The prison is a structure. It has walls and it has smells and there are sounds you hear inside the prison. There are people who work and who live there. There are rules and there are gates and there are also friendships, and barbershops, and rabbis. I have been going to Rikers Island, which is a piece of land, on one end of a bridge, at the edge of the world.
There are fourteen thousand prisoners in ten jails. Most stay about 45 days, some much longer, and many will journey on upstate, to places I haven't seen but where I do know, at least, that there is time, and time, and time.
There are houses on Rikers Island, in pairs, and they remind me of railway tracks, the way they meet and then stretch out away from each other, evenly arranged: cell after cell after cell after cell after cell.
There is a room, at the end of a hallway, where water drips from the ceiling and blue paint comes away from the walls, and where there is a faded sign saying chapel. One day I passed by to see two people in there, marrying each other.
The prison is an idea. There are ways of speaking and ways of acting inside the prison. There are places that men must stand, legs apart, hands against the wall. Crossing over the bridge from Queens, Rikers Island comes into view as a relic: an old, low, crouching fixture on the landscape.
The library is also an idea. It is an idea about what we mean by public and about how we treat knowledge, and about how things might change. If the prison must exist, as an island, and as a whole world, and as a way of thinking, then so, we might say, must the library.
We push an unwieldy metal cart through the houses, and it is piled with books, which are precious objects. But inside the brick walls of the prison, they are even more precious ideas.