Crucial Minutia
it's the little things...
Daniel May
Riker’s Journal
4 Comments | posted April 30th, 2007 at 11:13 am by Daniel May

There are roughly 14,000 thousand inmates at Riker’s Island. They are divided into 14 different prisons: there is a prison for juveniles, a prison for men who haven’t been sentenced, a prison for drug addicts, a prison for men before they get sent upstate for longer sentences, a prison for men who are serving shorter sentences, a prison for those arrested in the Bronx (–oh, and it’s on a barge. Because there just isn’t enough space on the island), a women’s prison, and apparently another six or seven different facilities. You take a regular city bus to get there. But the stop isn’t actually marked with any signs. You can tell it’s the bus to Rikers because, as my friend Amy tells me while I’m wandering around under the trains at Queens Plaza “it’s where there are a bunch of young women holding babies.” I find the corner with the young women with babies. “Is this the bus to Rikers” I ask one. She looks at me, jostling her daughter in her arms. “You going to Rikers?” she asks. “Yeah.” She doesn’t say anything else. I guess I’m in the right place.

I was heading out to Riker’s for my first day teaching with the Prisoner’s Education Initiative, a program put together by some friends who teach Monday through Thursday at Rikers’ Women’s Prison. We’re going to be teaching a course on women in social movements.

Riker’s Island is both familiar and surreal. It is like any other number of state institutions, only more so. The waiting area feels a little like the DMV, and the guards at the glass treat you with the same air of weary dismissiveness. After getting through the first security check and clearance, you wait for a bus to take you to the prison (of the 14) that you’re going to, and on that trip – in a bus with hard plastic seats that are so slick I almost fell into the aisle on the first turn – you start to see the place. It looks like a sprawling public school high school showered with barbed wire. The road is dotted with trailers – the health outreach center, the grounds management – there are dozens, like the classrooms at any high school in South Los Angeles. It’s cheaper to drop a trailer where there is space than to build an actual building. And the barbed wire is everywhere – fences around the parking lots are covered in rings of it that go from base up 12 or 14 feet, like Christmas-lighted hedges at the house on the block known for it’s overzealous holiday decorations. And those fences have other fences beyond them covered by the stuff. Once inside the prison, this seems particularly ridiculous – there are so many security checks and clearances it’s hard to imagine a prisoner getting out into the parking lot, looking at the barbed wire and saying: “damn. Barbed wire!”

It took me a while to get to this point – the bus to the women’s prison – because they didn’t have my name at the first clearance desk. Even though we sent it over. This apparently happens all the time. I had to wait for a half hour while the other teachers went inside and looked for the right person who get me in. It all seemed weirdly informal, and the guards – mostly black or Latino – seemed unfazed by the lack of proper forms.

I sat sipping hot chocolate from the machine and listened to the various cell phone conversations in the waiting room. “He told me why he did it, but I can’t get into it now.” “I can’t talk for long, I had to beg them to let me take a cell phone this far.” “I’m not sure if they’re going to let me in to see him, but I’m going to wait another few hours.” Every few minutes dozens of mostly black men would come out of the prison, in a straight line, pulling on sweatshirts or putting their police badges, on chains, under their coats. They all looked like Carver from The Wire.

I get off the bus at Rosie’s, the women’s prison, and enter another waiting area. The guard, Torres, tells me to put all my belongings in a bag and then he locks it in a locker. Well, he tries to, but the first three or four he tries are all broken. I’m told to pass my ID through a small slot in a giant metal door. I can’t see the person whose fingers I feel grab the plastic. I ask Torres if I should put my wallet in the locker. He laughs, strangely. “Yeah, I would put it in there.”

“This your first time here?” He says. “Yeah.” “Well, get ready for some culture shock.”

I can feel my lungs tightening slightly, and my shoulders slouch as I force a look of relaxed confidence. I don’t want to be nervous, but Torres is giving me the willies. He seems weirdly proud of his position at the gate, and maybe it’s my imagination – but is he enjoying making me nervous? Suddenly I’m anxious – the dingy bus with the hard seats I almost fell off of, the barbed wire, the bus stop that wasn’t marked, the faceless body behind the metal door, the broken lockers, it’s all getting to me. I am suddenly aware of my arms on the metal I’m leaning against, I feel my hair resting against my ears, I don’t know where to stand. And now Torres is the guard at the river styx, the gargoyle at the gate, the only thing standing between me and the unknown, between me and the chaos beyond all that metal.

“Your escorts here,” Torres tells me. There’s a loud metal click as the gate opens.

We go through a metal gate that looks exactly like the prison gate of your imagination – grey bars, six inches apart. We step inside, in a small entry-way between another gate that looks exactly the same The first one closes, and for a second we’re locked in before the far one opens. We walk through, down a hallway that has lines along the floor. There are three lanes, marked by a yellow stripe on the left and a red one on the right. Outside, to the right, out a series of glass windows, is the rec yard. To the left of the yellow stripe the hall is lined with women, some shouting, some huddled over talking, some, some in orange jump suits, some in street clothes, some look up at me, most don’t, some say something to the guard that’s leading me (“hey, when you gonna get my rec time? Hey, I’ ve been waiting for you!”). We walk down the middle. One of the women steps over the yellow line and the guard snaps at her: “Get back!” She looks up and slowly moves back along the wall. We walk into the next hallway as I hear a woman shout, “You can’t keep me from God! It’s the law!”

I walk into the classroom, my body tense…and it feels like any other classroom, in any number of schools. There are posters along the walls, and the women are eagerly raising their hands and shouting out the names of women roll models in their lives. My arms start to relax. I’m co-teaching with two other teachers, and we talk a little bit about why we’re there.

“It’s good to have you here,” one of the women says in response. “It reminds us that people out there actually care about what’s happening here. So often, on the inside, you just feel invisible.”

The class leaves me feeling buzzed – inspired, moved, excited to return. The women seem genuinely interested in being there and eager to learn. At times the conversation veers onto tangents, but in general the discussion stays on topic and the women leave talking about how excited they are to come back.

Leaving I pass Torres, who asks me how it went. “Great,” I tell him. “Really? I had a woman in here last week who almost started crying when she was leaving. She couldn’t get out here fast enough. It’s a different world in there, right?”

On the train ride home I keep hearing Torres’ voice in my head, asking “It’s a different world in there, right?” He asked me this from a desk that was encased behind two walls of metal and glass, enclosed in numerous fences of barbed wire, locked on a landmass separated from the city by several rivers and at least two bus rides – and still, the different world was in there, safely locked away. We separate ourselves from those prisoners even when we’re in the prison.

In the subway, I imagine looking down at the city from miles above, the various subways and bus routes forming a web of arteries. I am a cell flying through these veins. I feel small and alive.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 30th, 2007 at 11:13 am and is filed under Politics. 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 4 responses

  1. Kate Torgovnick

    Amazing post, Daniel. I can’t wait to hear more dispatches from Rikers.

    April 30th, 2007 | 12:31 pm
  2. Indeed alive. Thanks for this post. I am horrified by the contemporary prison system in this country and all that it reveals about our national delusions about good vs. evil, punishment, poverty, masculinity, socialization, psychology, and hope. Can’t wait to read more.

    May 1st, 2007 | 10:12 am
  3. Wow, great post! Can’t wait to read more.

    May 2nd, 2007 | 12:14 pm
  4. Brilliant, Daniel. Everything you describe is so palpable. Is this sparking your next play? Did you get a hold of “Jesus Hopped the A Train” yet? I’m wondering what you’d think of it.

    May 3rd, 2007 | 1:43 pm

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