoners used to mill around the rooftop, he said. They were bored and wanted some entertainment, so they would look down at the pedestrians. Once the prisoners started yelling down to a woman, “Hey baby! How you doing?” She looked up, confused and caught off guard by the men screaming down at her.

“The outside of the facility, it blends right in [with the neighborhood]," he said. “But inside it's bunch of chaos."

Murray spent about 18 months there while he was on trial. He said his memories of the Brooklyn jail are bad but his memories of Rikers Island are far worse.

He was at Rikers Island for six months after his trial before being moved to a prison upstate to serve his sentence. His cell block was overcrowded, with not enough televisions, showers, phones or resources in general for the people housed there.

“That, right there, generated violence. It generated hostility,” he said.

Rikers culture

Murray witnessed a lot of violence at Rikers Island, but one incident in particular stood out. It was his last week before his transfer. He was lounging in the dayroom, killing time, when he saw a prisoner holding an iron mop wringer sneak up behind another man. The first man raised the wringer and starts to bludgeon the other man on the head. He fell to the ground, blood gushing. As the attacker raised his arm to strike again, Murray jumped up and tackled him. Several other prisoners in the room joined Murray and together they restrained the attacker until correction officers arrived.

Rikers Island: Tall man on right in black T-shirt, jacket, hat, checked shirt, dark glasses holds clipboard for woman in jeans jacket, glasses, short brown hair, holding sign. Line of people on city street stretches before her.

In April 2017, Herbert Murray signs a woman in outside City Hall before the first anniversary of the #CLOSErikers Campaign.

Everyday tools, like that iron mop wringer, served as weapons on Rikers Island, Murray said.

"That was one of the standard things that we used!” he said. “The iron mop wringer. When we mopped the floor we just got the iron mop wringer so that was just so convenient.”

[Related: Journey to Passion: Formerly Incarcerated Youth Becomes A Close Rikers Organizer]

Violence is part of the culture of Rikers Island, he said. It was violent when he was there in 1981 and is still violent today.

But, sometimes the young men he meets who were more recently locked up there glorify the island and their time there, he said. They won’t tell you about what goes on there.

"They not going to tell [you] that they probably got jumped because nobody wants to be seen as being used and abused,” Murray said.

He thinks the city should invest in the smaller jails because they are more manageable, more hands on. It’s a less threatening environment overall, he said.

In April last year, Murray attended the news conference held at John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the release of the Lippman Commission’s report. As a participant, he was one of about 20 people seated on the stage looking out at the crowded auditorium. Murray was enthusiastic. Each time someone added a reason why Rikers should be closed, he yelled “Yea!” in encouragement.

"I was motivating them, you know?" he said.

There’s a photo of them standing on the John Jay stage in a New York Times article about the report’s release. Standing out at the end of the line of people wearing dark suits is a tall bald man in jeans. Murray didn’t realize he was going to be on stage that day and that he needed to wear a suit.

His life then and now

He lives alone and sets aside time so he can have what he calls “quiet time.” He really appreciates being able to have his down time, he said. He thinks it comes from the time he spent in solitary confinement during his sentence. That made him used to being alone and to a certain degree even appreciate it.

"I love my quiet time,” he said.

To say that prison changed Murray’s life is an understatement. Prior to his arrest in 1979, he’d had one minor brush with the law. When he was 16 he stole money from a classmate and received five years’ probation, which he completed. When he was arrested, he was living in an apartment in Flatbush with his girlfriend and newborn daughter. They were making a life for themselves. His girlfriend was in school and he was working in a restaurant in lower Manhattan.

"Life was beautiful! And then all this hell broke loose,” he said.  

Free for 10 years now, he said he’s tried to let go of that part of his life.

"Many nights I couldn't sleep. Many nights I was angry at myself. Many nights I couldn't function because of my anger,” he said. “I had to learn to give it back.”

Now, Murray lives in New Jersey and commutes to his job at the Times Square Alliance in Manhattan. He first started working at there two months after being released from prison. He started off in their transitional work program as a sanitation worker but over the years he’s worked his way up the ranks.

Reentry

Murray said he loves Times Square and the Times Square Alliance. He credits his successful transition back into society to the place and its people. So much so that he even named the book he wrote about his time in prison “Standing Tall in Times Square.” The cover is a photo of him standing at the top of Times Square’s famous red steps wearing his Times Square Alliance uniform, a red jumpsuit.

"I came from hate. Every negative thing that you can possibly think of, that's what represents prison. Every positive thing that you can represent, that you can think about, that represents positivity, that's Times Square," he said.

He’s found community and mentorship during his time there he said. One such mentor was Senior Vice President of Security and Operations Tom Harris. Harris, a retired New York Police Department officer who served on the force for 25 years before starting at the Times Square Alliance, met Murray nearly 10 years ago. He said that what stands out the most about the first time they met was Murray’s big smile.

“He just oozed positivity,” Harris said. “You would think that someone who experienced what he experienced would be bitter. There’s no bitterness.”

Harris watched Murray work his way up the ranks over the years into a leadership position on his team. He said that some people have leadership titles who aren’t really leaders. That’s not the case with Murray.

“People look up to him,” Harris said. “People respect him.”

Sitting in a conference room in the Time Square Alliance offices, Murray said he can’t see himself working anywhere else. He loves everything about the bustling, tourist-filled square.

What encourages him

Murray said he believes in the transitional program that gave him his first job and tries to support the people currently going through it. One way he does this is by encouraging them to not stay silent and to talk to people about their situations, a tactic that has worked really well for him over the past 10 years.  

"A lot of them don't want to talk about their situation because of embarrassment or whatever but I tell them why be embarrassed?" he said.

Not everyone makes it through the program, he said, but he’s happy for those who do. Meeting them and hearing their stories helps encourage him to keep up the fight for criminal justice reform.

"We have to save these kids,” Murray said. “We have to save them. Because they are going to mess up. Society makes sure they do that."

Now, when he recalls his experience of being locked up and going through the criminal justice system he can’t help but think about how immature he was mentally. Though he was 21 when arrested, he feels that mentally he was more like a 16-year-old. He doesn’t want the young men he meets now to go through that.

He’s especially concerned about the way the system is set up so youth fail.

"They got 29 years out of me already,” Murray said. “I'm not the target. These kids are the target.”


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