Crucial Minutia
it's the little things...
Daniel May
Riker’s Journal, Part 2
2 Comments | posted June 12th, 2007 at 10:32 pm by Daniel May

At Rikers, “upstate” is an ominous term, a name for some shapeless place that steals people away for reasons unspoken and for stretches unknown. There are two kinds of prisoners at Riker’s: those who are awaiting sentencing and the trip “upstate” and those that are serving sentences of less than a year. For some, then, the time on the Island is a few weeks of waiting before long stretches in high security prison; for others, it’s a few months away from home to reconsider the path that led you to the island. This means that there are two distinct groups, marked by their clothes – those awaiting sentencing wear their own, and those serving sentences wear bright orange prison garb. But in practice, the daily humiliations of prison do away with any sense of “innocent until proven guilty.” In Riker’s you’re reminded at every moment that you’re, well, in Riker’s.

On the way to class last week, Carine — my co-teacher — and I waited in the hallway outside the school area with a group of women. One of those prison doors of gray bars that are remarkable only because they look so much like what you expect doors in prison to look like stood between us and the cluster of classrooms. “Back up!” a voice yelled from behind me. I turned to see a heavy set African American female guard pointing at some random spot on the ground. She screamed again: “Back up!” The prisoners began to shuffle back a few feet to the spot on the ground where the tile shifted from one shade of gray to another. “You gonna move?!” she hollered to one who was slow to respond. When the group was sufficiently distant from the door she hit the button to open the gate. We filed through.

As one prisoner told me, who was in for a few weeks on a minor charge: “it’s a humbling experience in here – because if you ever thought you were better than those people, you get over it quick. In here you realize we’re all the same – addict, killer, innocent.”

We don’t ask our students what brought them to Rikers, but it comes up. Janaie, a beautiful and stately woman who speaks in the kind of calm measured voice that belongs in a graduate seminar, is there for some kind of domestic dispute. Nicole was arrested while buying heroin. Natasha, a stocky Russian women who looks to be in her late forties, has been coming to P.E.I classes for the past three years. She has a thick accent and spends most classes drawing female faces with long elegant eyes. None of us have any idea why she’s there, or what kind of trial would last three years.

But most of the women in our class are addicts, and my sense is that they are there because of petty crimes committed to support their habit. And our classroom discussions generally veer back to the subject of addiction. In a recent class on the role of music in social movements, we began by asking each person to say a song that was meaningful to them. Karina says Lauryn Hill’s Killing Me Softly; Arette says it’s U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Adell’s choice is Shackles by Mary Mary, Sam: Plese Don’t Go by Tank, CC: I Will Surive – (“because I will survive through this.”) Natasha, incredibly, names a track by Earth Wind and Fire, and Jane tells the group her favorite song is…I Would Do Anything For Love by Meatloaf.

We play Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, and ask the group to write down their thoughts on the song. As it’s playing through the second time, the strings building and Cooke’s voice filling the cement room, Rachel, who is sitting to my left, pushes her paper towards me. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard this song, and I think there’s a reason I’m hearing it today,” she has written. “Because next week I get outta here, and go into rehab. It’s time for my change to come.” Sam Cooke’s full and broad voice sings out: “There are times when I thought, I couldn’t last for long…but now I think I can carry on.”

Shauna begins the conversation after the song ends. “The change he’s talking about – it’s death. Cuz he’s talking about life after death – the change that coming for all of us.” A few in the class disagree, but Shauna isn’t having it. She’s a tough woman, with a threatening glare she wears until a wide and disarming smile breaks through it, which happens at least once or twice each class. Shauna plays the chair-woman of our discussions, generally opening the conversation and getting the group back on track when the tangents get too meandering – or when she hasn’t spoken for a while. “I’m not talking about a physical death, I’m talking about a spiritual death” she says. “You can be alive, but dead inside – that’s the kind of death he’s talking about. And he’s saying, change is gonna come.”

Priscilla, a dark skinned women with red hair and a weathered face, agrees. She hasn’t talked much in the past few weeks, but tonight she is forceful and clear, her eyes alive with energy. “It reminds me of the moment I knew my change was gonna come,” she says, as the class falls silent. “I was looking at the mirror, and for a moment I saw passed the mirror, I saw past my reflection, and I saw myself – not this addict I had become, but who I really was. I looked down at my son, who I always had kept away from my drugs – I didn’t want my kids to be affected by it –

“You can’t keep them away from it” someone interrupts. “They know what’s going on, they aren’t dumb –“

Priscilla continues like she was never interrupted. “And my son said: ‘Momma, you know how much we love you right? But in order to love you we have to remember who you were. We have to look past you are.’ And I looked back at my reflection, and I could see past who I was – I saw past this broken face to a beautiful strong black woman. I saw where I came from, and where I could go. And I knew that though I was dead I would be alive again. I knew my change was gonna come.”

I am sitting inches from Priscilla. Later I will think to myself that this is the kind of woman you see on the street and presume is an addict, the kind of woman you don’t give money to because you know where it will go, the kind of woman you look away from because the desperation in her eyes is somehow offensive to your sensibilities, almost invasive, the kind of woman on the train who makes you cringe and sigh – but in that moment all I am thinking is: “it really won’t look good in this classroom, Daniel, if you start crying.”

Luckily, Shauna shifts the groups attention. “That’s right Priscilla. Now we gotta be about this here movie we’re watching tonight.” I fiddle with the DVD case, the documentary Amandla, my fingers shaking.

After class several woman come up to thank us for being there, as they do every week. “It’s great you all come to do this. We appreciate it.” Rachel tells me that she might not be in class next week, cuz she’s getting out. “I can’t wait to get out this place, but I’m gonna miss coming to these classes.” I feel like I should give her a hug, but I fight the urge. Instead, I run to the restroom.

There are two doors, one marked “Staff,” the other “Prisoners.” I decide to go in the one marked Prisoner’s. There is a steel toilet in the corner, no seat. Women have etched messages and tags in the surface. There is no stall. There is a spare sink with bricks of soap in the basin. Afterwards I look in the staff bathroom, which looks like a bathroom for, well, people
I go back into the classroom, and Carine and I begin cleaning up, stacking papers and rearranging desks. I look around the space, the walls covered with pictures of Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, the poster on the door of Pharrell encouraging us to Vote, hand held up in a “V.” It’s strange to me that this space exists only a few feet from that bathroom. I wonder if it feels this way for the women. Do they forget we’re in jail like I forget we’re in jail? I realize, as I pose the question to myself, how stupid it is.

Carine and I begin the strange journey out – and now that I’m friendly with the guards I ask about the day, and learn that there was a flood in one of the dorms and so all the woman are sleeping in the gym.

We show our stamped hands under the infrared light to the guard who then opens the gate for our exit, we return our passes through the tiny slot in the metal door to the guard who give us back our IDs and entrance tags, we pass in the tags to another guard, and finally, we leave into the warm New York summer air. The overwhelming skyline stands tall to our right, in front of us the steady stream of planes taking off from La Guardia lights up the sky, gray beams cutting into the dark night.

Walking to the parking lot, a young woman ahead of us struggles with a giant overloaded garbage bag, stumbling as she shifts the load from one shoulder to another. I end up with the bag, which was heavier than it looked. “What is all this stuff?” I ask. “My brother – he got sent upstate. This is all his clothes.” On my back it feels like enough to fill a closet.

I try to remember what Priscilla was wearing, and realize I can’t recall.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 12th, 2007 at 10:32 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

There are currently 2 responses

  1. Kate Torgovnick

    Daniel—beautiful and really sad post. I think it’s amazing that you’re a) teaching this class and b) telling us all about it.

    June 13th, 2007 | 3:16 pm
  2. Rebecca

    It wouldn’t look too bad to get misty at home reading this though, right? Tell about T next…

    June 22nd, 2007 | 9:40 pm

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