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Word From the Big House (Excerpts from a Daily Rikers Journal)
This entry is formatted as a creative, non-fiction essay synthesized from notes taken during my first day volunteering at Rikers Island on January 22nd, 2013. None of the included events are fabricated; all the inmates and guards are currently working or serving time on Rikers Island, therefore no names have been included. The material is drawn from my own sensory experience, conversations with inmates, and outside research. The final product is my blow-by-blow recollection and reflection on a day of first impressions.
The island is mostly chain-link fences tinseled with barbed wire rings, low temporary trailers marked with the names retired officers, wardens or chiefs, and the ten correctional centers.
Shuttle #4 loops up along the East River to the North-most tip of the island, where the 1,350-bed George R. Vierno Center (GRVC) sprawls.
I dutifully follow the buzzer that disengages the double-thick front doors and enter. I strip off my belt, my coat, my scarf, my bag, empty my pockets, turn over my cell phone to be housed—dead silent—in a locker; I shove my belongings down the X-ray's chute and myself through the metal detector's jaws.
When my left hand is stamped with luminescent white ink I nod and smile at the officer and thank her. Each Ma'am and Sir gets that same thank-you and overdrawn smile.
There's a language here I'm not quite codified into yet. Walking through the locks and gates, the checkpoints, past gun benches, past faces behind glass, blue uniforms and their silver shields, I feel uncertain.
The only certainty is what I am here to do: books. And what the officers do: the locks and gates and the daily in and out. And what the inmates do: wait.
They're here conversing this way when the lights go out, when they come back on; when the snow locks the island down, when the sun opens it up. I only interject.
They have hard discourse; I have the books.
"THROUGH THESE GATES WALK NEW YORK'S BOLDEST"
The slogan, a judicious tongue, declares above the gate to GRVC's general population. To my right, before our last gate, a hallway stretches into the incalculable distance. It is a hallway of riot gear: plastic riot helmets looking flimsy, useless, hanging disembodied on their hooks; a plastic trash can full of wooden Billy clubs, each 2 and ½ feet long: the War Clubs.
Tongues used in the daily talk of Rikers. The guards, I imagine, boom and stride like giants in their bulky riot gear; the inmates shrink and reduce.
It's the give and take language of this place.
The officers have a arsenal of nouns: cuffs; anklets; chains, "Tubes" (foam casings that wrap an inmate's hands in cylinders like fat sausages), wired glass, steel, their shields: riot shields, tin and leather badges, Taser shields for control; clubs; mace; handguns.
These are tongues of continuous conversation. The inmates listen and wait, read and sleep. An unbearable patience is their tongue.
Ours is our books. We tote them through security in clear, plastic bags. Semi-pristine and scuffed additions join the ratty catalogue on the shelves. Each is stamped with the NYPL's mark.
We bring these books here to be read, torn, underlined, lost, stolen, trashed. Some covers are rippled and slick from handling; others non-existent, obliterated; others taped; others perfect, uncracked.
I work: conceding to regulations, inquiring about literary interests, taking requests, shooting the shit, and providing what I can, when I can.
Our library is a closet. Three shelves line the right wall footed by maimed romance novels. A beat-up file cabinet stuffed with back issues of National Geographic and glossy periodicals flanks the door, while a hulking desk eats two thirds of the floor tiles. We have a cart too, a rattling, heavy steel thing overflowing with trade paperbacks and oversized non-fiction, editions too large to squeeze onto the shelves.
We stock the cart with what we think will interest the guys. We use gaudy titles to catch the eye: James Patterson, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, Stephen King, and Robert Ludlum do the trick. Certain authors get the special distinction of nightly lock-up in a metal cabinet out in the Program Office's main room. The popular fiction, urban fiction, and comic books sleep there on our off days, emerging each Tuesday and Thursday, between ten o'clock and two-thirty, to meet the thumbs and eyes of our patrons.
Our most requested titles: Fifty Shades of Grey; the Twilight, Hunger Games, and Dark Tower series; anything by Patterson, Ludlum, Rice, Martin, or Rowling; that morning's Metro, AM, and Village Voice.
Cornwell, Grisham, Brooks, and Brown have fallen out of favor.
I peddle Hemingway, Wilde, Yeats, Steinbeck, Baldwin, and Dante with the guiltless ease of any dealer.
I talk comic book shoptalk.
Two kids and I discussed the merits of Spiderman and Ultimate Marvel. They couldn't have been more than nineteen, tight with one another, shoulder to shoulder, hunched over the cardboard box of issues, thumbing through and stacking their "maybes" in twin, neat piles. They ribbed one another and smiled constantly.
One of them did sketches from the pages of comic books he got from us. He was good, his friend told me. Today, the artist made out with a prize: a 90s era Jim Lee X-Men issue featuring Galactus and Magneto duking it out in vibrant neons. They cradled the issue between them and left wide-eyed, grinning.
Another guy, older, his beard hanging to the hollow of his throat, his arms and chest bulging with a surplus of free time and free weights, versed me on the uselessness of a Hulk comic where Dr. Banner doesn't Hulk-out. He flipped intently through an issue whose dark cover was etched with a black and white tableau of the good doctor and his green demon.
"No hulk," he said impassively, slipping the issue back into the anonymity of the box. Things are meant to do what they're meant to do: if Hulk doesn't go Hulk, then what the hell is he?
Between ten to two thirty we work with varying success. Two Spanish inmates came and left with Spanish language editions of Lorca, Neruda, and Yeats tucked under their arms. Another man renewed On the Road and selected a copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol. I told him I'd like to pick his brain about the poem next time we met in the library. He just smiled, thanked me, and left.
Others come and leave with ragged issues of Sports Illustrated, People, and National Geographic to pass the time. Some leave without choosing a thing at all.
Our time is short, regularly bisected by headcounts in the housing blocks and the officers' lunch hour and a half. Any inmates in the Programs Office during these frozen periods are stuck with us. They leaf through their books, duck in and out of the library, or are told to sit and stay on benches by one of the C.Os. Some are dutiful and some are restless.
A day here is a waiting period; a series of conversations; a stream of men sifting through stacks they've looked through a dozen times before, finding something good, finding nothing at all; some days nobody is allowed to come.
The guys tell us that the officers sometimes clear out a cell because it has too much clutter. They toss half of the prisoner's books into the garbage. Each man's carefully kept collection goes through this thinning process at least once. So they swap frequently, hoping to avoid losing too often.
Books pass around a lot at Rikers and many never come back to us. Whether they're in the trash or a different pocket every day, better they stay in the general population than locked up five out of seven days a week.
A book is palpable and real to hold: a paper to tuck under an arm and a book for a shelf. If you've got two or three, you have a choice.
There's not much choice at Rikers day to day.
At quitting time, an inmate berated us about the "poisonous books" we brought in for the population.
"You need more books to educate, not the shit you bring," he told us.
He was not a large man, average in height, but with that certain build common among inmates: wide chest, thick arms. He was not large and did not intimidate actively, but he spoke with a grave certainty knotted with pride and frustration.
His was an odd power imbued by his incarceration: the validity of experience.
We couldn't say much in our defense. He was the one behind the locks and glass. Sheepish, we busied ourselves reorganizing the cart; we shrugged, excused ourselves, our collection, and blamed the donation process we went through to get our books.
When he was gone and we were packing up the urban fiction, we found it was easy to justify: the prisoners have to read something. It might as well be what they want to read. Literacy is a valiant cause. Not every prisoner is going to take on the role of lawyer and work himself free.
And the comics, that little brightness, an infusion of heroism and escapism bringing on fits of excitement: the excitement of two young men looking through the box of comics and combing out the prime issues of X-Men, Batman, and the Avengers.
What of it?
We locked up, promising requests, new books, our faces again next Tuesday, and left our closet behind for the weekend.
At a hog-leg in the hallway we came to face the exercise yard. Leaves and plastic wrappers walked its circumference. A plane took off beyond the walls from LaGuardia. Gulls hopped across the white borders of the basketball courts.
As we passed, shadows hooked through the red and white basketball nets, out the other side, and away. Tomorrow the men will be playing pick up games and smoking cigarettes in the sun. They will mill and stroll for the sake of motion. But today it is too cold for exercise.
The front doors buzzed and clicked open. One of the officers, pissed off at another, shouted as she shrugged on her duffel coat, red scarf, and leather gloves.
"This goddamn building is gonna be standing when your ass is dead and gone."
She left clucking her tongue and shaking her head.
Holding the door for her, I was trying to recall whether my collection of back issue comics had any sequence at all.
Inmates in striped orange and white DOC jumpsuits picked up trash in front of the Center. An officer smoked a cigarette on a bench and watched. The men wore latex gloves.
In their cupped palms: the butts of Camels, plastic wrappers, fossilized chewing gum. They emptied their hands into plastic bags; a silent exchange.
The #4 shuttle pulled up, cranked open its folding door. We climbed in and drove away, arching along the East River, leaving the men and officers behind.