Rikers Island-just six miles from the Empire State Building-is one of the largest, most complex and most expensive penal institutions in the world, yet most New Yorkers couldn't find it on a map.
Jennifer Wynn, the director of the Fresh Start program at Rikers, takes readers into the jails and then back out-to the communities where her students were born and raised. She chronicles their journeys as they struggle to "go straight" and find respect in a city that fears and rejects them.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.55(d)|
About the Author
Jennifer Wynn is the director of the Prison Visiting Project at the Correctional Association of New York, the oldest criminal justice agency in New York City, and editor of the Rikers Review for the Osborne Association. She has visited over thirty state prisons and interviewed hundreds of prisonersin solitary confinement, in prison yards, and in mess halls. She lives in Brooklyn Heights, New York, and is a doctoral candidate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Read an Excerpt
WELCOME TO THE ROCK
The vilest deeds like poison weeds, Bloom well in prison air; It is only what is good in Man That wastes and withers there ... .
Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
When I first met Angel Rivera in March of 1991, he was handcuffed to a chair at NYPD's Central Booking. I couldn't believe my luck: The elusive con artist whose scams I'd been writing about had finally been caught. The lieutenant from Special Frauds called and said I could interview him. I left my office and headed for One Police Plaza.
As the cab sailed down the FDR, I tried to conjure up an image of Rivera. Although his female victims described his appearance as ordinary, I figured he must have some kind of charisma given the effect he'd had on them and the money he'd conned from them. Special Frauds described him as a "predator," a highly skilled con artist who posed as a casting director and promised his victims he'd make them stars.
"He'd approach attractive females in the street," the lieutenant said, "wanna-be actress typesthey're a dime a dozen in Manhattanand tell 'em everything they wanted to hear."
Baiting his "mark" with a stream of compliments and a phony business card, Rivera would say she had "just the look" he needed for an upcoming movie. He'd buy his victim a cup of coffee and display a portfolio of the actresses he'd made famous, luring her into his web with promises of one-hundred-dollar-an-hour all-day shoots. When he knew he had her, he'd let the ax fall.
"You have a SAG card, right?" he'd ask. To work on a movie, actors must belong to the Screen Actors Guild and have a union card to prove it. Rivera hoped his victim didn't have a SAG card, and most times he was right.
Feigning disappointment, he'd wrinkle his brow, take a sip of coffee. "Damn shame," he'd say. "As I said, you're perfect for the part. You got just the look we need."
Then he'd fake the flash of an idea. "Wait a minuteI think I know someone at SAG ... . Lemme see what I can do."
Now he was doing her a favor, implying that she was worth a risk. He'd excuse himself, head to the nearest pay phone, and return with a smile. "Done deal," he'd gloat. "Today's your lucky day. He'll give it to you for a steal. Five hundred bucks and you're in."
In most cases, if he'd gotten this far the woman would go to a cash machine and withdraw the money. Rivera would tell her to meet him later in the evening and the card would be ready.
When she arrived, he'd be nowhere in sight.
And now here he was, sitting in front of me, handcuffed to a metal chair, head bowed as if he were sleeping. In one of the strangest arrests Special Frauds ever made, Rivera had been caught by an off-duty cop. Attesting to the sheer volume of women he'd scammed, Rivera actually approached a woman he'd conned before. He'd forgotten her, but she hadn't forgotten him. He'd been thirty seconds into his rap when she started screaming: "Scam artist! Scam artist! This man's a thief!"
A cop happened to be walking by, straight into the scene of the crime. He took off after Rivera and nabbed him as he ducked into an idling cab.
"Mr. Rivera?" I asked.
He raised his head: large, bloodshot eyes; strong features; an oval-shaped face. He was a light-skinned black, of average build, and looked to be in his early forties. He wore a Yankees cap, khaki pants, and a dirty denim jacket. He looked exhausted.
"How can I help you?" His voice was softer and more conciliatory than I'd imagined. In fact, his appearance was anticlimactic. Rivera was thefirst "real criminal" I'd met and he looked more like a high school janitor than a swashbuckling con artist.
"I'd like to ask you a few questions," I said. "I've been writing about your scams in the paper ... ."
"I know. I've seen the stories. I figured I was gonna get caught one of these days." He shrugged and shifted in his chair.
"About the women you conned ..." I started. "The women you promised to make stars ... do you feel any remorse for taking their money?"
"Listen, those women gave me their money," he said wearily. "I didn't force them to do anything. I didn't hurt anybody."
A cop came over and told us to wrap it up. He was anxious to finish his shift and take Rivera to the holding cells beneath the courthouse where detainees await arraignment.
"If you wanna know more," Rivera said, "you'll have to come interview me on Rikers. That's where I'll be for a while."
I slipped him my card and said I'd see him there.
For a month I tried to arrange the interview, but my calls to the Department of Correction's Public Information Office went unreturned. I was about to give up when I received a letter from Rivera. Somehow knowing my predicament, he explained it was far easier to get security clearance as "a friend" of an inmate rather than as a journalist. To help me out, he said, he put my name on his list of approved visitors. He enclosed the following week's schedule and circled the days I could visit.
Immediately I thought he was setting me up. Like most crime-spooked Americans, I figured that he was a criminal and couldn't be trusted. Then again, I thought, what could he really do to me? He was in jail, on his way to prison upstate, and he wouldn't be out for a while. So I followed his advice, pretended I was his "friend," and set out for the dreaded Rikers Island.
New York's "carceral archipelago," to borrow from French philosopher Michel Foucault, squats in the East River about 100 yards from La Guardia International Airport. It was once a green and leafy oasis, eighty-seven acres of farmland owned by a Dutch family by the name of Rychen. Since the first jail opened in 1935, the island has been expanded bylandfill to encompass 415 acres and hold ten separate jails, capable of housing over 16,000 inmates. There is a jail for women, which contains a nursery, and a jail for boys sixteen to eighteen years old. Two Staten Island ferries, converted into floating detention centers, are docked off the northern tip of the island and together hold over 300 prisoners. A modern 800-bed barge, known by inmates as the "slave ship," is moored off the South Bronx just opposite Rikers Island. With a huge power plant, three high schools, a firehouse, a hospital, a courthouse, a tailor shop, and a bakery, Rikers Island could be its own town. Its budget costs taxpayers $860 million a year, yet most New Yorkers have no idea where it is.
Like most prisons and jails in America, Rikers Island performs an expert magic trick: It makes people vanish. It not only hides prisoners from public view, but in a double sleight of hand it keeps in those who want to get out and keeps out those who want to get in. As any visitor can attest, penetrating Rikers Island is a punishing experience.
The journey begins on Queens Plaza South, a trash-strewn strip lined with fast-food joints, pawnshops, and after-hours clubs, a place where the pay phones are either out of order or so grimy you don't want to touch them. During the weekends, every twenty minutes or so, a small crowd gathers to await the Q101, the city bus to the Rock. The regulars, mostly mothers (or grandmothers) with toddlers, collect their inmate care packages, flick their cigarettes, and board the bus to Rikers.
Half an hour later, you're traveling over the Francis R. Buono Memorial Bridge, a two-lane ribbon of highway separating the land of the free from the land of the jailed. The inmates say it's "the longest bridge in the world," taking "just minutes to cross over, but eternity to cross back." At the entrance to the bridge looms an intimidating billboard: CITY OF NEW YORKCORRECTION DEPARTMENT, RIKERS ISLANDTHE BOLDEST CORRECTION OFFICERS IN THE WORLD.
At the high point of the bridge, the view is surreal. From behind, the dazzling Manhattan skyline beckons like the Land of Oz. Whitecaps ripple the expanse of water below. Ahead sprawls a massive, low-lying detention complex ringed by coils of razor wire and a lethal electric fence.
Visitors file into the Control Building, where they must produce validphoto ID before they proceed deeper into the bowels of the jails. If they cannot, it's back on the bus. Signs prohibiting cameras, tape recorders, cell phones, beepers, and weapons plaster the walls. An odd and enduring relic, the Rikers Island "amnesty box," sits off to the side. At first glance it looks like a mailbox. It is not. The amnesty box is where visitors can deposit contraband (drugs or weapons) without fear of arrest or reprisal. If they are caught smuggling contraband, however, they are arrested. In 1999, nearly 350 visitors were arrested on Rikers. Imagine thatbeing arrested in jail.
As if on the set of a science-fiction movie, you then enter a bright red cylindrical booth. A bulletproof door seals shut behind you while an X-ray machine scans you head to toe for metal. If no metal is found, the door slides open and you're released to begin part two of the journey: boarding a small "route bus" that takes you to your designated jail.
However, if metal is detected on (or in) your person, an Orwellian voice from inside the chamber bellows: "We beg you to come back and deposit metal objects in the chest on the doorway." I marvel at the choice of wordsthey beg me to come back? They are begging me to come to Rikers? What happened to "please"?
Correction officials say that the futuristic scanners, which cost $50,000 apiece and were installed in June 2000, have been pulling in four times the usual amount of contraband. Among the most recent collection of castaways were knives, razors, scissors, dental picks, Walkmans concealing drugs, balloons stuffed with crack and marijuana, a knife that was hidden in a pen, andget thisa stun gun.
Even when the sun shines on Rikers, little cheer penetrates the dreary penal colony. Huge jets from La Guardia rip through the sky with a deafening roar; alarms and sirens sound off with regularity. Cars, commercial trucks, and blue and orange Correction Department buses crammed with inmates chug along the roadways. Black and Hispanic prisoners till the vegetable gardens surrounded by razor wire, bringing to mind images of slavery. On an average day, Correction Department buses log more than 3,500 miles transporting shackled inmates to courthouses in the city, or to reception centers on their way "up north"to one of New York's seventy state prisons.
From their tiny jailhouse windows, some Rikers prisoners are treatedto a spectacular view: the orange rays of a Manhattan sunset reflecting off the city's gleaming skyscrapers. Freeworlders on the Rock describe the view as breathtaking; the inmates say it's heartbreaking. "So close and yet so far," they lament. I often think they have no idea just how far away the city is.
Literally and figuratively, the mile-long bridge to Rikers Island is a dividing line between the Big Apple's haves and have-nots. About two-thirds of Rikers inmates are pretrial detainees who have been charged with, but not convicted of, a crime. They are detained because they cannot afford bail. Illustrating their poverty, one-quarter of Rikers inmates face bails of $500 or less. "Unlike white, employed, middle-class persons, who are perceived as being reputable and thus are generally released on their own recognizance or are able to make bail," writes criminologist Albert Roberts, these "disreputable persons are detained."
When Ronald Lauder (son of Estée Lauder, founder of the cosmetic company) was campaigning for mayor in the 1980s, he took a trip to Rikers and was outraged to see that inmates were permitted to watch TV and spend an hour in the recreation yard. "If it were up to me, I would have them breaking stones to pebbles," he said, failing to realize that 65 percent of Rikers inmates are pretrial detainees, "innocent until proven guilty."
Lauder's confusion about the basic difference between jails and prisons is common. Many people are not aware, for example, that whereas prisons house convicted felons (with sentences of one year or more), jails hold mostly pretrial detainees. In addition, jails house people convicted of misdemeanors (serving sentences of less than one year) as well as convicted felons awaiting transfer to state prison.
Not surprisingly, criminologists have described jails as the "strange social hybrids" of the correctional landscape, as "detention centers for suspects." They have been called the "poorhouses of the twentieth century," the "ultimate ghettos," the "social garbage cans" used to discard "society's rabble."
Indeed, Rikers Island is primarily a melting pot of recidivist inmates: drug users, dealers, and disorganized street people. Less than a quarter have been charged with violent crimes; the majority were arrested forpossession or sale of drugs. Other demographics speak volumes about this exiled population:
• 92 percent are black or Hispanic, though blacks and Hispanics represent 49 percent of the city's population;
• 90 percent lack a high school diploma or GED;
• 30 percent are homeless;
• approximately 20 percent of female and 10 percent of male inmates are HIV-positive;
• 25 percent have been treated for mental illness;
• 80 percent have a history of substance abuse;
• about 75 percent return to Rikers within a year.
Back in 1991, I wasn't aware of these statistics as I sat in the visiting room waiting for my "friend" to arrive. More obvious was that I was the only white person among a sea of black and brown faces. I felt like a lightbulb. This is liberal, integrated New York City, I thought, home of a hundred different cultures and ethnicities, certainly not the homogenous Midwest, the Deep South, or even South Africa, for that matter. Today I have grown used to the sight of so many black and Hispanic men behind bars, but my first glimpse of Rikers prisoners astounded me. Did blacks and Hispanics really commit all of the crime in this city, I wondered, or were they just the ones who got caught?
ANGEL: PART I
After spending a couple hours with Angel Rivera, another contradiction emerged: Far from the picture of a "conniving predator" NYPD's Special Frauds Squad had painted, Rivera was a rather likable fellow. Surely he was a hustler, and his scams had left a trail of disappointments and lighter wallets in his wake. But he was also witty and warm and seemed surprisingly honest when I asked him about his crimes.
Before meeting Angel, I had interviewed two of his victims. One was a petite blond waitress who had recently moved to New York to become an actress. The other was a striking black woman in her late twenties with a master's degree in philosophy. Listening to their stories,I sympathized with the humiliation they experienced and the money they lost. But after coming to know Angel and his sisters, I felt worse for him.
Angel Rivera was born and raised in one of New York's poorest neighborhoods, El Barrio, also known as Spanish Harlem. Here, he and his three sisters slept two to a bed in a three-room tenement on 100th Street and First Avenue. His mother died from a "home" abortion when he was five. His father was a drunk whose idea of punishment was making his children kneel on grains of rice until their knees bled, or beating them with wire hangers.
Throughout high school, Angel shined shoes on the streets of Harlem and later found work as an elevator operator. But he was bright and ambitious and had higher aspirations.
"I hated that no matter how hard I worked I was still poor," he said. "I'd come home after twelve hours on the job and see things on TV I wanted for myself. I felt I deserved them as much as anyone else."
It was out of frustration to obtain "the good things in life," he told me, that he turned to conning women. For the first time in his life he felt powerful.
Over the following years I spent many hours speaking with Angel and his sisters in a tiny, padlocked apartment in Washington Heights. They invited me to their cookouts and birthday parties and treated me like one of the family. I visited Angel when he was sent to prison upstate and when he thought about suicide at Christmastime. I assigned him the job of undercover prison reporter and penology tutor so that I could learn about prison from a prisoner and crime from a criminal. I helped him find a job when he was released, and today I consider him a friend.
Like most things "New York," Rikers Island represents an extreme: an extraordinarily expensive, vast, and complicated penal colony. It houses more inmates than the entire prison systems of thirty-five other states and has been described in the literature as "a more dangerous institution to manage than even maximum-security state penitentiaries."
Not only is Rikers one of the most complex jailing systems in the United States, it is also one of the most expensive. While the average annual cost to house a person in state prison is approximately $25,000,New York City spends approximately $68,000 annually (about $175 daily) for every prisoner confined on the Rock. That's more than eight times what it spends to educate a child in public school, or as much as a college education. As the Reverend Jesse Jackson likes to say, "It costs more to go to jail than to Yale."
Rikers stands out in another way as well: in the tremendous growth of its inmate population. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of inmates on Rikers tripled from 7,000 to 21,000, while the U.S. prison population at large "only" doubled from 500,000 to 1 million people.
Between 1990 and 2000, the U.S. prison population doubled again. In fact, the United States, "the land of the free," rang in the year 2000 as the world's number-one jailer, with 2 million of its citizens behind bars. Another way to look at it is this: "In the early 1970s, there were about 200,000 people locked up in the United States," says Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York. "Today, there are 2 million people behind barsa growth of over 1,000 percent."
"The situation we're in now is completely unprecedented," says Marc Mauer, author of Race to Incarcerate. "The number of people going through the system dwarfs that in any other period in U.S. history and virtually in any other country as well." Indeed, the United States has "overtaken Russia for the honor of having the world's highest incarceration rate," writes Anthony Lewis in The New York Times. Although America comprises fewer than 5 percent of the world's population, it holds a quarter of the world's prisoners. "I've been studying criminal justice trends for twenty-five years," says Todd Clear, one of the country's leading authorities on corrections. "And each year I think this can't continue. We can't keep doubling our prison population every decade. But we do. It's astounding."
To comprehend the size of the American prison landscape, picture the entire populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and Miami behind bars. Then calculate your chances of becoming part of this landscape: For an American born in 1999, the chance of living some part of life in a correction facility is one in twenty; for black Americans, it is one in four.
Undeniably, the country's unbridled prison expansion has hit people of color the hardest. Today, one out of every three youngAfrican-American men is in prison, on probation, or on parole. In big cities, the number is one out of every two. The conservative economist Milton Freidman reports that the rate of incarceration of African-American men in the United States is four times greater than the rate of incarceration of black men in pre-Mandela, apartheid South Africa. And Hispanics now comprise the fastest-growing group of prisoners.
"All this has a profound social cost," writes the Times. "Since 1995 the states have spent more on prison than on university construction." Operating prisons in the year 2000 cost about $40 billion, up from just under $13 billion in 1985. These figures are so extraordinary that even some experts known for taking a hard line on crime think it's time to reevaluate our criminal-justice policies.
One of the sanest ways to end our incarceration binge was suggested by an unlikely source: conservative criminologist John DiIulio. In 1999 DiIulio made an impassioned plea in The Wall Street Journal for "zero prison growth," stating that "two million prisoners are enough." He observed that "the value of imprisonment is a portrait in the law of rapidly diminishing returns." He singled out New York for its bulging inmate population and harsh drug laws that are responsible for "landing legions of nonviolent drug offenders in the state's prisons for mandatory terms ranging from 15 years to life."
I imagine The Wall Street Journal ran Dilulio's editorial because businessmen more than anyone can appreciate the bad returns and bloated budgets of prisons. New York is home to the some of the best business schools and sharpest business minds in the country. How is it that with all this bottom-line acumen a New York City agency can spend $860 million a year on inmates, of whom 75 percent return?
The lawyers, criminologists, and CEOs at the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation posed another good question. In a 1999 report they asked whether the rosy picture of declining crime rates is altogether accurate. "What we call the 'crime rate' measures the activity of those criminals who are still on the street," they write. "But as a measure of the deeper problem of criminalityas an indicator of the tendency of our society to produce criminalsit is obviously defective."
The problem, they say, is that our crime rate ignores the fact that we've simply shifted some of the total pool of criminals in our societyfrom one location to another. We haven't stopped producing lawbreakers; we have just moved them.
"Measuring crime this way is like measuring the extent of some physical illness in our society while systematically excluding from the count all those people who are so sick we've had to put them in the hospital," they write. "In a reasonable culture we would not say we had won the war against disease just because we had moved a lot of sick people from their homes to hospital wards. And in a reasonable culture we would not say we have won the war against crime just because we have moved a lot of criminals from the community into prison cells."
In many ways, Rikers Island is like the big white elephant sitting smack in the center of New York City that no one sees. Its invisibility symbolizes the kind of dense national fog that enshrouds the country's thinking when it comes to people who break the law. Our current strategy of "make them pay and keep them far away" simply incapacitates lawbreakers temporarily and at a ridiculously high price. It ensures that the 130,000 people who pass through Rikers Island every year, many of them prison alumni, will continue pursuing the two things they know best: doing crime and doing time.
One of my inmate-students wrote an incisive article for the Rikers Review, aptly titled "A Fool's Resume." Lending human voice to the findings of countless studies, it shows that prison does little to deter criminal behavior and much to perpetuate it:
My name is John B. I am 37 years old and if memory serves me well my first time being locked up on Rikers was in 1977. That's almost 20 years ago. I have been a regular guest ever since.
I did, however, take a long vacation from 1979 through 1982. During that time, I visited Attica, Auburn and Elmira state prisons. Inside those great walls of education, I earned my GED, as well as a bachelor's degree in the art of stealing and a master's in lying to myself. These diplomas have prepared me well for spending an average of four months a year on Rikers playing spades, scrabble and watching TV. I have also, during my stays on the Rock, acquired several job skills.
Let's see, I now know how to mop floors. I can also take food orders. Working in the jail commissary taught me how to follow instructions. "How many boxes of cookies shall I put in your basket? How many bags of coffee did you say?"
I can paint, too! In 1985 I painted the stairwells and lower hallways of the jail. I also know the how-to's of working in the kitchen. My job was to put six sugars on each tray. I guess you could say I'm somewhat of a chef.
I worked in the storehouse as well. I can lift heavy boxes and stack them one on top of the other. I learned how to spot a crate of Frosted Flakes a mile away. Not to mention my ability to hide those frosted corn flakes from the guards to assure that my fellow workers and I ate a hearty breakfast for the next week. I can even get past the guards in the mess hall on chicken day to eat twice. Now to do that you have to be super slick, so I suppose you can say I'm skilled at covert operations as well.
After 20 years of incarceration I can honestly say: "I am true to this, not new to this."
John finished his article with the following words: "After pausing to read what I have written, I am saddened and disgusted. I am afraid that my past may very well become my future."
Unfortunately, it did. Shortly after he was released from Rikers at four in the morning, John walked into a hotel in Manhattan, picked the lock on a guest-room door, and swiped the first item he saw on the dresser. On his way out, he asked the concierge for a pen.
I know this because John told it to me himself. True to his word, he came to our office his first day out to attend a Jails Anonymous meeting, a support group for Fresh Start graduates. When I saw the fancy watch on his wrist and the hotel pen in his hand, I asked him where he'd stolen them from, and he casually filled in the blanks. He talked about how it made him feel "powerful" and "smart" to "get over on the system," about the rush he felt as he sailed out of the hotel, no alarms or racing footsteps behind him, knowing that he was scot-free.
"Didn't you care about the man whose watch you stole?" I asked.
"Come on." He rolled his eyes. "Why would I care about him? I didn't even know him."
He had a point, I thought. To John, the man in the hotel room was as rich and faceless as a corporation. He was a "have" and John was a "have-not." And living, as he did, on the margins of society, John wasn't likely to know many haves.
"You know," he added, "I could've taken his wallet or the plane ticket that was sitting on the dresser. But I thought, Why be greedy? The watch is enough."
For a moment I marveled at his thinking; the distinctions in his conscience showed, at least, that he had one. I quickly snapped out of it.
"Enough for what? To get high? Did you steal the watch to sell it for heroin?"
"No. I'm trying to go straight. That's why I came to your office. Can you help me get a job?"
I used to be amazed when my students would tell me about their crimes so openly, as if somehow I would find humor, cleverness, or a Robin Hoodlike heroism in their heists. Only a sociopath, I thought, could speak about sticking people up or "boosting" (shoplifting) with such bravado or, more commonly, with complete nonchalance. Certainly for some, getting away with a crime meant they had succeeded at something, and the pride in their voice was unmistakable. For most of my students, however, certain crimes just aren't a big deal. Their backgrounds, associations, and return trips to Rikers not only impart but reinforce criminality. As criminologist Ronald Akers observes, crime and deviance result when people "differentially associate" with individuals who expose them to crime, and when deviant behavior is "differentially reinforced over conforming behavior."
The social controls that deter most people from stealingshame from peers and family members, being fired by an employer, the fear of incarcerationdon't exist for state-raised convicts who have a low investment in conventional society. Breaking the law and going to jail become what sociologists describe as "normalized" experiences. Criminal behavior loses its stigma; sanctions lose their sting.
"The more often the sanction of imprisonment is employed, the less it deters," writes Todd Clear in a groundbreaking article on howincarceration actually increases crime. For people like John, prison is no deterrence. How could it be? It's a familiar environment where he knows how to function, how to "get his props," as the inmates say. In a jail full of losers, John was a star. In society he was nothing.
Despite their sporadic and inadequate schooling, my students are far from ignorant. I remember a homework assignment I gave to my first class: Write an essay on one of three questions: How do you feel about the baseball strikedo you side with the players or the owners? (The Major League players' strike made headlines in the spring of 1994); Discuss the pros and cons of President Clinton's 1994 Crime Bill; or If all of your insecurities disappeared, how would your life look a year from today?
I assumed most of them would write about the baseball strike. Instead, I received seven informed articles on the crime bill, six essays about life without insecurity, and two pieces about the baseball strike.
Twenty-year-old Kenny wrote the following essay about the crime bill. He was raised in Harlem by a single mother and sentenced to a year on Rikers for selling drugs. His father is serving a life sentence in Attica prison for a murder he committed in his teens. "He's never comin' out," Kenny said when I asked him if he'd see him anytime soon. "He'll die in there." Of President Clinton's crime bill, Kenny wrote:
Simply stated, the recently passed crime bill is a joke. The crime bill costs taxpayers $30 billion but you can be sure it'll hurt blacks and Latinos. See, when you're young and black, you're guilty first. The rule for cops when it comes to people like me is shoot first and ask questions laterwhen the paramedics come.
The 100,000 new police officers on the streets will be trying hard to make arrests to keep their jobs. Given the recent police scandals we've seen, it's probably safe to say that at least 10% of them will be corrupt. Poor urban areas are unknown jungles for them, and they draw their weapons too quickly.
Unfortunately, the bill did not include enough money forcommunity centers, homeless shelters and jobs. Seems like a lot of money passes by but never stops in our neighborhoods.
And then came the anger.
This crime bill is a piece of shit and a waste of taxpayers' money. Instead of educating people in low-income communities, politicians just want to lock motherfuckers up for the rest of their lives. Society should remember that most prisoners get out one day. Who do they want in their streets? Animals or educated, reformed ex-cons?
Several years later, I was on my way to class and bumped into Kenny on the campus of John Jay College. I wondered what he was doing there, at a criminal justice college attended mostly by law-enforcement professionals. He'd shaved his head, and the earring was gone. Standing six-three with a Tommy Hilfiger jacket draped over his broad shoulders, he turned more heads than mine. "I told you I wasn't goin' back to jail," he said. "A few more semesters and I'll have my degree."
I remembered a Saturday morning in June two years before, when Kenny came to my apartment with a box of doughnuts and a worn SAT book under his arm. He had been out of jail for almost a year and was working part time in our office. He was determined to get into college, and I offered to help him study vocabulary words on the weekend.
I remember the look on my boyfriend's face when he answered the door. Like Kenny, Keith was tall and muscular, but I saw a flash of apprehension as his eyes took in Kenny, how he fumbled through his best version of a "boy-from-the-'hood" handshake. Our Rottweiler, Jake, wouldn't back off. Too many alpha males in one room, I thought, and suggested that Kenny and I go to the roof to do our work.
On a stack of index cards Kenny had written definitions, synonyms, and antonyms. "Here," he said, handing me the cards. "Quiz me."
"Okay ... pecuniary ..."
Kenny closed his eyes. "Money? Something to do with money?"
"Right, good job." We went on like this for a couple of hours.
Today Kenny is putting himself through college. He attends classes four nights a week and works as a counselor at a detention facility for juvenile offenders. "I tell them I've been in their shoes," he says, "and if they don't wake up soon, they'll be headed for state prison just like I was."
The last day of class is always bittersweet: I know I won't see some of my students again but I'm proud that they made it through the rigorous program. In the last hour, I ask each man to go to the front of the room and describe to his peers the kind of life he visualizes for himself upon release. I sit in the back and take notes as they speak. The notes go in their files, which we show them when they're out as reminders of their goals.
At first, some of the men shake their heads or pretend they don't understand the question. Then one man, usually riding more on bravado than bravery, swaggers to the front of the room and begins.
The most memorable experience was with my first class. Charlie, a peaceful heroin addict and one of the best students in the program, waited until everyone had gone before he slouched to the front of the room. I thought he was feeling self-conscious; the dentures he received from the jail dentist didn't fit right and chattered in his mouth when he spoke. But the students respected Charlie because of his writing skills. He had written some of the best articles in the Rikers Review and had a gentleness of spirit that made him instantly likable.
Charlie walked slowly to the front of the room. At age forty-five he had the appearance of an old man. (Doctors say inmates have the "medical age" of people ten years their senior because of "at-risk behaviors," inadequate preventive care, and years of neglect.) When Charlie turned and faced his classmates, whose expectations of him were high, he opened his mouth, mumbled something, and then buried his face in his hands. When he lifted his head his face was wet with tears. I knew something terrible had happened; behind bars, crying is the ultimate sign of weakness, a shameful act that breeds contempt and ostracism.
All eyes were on Charlie, but he had no dreams to present. That morning he had learned that he was HIV-positive. He told the group hedidn't know how he would find a foothold in society once he was released.
"I am an outcast four times over," he said. "Ex-con, ex-junkie, black, and HIV-positive. I'd be lyin' if I told you I had any dreams."
Silence. Open mouths. Staring at the floor. I prayed someone would reach out to him. And then someone did: the class tough guy, the stubborn, fiercely independent inmate and occasional bully, Milton, pushed his chair aside and approached Charlie. He hesitated, thrust out his chest, and then wrapped his arms around him. "Heyyou my man. You gonna make it," Milton told him. "I believe in you, man." The ice was broken.
One by one, each of Charlie's classmates, the men society knows only as coldhearted thugs, rose from their chairs and walked to the front of the room. They shook Charlie's hand, slapped him on the back, and hugged him.
"You're my hero," one of them said. "You ain't gonna die. You gonna make it. We're here for you, man."
Two days after Charlie left Rikers, he started shooting heroin again. But this time he did something different: He called his counselor at Fresh Start and agreed to enter a six-month drug-treatment program.
I didn't hear from Charlie for a while. Three years later, I bumped into him in a dark holding cell under the Supreme Court building in Manhattan. The agency I had moved to, the Correctional Association of New York, monitors conditions in the city's court pens, mini-jails in the bowels of the courthouses where detainees are held before arraignment. As we toured the cell blocks and spoke with the inmates, one of them called out my name.
Charlie rose from a bench in the back of the cell and squinted as he approached the bars. He was bone thin and stooped. I stuck my arm through the bars to shake his hand. A correction officer told me to step back.
"Charlie? Is that you? What are you doing here? I'm so glad to see you!" I instantly regretted my poor choice of words. Of course he couldn't tell me why he was there with twenty men pushing up on him and a guard within earshot. And telling someone you're glad to see him in jail just doesn't work.
"It's a long story," he said. "I'll write you a letter."
I slipped him my card, doubting he would.
A week later I received his letter. I noticed that the return address was the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island, the jail where inmates facing hard time in state prison are held. Charlie wrote that after he completed the drug program, he finally started getting his life together. "I wanted to take some courses, creative writing among them," he said, but was back in jail before he had a chance. "In my situation, having the Monster [AIDS] as they call it here, I have to rely on public assistance to get on my feet," he explained. "The places the city houses me in are always in the middle of the war zone. Just when I had almost pulled myself up by my bootstraps, I was stopped by the police, arrested and charged with drug sale."
He swore he was innocent; the cops got the wrong guy, he said. "All I had on me was $13. No drugs, no money that was marked, nothing. It took me eleven months to get to trial and be acquitted." Because he was innocentor some might say foolishCharlie refused to "cop a plea," meaning he declined the plea bargain the prosecutor offered: a reduction to a misdemeanor charge and a couple of months on Rikers. But proving his innocence and the cops' mistake cost him about a year of his already shortened life.
According to Michael Jacobson, delayed justice in the Big Apple is all too familiar. Michael Jacobson is a professor at John Jay College who has studied court-case processing; he is the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and the former commissioner of the Department of Probation. "New York City has one of the most pathologically delayed court systems in the country," he tells me. "Inmates who can't make bail are held on Rikers Island and can be taken back and forth to court fifteen times before their case is resolved." New Yorkers charged with felonies spend an average of 140 days on Rikers before they are convicted and sentenced or, as in Charlie's case, acquitted and released.
"I was released into the streets with nothing," Charlie continued. The material loss was bad, he said, but what "hurt the most" was the personal loss. Before he got locked up, Charlie had met a woman who was also in recovery and also HIV-positive. They had fallen in love and plannedto marry. "She waited for me while I was detained, not knowing if I would be out in twelve months or twelve years," he wrote. "But eventually she gave up on me and moved back to Florida with her mother."
The episode "took the heart out" of him, he said. "I went to war in my own little way. I just said 'fuck society' and ended up doing everything I had been accused of. I sold drugs, I started using again. I didn't care. I started packin' (carrying a gun) 'cause I swore I wasn't going back. In short, I went buck wild." The day I saw him in the holding cell in the Manhattan supreme court building, he was awaiting sentencing for gun possession and drug sale.
"I figure I can't just lie down and die," he wrote. "I got to rise. I want to go higher next time. One day I hope to make you proud to say you know me."
Chances are strong I will not see Charlie again. As a second felony offender, he will serve, at a minimum, ten years in state prison. By then, the Monster will have killed him.
When stories like Charlie's make me feel like giving up, I remember the advice of my former supervisor at Fresh Start, Alice Layton. She told me that if we save one man in thirty, we've beaten the odds. "We need to be the safe people our students can count on for second, third, and fourth chances. Our mission can't be affected by individual successes or failures."
Beginning in the 1980s, the Department of Correction contained the swelling inmate population by building more jails, grafting prefab units onto the old-style penitentiaries, and launching several jail barges. The city purchased two 350-bed ships, former POW ships from the Falkland Islands war, to the tune of about $50 million. When the jail population dipped slightly in the mid-1990s, the city closed the old POW ships. Since tens of millions had been spent on them, Commissioner Michael Jacobson toyed with the idea of a floating hotel, a novel idea that landed his picture on the front page of the New York Post. "We even had a name for it," he joked. "The Holiday Inn-mate." The ships ended up sold as scrap metal.
Taxpayers bore a steep price for the flurry of jail construction: a more than 600 percent increase in the Department's operations budgetbetween 1980 and 1990. Despite the spending on correction, both the jails and the city were a mess when I started teaching on Rikers in 1994. Revelers rang in the New Year as two cops fell to sniper fire. Over 2,000 New Yorkers had been murdered the year before. Crack was on the downswing but heroin use was up. Newly elected Mayor Giuliani declared war on "a city out of control." He ushered in zero tolerance and quality-of-life policing, which landed scores of low-level offenders and drug addicts in jail. With intensified law enforcement, arrest rates soared and Rikers brimmed with prisoners.
Compounding the problem was the stock market crash of 1987, which left in its wake a budget crunch that lasted through the mid-1990s. Throughout the city, social services were cut; in the jails, they were decimated. Scores of Rikers counselors and teachers were fired; entire programs were closed down, leaving the inmates idle and more frustrated than usual. In 1994 alone, the jails racked up over 1,000 inmate stabbings and slashings. An October 1994 cover of New York magazine featured the headline IS RIKERS ABOUT TO EXPLODE?
In one of the most alarming breaches of security in the history of Rikers Island, an inmate on Rikers was shot. (Not even officers are allowed to have guns inside the jails.) "I'll never forget that phone call," former commissioner Jacobson tells me. "It was four in the morning and the chief of security is on the line telling me an inmate's been shot. I'm thinking, Shot? Shot with what? A slingshot?" Jacobson later learned that a visitor had smuggled in the gun, a tiny derringer pistol, with which four inmates had planned to shoot each other. The deal was that one inmate would shoot the other three, then himself, and they'd all sue the city for damages. "It was so unbelievably stupid," Jacobson says. "The gunman almost died when he shot himself."
When I entered my classroom that spring, tension on the Rock was palpable. A CO warned me that a riot was likely. The jails were averaging more than 100 violent incidents a month. I took solace in the fact that Fresh Start was located in CIFM, known as the calmest jail on the island. CIFM houses only sentenced inmates who, because they want to go home on their scheduled release date, are more invested in following the rules.
Still, the jail was far from orderly. Gangs ran the dorms, and "redalerts" signifying an inmate disturbance, which could mean anything from a simple stabbing to a full-scale riot, were frequent occurrences. During red alerts all jail movement ceases. The doors slam shut to "freeworlders" (civilian staff and correction officers alike); no one is allowed to enter or leave the facility; traffic on the bridge comes to a stop.
In my classroom in the basement of the jail, I'd be shut in with fifteen male inmates sporting doo-rags and gang colors (both of which have since been banned) while edgy correction officers roamed the halls. "Don't worry," my students would say. "You're safe in here with us."
For the most part I felt that I was, because one thing I knew about convicts was that they have a soft place in their heart for mothers and teachers, particularly female teachers. It also helped that I was a contributing editor at Prison Life, a glossy magazine for America's captive readers known as the "voice of the convict." Because of that, my students saw me as an ally. If a riot broke out when I wasn't there, they said, they'd be good reporters and get me the scoop from the inside.
Fortunately, a riot never did occur, and over the ensuing years violence on the Rock declined precipitously. Since 1995, inmate stabbings and slashings have dropped 90 percent. Stories of what some believe is a Rikers Island renaissance have been featured in The New York Times, the New York Post, the Daily News, and even a prestigious criminology journal.
One of my students, Alfonso, interviewed some old-timers on Rikers for an article he was writing about brutality in the jails before the current reforms. I told him we would never be able to publish his story in the Rikers Reviewthe Department prohibits any mention of gangs, weapons, or violencebut Alfonso wrote it anyway. "Maybe I'll get it published on the outside," he said, and asked me to hold onto it for him.
According to his sources and the ten years he spent on and off Rikers Island, "the Rock was a violent and crazy place" until the late 1990s. "Most of the fights were along racial lines. Blacks and Hispanics fought constantly. Gangs ran the dorms and controlled the phones." Of the two phones in each dorm, one belonged to the Bloods, a black gang, and the other to the Latin Kings, a Hispanic gang. "If you weren't part of agang, you had to split a motherfucker's face open to get on the phone," he wrote. "Extortion, stealing, rape ... I'd need an encyclopedia to complete the list." Jailhouse thugs "would extort punks for their commissary" [goods purchased from the jail store] "or try to make you their wife." Predatory inmates known as "booty bandits" forced weaker inmates into becoming their personal sex slaves and sometimes traded their sexual services for cigarettes and food from other prisoners.
"Inmates organized into gangs for security," he wrote. "Even today, anyone who goes to a CO (correction officer) for help is a 'rat' and the consequences are severe. Back then, death was not out of the question.
"All the officers would do for you after the inmates done fucked you up was move you to another dorm. And when the inmates in that dorm found out you snitched, you were dead meat."
Alfonso called me a week after he was released. He'd managed to make it home safely from Rikers without getting high or into trouble. He'd kept his appointment with the college counselor who visited the program on Rikers and planned to begin classes in the fall. He even got his old carpenter's job back. His only problem, he said, was loneliness.
"Everyone I know is in the mix. I don't know what to do with myself when I'm not working."
He lived with his sister and her husband in the projects and didn't feel safe leaving the apartment. "I don't wanna get caught up in a drug sweep," he said, "or be tempted to buy drugs myself." He asked if I'd like to do something with him that weekend so I invited him to church, hoping that the Unitarian sermon wouldn't offend his Catholic sensibilities.
When I arrived, he was standing outside and greeted me warmly. Within seconds, my heart sankI could tell he'd gone back to heroin.
"You can always tell by the complexion," a former heroin addict and Fresh Start counselor told me. "It's darker and yellowish."
I could also tell by the difference in Alfonso's appearance. In jail, he looked almost elegant: tall, well built, jet-black hair, smooth olive skin. He was quiet and dignified; his many years of "hard time" in state prison had earned him respect from his peers. One look from Alfonso wouldsilence a disruptive student. To them he was a convict, not an inmate. To his teacher, he was a gentleman.
Most times he'd arrive early to class. He'd straighten the rows of desks and erase the blackboard so I wouldn't get chalk on my clothes. He'd hustle the inmates out of the halls and raise his hand before speaking. But on that cloudy Sunday morning on the Upper East Side, the dark circles under his eyes, his "yellowish" complexion, and the tremble in his hands as he bent to light a cigarette told me he'd gone back to heroin.
After the service, I took him to lunch. I asked him how he was doing; he said he was fine.
"It's still weird being out," he said, pushing aside a half-eaten hamburger. "I know I'm supposed to be happy but it's hard. I've been in prison so much I feel like an outlaw even when I'm free."
He saw the sadness in my face and it made him uncomfortable.
"Don't worry about me," he said. "I'll get over it."
I tried to approach the subject of relapse but ended up on a soapbox. "Alfonso, I know it's difficult right now, but it'll get better. I promise. You'll be in school in just a couple months and you'll make friends there. You'll meet people who aren't in the drug game. But please, you can't keep getting high. You'll lose everything if you do. You're too good for drugs." I sounded like a commercial.
"I'm not getting high," he said. "I mean, not really. I picked up once but I stopped the next day. I went to an NA meeting right afterward. I'll be fine. Let's change the subject, okay?"
I knew to shut up. Alfonso was proud and he would do it on his ownor not. I also knew that when an addict says he "only picked up once but will be fine," he's headed for a return trip to Rikers. I could see how lonely Alfonso was when he asked if he could "just hang" with me while I did some errands that afternoon.
We stopped in a used bookstore in Greenwich Village and browsed through a table of one-dollar books. I figured he'd buy a thriller, maybe an adventure story, but The Secret of Male Depression was the title of the book he bought. A counselor once told me that our clients often use drugs to "self-medicate"Prozac for the uninsured.
Outside, a cold rain had begun to fall. He held his book over my headso I wouldn't get wet. I told him to call me or his counselor at Fresh Start if he wanted to talk. He said he would and we hugged good-bye.
As I watched him walk away with his worn book on depression under his arm, I had a sinking feeling I wouldn't see Alfonso again. That time I was right.
Violence on Rikers began to decline when Commissioner Jacobson took over the city jails in 1995. A former city-budget official with a Ph.D. in sociology, he knew not only where to find the funding to make the jails safer, but also how. He expanded education programs, added another month of training for correction officers, and, most significantly, increased the number of drug-treatment slots from 100 to 1,500.
"Michael Jacobson was a truly extraordinary commissioner," says Anthony Smith, head of the New York City Horticultural Society, which runs a greenhouse program for Rikers prisoners. "He really cared about inmates not coming back."
The perfect complement to the humanitarian Jacobson was his tough-minded partner in correction, Bernard Kerik, then a deputy commissioner. Known for his hands-on management style and intolerance for inefficiency, Kerik worked unrelentingly to tame Rikers Island. In an innovative move, Jacobson and Kerik took NYPD's nationally recognized crime-fighting strategies and adapted them to the jails. Known as TEAMS, a sporty acronym for Total Efficiency Accountability Management Systems, the program combines the principles of business management with zero-tolerance policing. It holds both correction staff and inmates accountable for keeping orderly jails. According to Kerik, whom Mayor Giuliani recently appointed Commissioner of the NYPD, the Department now has over 100 performance indicators to assess agency operations. Kerik instituted weekly 7:30 A.M. meetings where wardens are grilled on overtime expenses, inmate violence, and CO sick rates. Many Rikers wardens have been fired or transferred for less-than-pleasing results.
"We gotta name for TEAMS," says a captain who favors the old-school policy of let-the-wardens-run-their-own jails. "Total elimination of all managers systematically. You go to one of those meetings with decades on the job and you come out fuckin' retired."
For inmates, zero tolerance means that if an inmate slashes another inmate, he's charged with assault and weapon possession and faces up to seven years in state prison. In the past, assaultive inmates were given sixty to ninety days in "the Bing," a disciplinary lockdown unit. In 1999, the Department arrested 1,186 inmates in the jails, a whopping 675 percent increase from 1996. Today, sweeping searches for contraband by helmeted, baton-wielding COs are common occurrences. The Department also introduced electronic stun shields, glowing and crackling with electric currents"They scare the inmates more than anything," a Department official told meto "extract" recalcitrant inmates who refuse to leave their cells.
Undoubtedly, the jails are noticeably safer today and my students are calmer, both of which make teaching there easier. It also helped to learn their lingo and know their backgrounds. My first few minutes in the classroom, however, were mortifying. As I stood before my students and began to introduce myself, a few of the men started hissing. "Whew ... she's fat," I heard someone say. My face reddened; my jaw dropped. "I can't believe you're calling me fat," I blurted idiotically.
Chuckling and shaking heads. Then one of the inmates went to the blackboard and picked up the chalk. "P-h-a-t," he spelled. "That's ghetto for hot." I felt both relieved and manipulated.
A half hour later I did it again. I asked the men to introduce themselves to the group, stating their age, where they were from, and why they had joined Fresh Start. When a young Hispanic man began speaking, I noticed a tear-shaped tattoo on his cheekbone, like a teardrop on a clown's face. It made him look less sinister.
"That's an interesting tattoo," I commented. "I've never seen one like it. Does it symbolize a state of permanent sadness?"
This time the men didn't chucklethey howled. The inmate turned and looked me dead in the eye. "It means I killed someone," he said. He was a member of the Latin Kings, one of the two Hispanic gangs on the Rock. Tears mean dead bodies, not sadness.
I was also guilty of idealizing my students. They worked so diligently in the program that I couldn't understand how difficult it was for many of them to keep a job on the outside. I learned this lesson the hard way: from one of my favorite students, Benjamin.
When I interviewed Benjamin I was surprised when he said he wanted to be in the computer class. Fresh Start offers vocational training in two areas: culinary arts and computers, both major industries in New York City with plenty of job opportunities. The inmates in the computer program also learn word processing so they can type their articles for the Rikers Review. But I didn't see how that would be possible for Benjamin. His left hand hung like a rag from his wrist, the result of a gunshot to the back.
"You realize you'll have to learn to type if you're accepted," I said. "We don't want to set you up to fail." I felt bad that I had been abrupt with him. Unlike the other inmates with their convict swagger and 'hood-boy toughness, Benjamin projected vulnerability. He was smallmaybe five-fiveand spoke in a quiet voice. He had huge, walnut-brown eyes and a smile so warm it could melt the heart of the coldest correction officer.
"I won't fail," he said. "I can promise you that. I'm just asking for a chance. I wanna work in an office when I get out. I gotta learn how to use a computer."
I thought about Fresh Start's mission: rebuilding New York, one life at a time. Benjamin had nearly lost his life. The least we could do was teach him to type.
Like the other inmates sitting in the gym waiting to be interviewed, Benjamin had learned about the program through flyers we posted in the jail dormitories. Unlike some of the other inmates, I noticed, he hadn't ripped the flyer off the wall but wrote down the time and place of the interview. About 250 of the jail's 1,200 inmates sign up for Fresh Start, but because of limited funding we can enroll only twenty-five students in each three-month cycle.
Besides instinct, which comes from knowing the inmate population well, we base our choices on whether the candidate has some work history and doesn't show signs of mental illness. Eye contact, authenticity, and enthusiasmthe qualities that would attract employers on the outsideare the traits we look for in one-on-one interviews.
After fifteen minutes with Benjamin, I told him he'd made it to thenext level. "Consider yourself a semifinalist," I said. "The final requirement is to write a one-page essay on life in jail and drop it by the program office by nine o'clock tomorrow morning."
When he asked if he could write about life after jail, I liked him even more.
To prepare students for jobs on the outside, we simulate a workplace environment. We give them performance evaluations, pay them the highest wage available in the jail (fifteen dollars a week), and dock them a day's pay if they miss a class. In addition to twelve weeks of vocational training, the students attend classes in conflict resolution, relapse prevention, life skills, public speaking, career counseling, and GED prep. Equally as important as cooking or computer skills, these groups address the problems that lead to criminal behavior in the first place.
In the writing class, which I teach, the inmates become reporters and writers for the Rikers Review. I use the project of publishing a magazine to build their skills in teamwork, prioritizing workloads, and meeting deadlines. Similar in format, say, to an Esquire magazine for convicts, the Rikers Review contains feature articles, profiles, true confessions, poetry, short stories, and humor. The men draw illustrations to accompany their articles, or pay other inmates with cigarettes to get the artwork they need. While pieces such as "Confessions from a Drug Dealer," "How to Be a Dad from Behind Bars," and "Your Guide to Getting (Legal) Work on the Outside" are common features in the Rikers Review, some of the men write rich and gritty short stories in the tradition of prison writers like Chester Himes and Edward Bunker.
In every class, one or two men write with uncommon literary sophistication. Take, for example, the following poem that my student John W. wrote for his girlfriend.
SOMETHING FOR YOUR HEAD
I want to know where you go When you journey on the wings of your thoughtsI have watched you take flight Like a bird in the night.
Do you realize that your imagination Is the inspiration for life's rhythms The beat to songs yet sung, A melody so beautiful it can't be clothed in words?
When you behold your image in life's mirror Does your spirit dance with the waves Taking you to places and unexplored spaces Revealing your face in all of its graces?
Can you believe with conviction That you alone Are the source from which all poetry finds its beginning And its end
That life is a woman Like you Making men, like me Understand what it means to live.
Some of the men write to release emotions that have been buried under layers and years of mind-numbing drug addiction. Others write for solace, for redemption, or to lash out at the demons that have robbed them of their dreams. A few write to stay sane; others write to pass time, but most come to find that writing is cathartic and publishing builds self-esteem. Seeing their name in print, even in a jailhouse magazine, infuses them with the sweet joy of confidence. Some are so inspired that they continue to write after they're released.
In fact, two of my students have had op-ed pieces published in major New York City newspapers alongside their pictures. One of my students completed a novel. Another published a guide to Windows 95 in Spanish. A sixteen-year-old in the one class of adolescents I taught on Rikers went on to become the editor of his college literary journal. More than a few have had letters to the editor published in the Daily News. Another graduate performed his poetry at the exclusive National Arts Club off Gra-mercy Park in Manhattan and now teaches poetry to incarcerated youth.A former drug dealer I never thought I'd see again now designs Web sites for a living, including one for a prominent criminal-defense association. Several times a year he returns to the Rock to lay out the inmate magazine he once wrote for.
All this from society's "rabble."
I'll never forget the sight of Benjamin hunched over the computer keyboard, hunting and pecking with one hand. He never complained, and he refused the offers of help from his peers. He learned to type forty words per minute, faster than some men with two working hands. He was the perfect role model, living proof that handicaps needn't kill dreams.
When I asked Benjamin about his life, he said he had two children and that his girlfriend ("my babies' mother") was on public assistance. He had a job at Footlocker paying minimum wage, and started selling drugs after his second child was born. "I had to make ends meet," he said. At the time he was twenty years old.
A full-time minimum-wage salary is $16,478. Welfare and food stamps for a family in New York (comprised of one parent, one preschooler, and one school-age child) is $10,344. "Though the federal government says poverty in New York City officially ends at $14,150," reports The New York Times, " ... meeting bare-bone needs in the city costs two to five times more than the national poverty level for families with children." A study of basic family expenses in the five boroughs set the "self-sufficiency wage" for a family living in Queens, for example, at $46,836.
Shortly before Benjamin was released, I told him I had a job waiting for him on the outside. I'd recently become the managing editor at Prison Life magazine and we needed help in the office. Our ex-con publisher was happy to give him a chance, and I was thrilled to be able to help him. Benjamin was one of my first students to leave Rikers, and I had the intoxicating feeling, as self-indulgent as it is illusory, that I was saving a life.
On the last day of class Benjamin gave me a poem expressing his gratitude. Using his new skills, he typed it on the computer and framed it with clip art of farm animals. The poem reads, in part: "Doubt the sun shines in the sky / Doubt the moon illuminates the night / Doubt thetruth to be a lie / But never doubt my gratitude for you / No matter what the outcome is / I will always be grateful to you for assisting me in reestablishing my life on the straight path."
Benjamin's poem was the first of many gifts I have received from inmates over the years, and it hangs in my office today. I say this not to brag, but because I want people to know how generous ex-inmates can be and how much they appreciate the smallest gestures of kindness from freeworlders. My office is filled with hand-painted cards, handkerchief art, origami, a Hallmark plaque about friendship, and even several large oil paintings from a prisoner whose work was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of Art in Manhattan. When these ex-cons come to my office, it is not unusual for them to have a box of candy or some flowers under their arm, despite being fresh out of jail and virtually broke. It is also not unusual for them to walk on the outside of the sidewalk, a gentlemanly gesture I rarely see in non-ex-con men under fifty.
Looking back, I can say that Benjamin tried hard and lasted longer than I would have expected today. He started with a bang, arriving early, working through his lunch hour, and even writing a hip-hop column for our magazine using the skills he'd learned in the writing class. One day he went to the doctor for his TB medication (in the early nineties TB had reached epidemic levels on Rikers) and convinced the nurse to write an advice column for the magazine pro bono. We called it "Ask Da Nurse." It was the more mundane aspects of office work that baffled him, such as deciphering abbreviations like "pls" and "re" on memos or understanding the mystery of faxes.
About three months into the job, he left a message saying he wouldn't be in that day. His voice sounded normal on the answering machine. I figured he just wanted a day off and it wasn't a big deal.
"My uncle got shot last night," he told me the next day when I asked if he was okay. I was beginning to see that his life was more complicated than I'd imagined.
Soon after, Benjamin's absences became more frequent. Sometimes they were related to his TB; other stories were too confusing to make sense of. He's just finding his stride, I'd tell myself. Once he's used to the routine of a regular job he'll straighten out. We'd have a talk andfor a few weeks he'd improve, but then it was back to his one day out for every two weeks worked. My boss's patience was wearing thin and I found myself making excuses for him. I knew I'd gone overboard when I heard myself say, "Just give him one more chance. He's crippled."
I forget what the inciting incident was, but I remember telling him he was fired. I remember because he started crying, which made me cry too. He apologized over and over, saying he just couldn't "get it together." I rode down with him in the elevator and hugged him good-bye on the street.
The next week I was on vacation, and when I returned I couldn't believe what I was hearing: My boss was telling me that we should give Benjamin another chance. I think it was a combination of his limp hand, his bright smile, his total lack of ego, and his sweet disposition that made people fall in love with Benjamin. The office was small to begin with, but it was empty without him.
My boss picked up the phone and called him. Benjamin answered and said he'd be there the next morning at nine o'clock sharp. "He sounded good," my boss said. "He must have said 'thank you' ten times."
Benjamin did show up the next day, and continued to show up steadily for the next few weeks. He worked longer and harder than ever. He coordinated a huge mailing I never thought he'd manage with his hand and came in on the weekend to finish it.
The following Monday morning I gave him sixty dollars to pick up office supplies at Staples, a job he'd done regularly and faithfully every week since he'd started.
After an hour or two elapsed, my colleagues would pop into my office. "Benjamin back yet?" After lunch they knew to stop asking.
It was several months later that I learned the truth about Benjamin. His girlfriend called looking for him, and I told her we hadn't seen him since the day he left with the sixty dollars.
"Sixty dollars? That's nuthin'! That crack head stole my TV."
Crack head? Our Benjamin was a crack head? He seemed too young and too bright to be a crack head.
I'd like to think that today, hundreds of inmates later, I would have been able to tellor that Benjamin would have been able to tell me.
INSIDE RIKERS: STORIES FROM THE WORLD'S LARGEST PENAL COLONY. Copyright © 2001 by Jennifer Wynn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.