Thursday, December 2, 2010

City of Jails

We are aboard a Steinway Transit Corporation bus marked Rikers- Island –Limited-Stop-Service cruising through Queens, one of New York City’s five boroughs. Majority of the passengers, most of who are in a state of deep quietude, are Blacks and Latinos. After a brief stop over on 19th street to pick more people the bus mounts a three way bridge rising from the north west of Queens to extend for more than a mile over the East River.

Besides the uniformed officers guarding the entrance and the roadblocks there are numerous signs on the bridge walls warning motorists not to drop or pick passengers along this route. Only the roar of jet engines overhead from planes flying in and out of LaGuardia Airport’s northern run ways shatters the silence that rules the bus. Thousands of cars and buses commutes past this steel and concrete roadway each day, we are told, but few New Yorkers want to end up where the tightly guarded bridge heads to.

More posters prohibiting cameras, tape recorders, cell phones, beepers and weapons line walls as we approach the gates to the city of jails.

“Home of New York’s Boldest” sign board welcomes us to Rikers Island, New York and the democratic world’s largest correctional facility. Known as the Rock to inmates and Gotham City to outsiders, Rikers is one name that runs the ice down the spine of every wannabe lawbreaker in the Big Apple and beyond. Sandwiched between the East River and the borough of Queens and the mainland Bronx and adjacent to the LaGuardia Airport runways the jail is a “township” by its own right. It has a budget of USDs 860 million a year, a staff of ten thousand officers and one thousand five hundred civilians to control a yearly population of up to 130,000 inmates.

Named after a Dutch settler Abraham Rycken who owned it, the island was acquired by the City of New York authorities from his descendants in 1884 at a fee of USDs 180,000 and has acted as a penitentiary since then. However due to its small size then, measured only 87 acres, the island had to be expanded by landfill to its present size of 415 acres. Even after that overcrowding led to introduction of make shift cells in form of barges.
The fortress, consisting of ten jails each the size of Kamiti Maximum Prison, is only accessible over the unmarked 1.28 kilometer long Rikers Island Bridge, later renamed Francis Buono after the supervising warden, which is not open to the public. Before the bridge was built the only access was by ferry two of which were later converted into floating jails.
Rikers Island holds local offenders who cannot afford or cannot obtain bail, those serving sentences of one year or less, and those pending transfer to other facilities which does not have space. It also has a maximum security section for hard core criminals.
The jail town is a self contained colony catering for inmates, popularly known as Rikers, of all ages hence have its own schools, medical clinics, ball fields, chapels, gyms, drug rehab programs, grocery stores, barbershops, a bakery, a power plant, print shop, a bus depot and car washes. Although it’s official function is to contain New York City’s social misfits Rikers Island has been a source of powerful emotions to many, especially artists.
“How loud quiet nights in the mists of crime” sang R Kelly in his 1997 hit Gotham City “ “A city of justice, a city of love, a city of peace; we all need it, can’t live without it”. Other artists whose inspiration bells were rung by Rikers are Coco Tea, LL Cool J, Kool G Rap and Jim Carroll.
Just eleven miles away from the blazing torch of Lady Liberty and her promise of freedom to newcomers Rikers Island is famed for its hot reception to new residents of New York. Coco Tea attested to this in his timeless classic hit Rikers Island when he said:
The first time the youth come a New York,
Them tell the youth you mustn’t skylark,
Learn a trade or go to school,
And don't you turn yourself in a fool.
Coz him never wan go a Rikers Island.

Besides songs and other literature Rikers Island, also known as Land of Darkness, has also featured in numerous movies, books and video games. Carlitos Way, Marvel Comics and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints are some of the movies where the jail features prominently.

Known for its infamous residents, ninety nine percent of whom are Blacks, Latinos and immigrants, the jail has had its own share of famous inmates. Multi platinum selling artistes DMX, Intelligent Hoodlum, Tupac Shakur and Lil Wayne are just a few of the big names that once served a term here.

Landing at Rikers leaves one bewildered, especially those from Africa where maximum security jails are hostile labour camps. Instead of an Alcatraz- like atmosphere hushed by a looming potential for violence, Rikers is a “town” bigger and better maintained than the Nairobi CBD, with enough parking for hundreds of vehicles that visit every day. The marble lanes interlacing the mundane cell apartments are so smooth and the lawns so neatly manicured that they resemble scenes from a middle class suburb somewhere in Kileleshwa or Muthaiga. Until you see the barbed wire and the gangs in orange jumpsuits.

For a jail of this magnitude the atmosphere is quite serene and peaceful thanks to a spate of reforms in the New York City jail system. Prior to the reforms the island cells used to be a hotbed of gang wars.

Since ours is a chartered educational tour we are guided to our main area of interest; the Island Academy. Although you have to pass through a lot of security hurdles to get here elements of a regular school setting are noticeable. Wall displays of student achievement and friendly interactions among staff and students through the hallways. Classification of the two thousand plus students in the Academy is according to gender, crime type, mental stability and intellectual abilities. Many students describe their first day at Rikers as extremely intense with the feeling of physical restriction setting in the moment they walk through the gates.

Later, traversing through the hallways to get to a backyard, we gaze across the bay on the expansive LaGuardia Airport, bigger than JKIA by any standards. “You never think about how an airport is such a symbol of wealth, privilege and freedom until you are in prison next door, watching planes fly overhead.” observed a sixteen year old boy from The Bronx on noticing our curiosity.

I couldn’t agree more.

Since we are here as part of a volunteer program working with incarcerated teenagers, among our activities in the class will be conducting poetry and visual arts.
As the lesson progress we give the students an open session where they freely air their views. They speak eloquently in heart wrenching verses and prose about their past and present predicaments. For a moment the room ceases to be a cell. The youngsters feel empowered to express themselves and for a few minutes take control of their tethered lives. Most of the juveniles are in for drugs or petty crimes. And most of them are very willing to change their ways and start a new life.

Time and prison restrictions allow us to stay no more than one hour hence the rest had to be postponed to the next session which is in a week’s time. We can’t wait to come back for the bond with the young jailbirds is already tight even in this very first day. On the way out at the entrance lobby there hangs a four by three inches sketch of Jesus on the cross.

“The original was done by Salvador Dali and hung on these walls for sixteen years before it was stolen and replaced by this fake in March 2003.” Explained a prison official. The artist did the sketch as an apology for not attending an art lecture at Rikers back in the sixties, and the piece was brought here from the prisoners dining hall after an inmate tried to vandalize it with a cup of coffee during an emotional outburst.

We are ushered by the uniformed escort to the parking bay where we board the white bus back to Queens. Though there are hundreds of enquiries and requests by potential visitors to Rikers every year, only a few are granted after a prolonged processing. Our case sailed through on the basis of charity and although we are scheduled to hold our classes every Friday for the next three weeks the same bureaucratic protocols had to be observed each time.

There are no surprise visits to “Gotham City.

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