Friday, February 9, 2018

The Garden of Stories: Rikers Island Prison, Where White Boys Got 'Woke' to the Reality of Who Goes to Jail in America

My short story "Behind Bars," dating from a summer internship at Rikers Island, the famous and infamous New York City prison, is published on the internet short story journal, "Beneath the Rainbow (
             It's the summer I learned about who was 'behind bars' in America's large urban prisons. People of color. People from Latin America. People, some of them white, who grew up in certain densely populated inner city neighborhoods, with bad schools, too little family income, absent fathers, family histories including alcohol, domestic abuse, and possibly drugs. People who valued money because they didn't have enough of it. People who learned to get it in any ways I never thought of. Stealing, fencing, scamming, gambling, hustling, selling drugs. People who -- if and when -- they became drug users (heroin then; many choices these days) knew where to look for money: in their family members' hiding places, in the loose behavior of people (often white) who were less worried about keeping it, behind vulnerable locks on apartment windows and doors, unlocked or otherwise vulnerable vehicles, in the stores, workplaces, and warehouses where there was something lying around to steal. 
            Behind bars at Rikers, on a couple of occasions or twice, I tried to do something out of the routine to help people. One inmate was an admitted fence, but not a drug addict. His little brother, however, was a 'junkie' and was certain to break in and rob his apartment if he learned that he was in jail. To protect his home he needed to make a phone call; would I help him? I did.
          On another occasion an inmate who ran an illegal high-stakes poker game, he admitted it, told me that he had been committed to prison without having appeared before the judge. No day in court? He told his guards about this omission, but no one would believe him. He knew he would end up jail for a few months after appearing before a judge, but it was the principle of the thing. He believed in the American 'justice system.' 
           I persuaded the prison authorities to look into it. The guy was right.
           Here's how my story "Behind Bars" begins:

White summer interns in sports jackets and slacks, we’re assigned to assist the social services department in the Reception Center of the Rikers Island prison complex, run by the New York City Department of Correction. A set of the three big units (men, women, youth), the prison was built on an island in New York City like a harbor fortification, but Francis Scott Key never visited Rikers Island. It is one of the largest prison complexes in the world.
Undergraduates, newbies in the way of the world, we’re assigned to our little cement box of cell-like offices, each with his own desk, chair and yellow pad. Our work begins when a new shipment of convicts is dispatched to the island after their day — or, more likely, minute — in court. They arrive in big daily batches, like harvested crops or factory deliveries. Dominic, a neat, black-haired young man of Cuban descent a year my senior, and I sit in our office cells conducting formalized “reception interviews” for each new inmate, inking down their responses to a long series of intrusively personal questions on a four-page form.
Who are these men? Why are untrained summer interns, college kids, mere players in the fields of academe, entrusted to carry out these interrogations, however rote and bureaucratic? Who are we to ask such questions of men twice our age, sometimes older? 

Here's a brief excerpt about my college kid naivety: 

Though I myself was born in the Borough of Queens, [the inmates] speak of neighborhoods, or spawning grounds, by names I am unfamiliar with.
“They call it Hell’s Kitchen,” one fair-haired young man informs me.
“But you’re white,” I blurt, ignorantly.
He laughs. “They’re all Irish,” he tells me. “The kids I grew up with? They’re all in jail.”

          To read the whole (not very long) story, see: 

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