I recently attended my 20th reunion. Not my high-school or college reunion-my Rikers Island reunion. It wasn’t a conventional affair with a hospitality tent, skits and chapel service, and I was the only attendee. But it was moving nonetheless. I did a couple of years on Rikers in the late 70’s and early 80’s-not in jail (though it sometimes felt that way), but as a flack in the Department of Correction’s public-affairs office.
One would not be incorrect in thinking that doing P.R. for the city’s prisons is somewhat akin to pushing a large boulder up a steep hill. The job was mostly about damage control. If an inmate hanged himself in his cell or there was a prison disturbance, I’d go on WINS and deliver the news as casually as possible.
It was hard to be proactive. I once organized a show of art made by both inmates and Soho artists at our Centre Street headquarters. I can’t remember what the point of the exhibition was, but William Ciuros, the Commissioner of Correction at the time, was something of a security freak and wouldn’t let the public attend.
The high point of my career with the department-after which I took a leave of absence that continues to this day-came when we lent vehicles to the Board of Ed during a school-bus strike, and I managed to get a photo on the front page of the Daily News ‘ “night owl” edition of a correction officer gingerly helping a kindergartner onto a prison van.
The occasion for my return to Rikers arose when I was invited to attend an inmate creative-writing program sponsored by Fresh Start, an organization founded by Barbara Margolis in 1989 and now run by the Osborne Association. Fresh Start teaches prisoners social and vocational skills so that, upon their release, they’ll hopefully be able to get jobs as something besides drug dealers. (I don’t think I’m being politically incorrect in saying this, since the majority of writing samples the students produced during my visit did indeed involve the risks and rewards of selling drugs.)
I waited on the Queens side of the Rikers Island bridge as John Mohan, my latter-day equivalent at the D.O.C., checked me in at the security trailer. I didn’t envy John. I learned during my tenure at the department that it’s a lot easier to ask questions as a reporter than to find answers for them as a flack. Also, flacks are held responsible by their superiors for anything prisoners say that finds its way into print and reflects negatively on the department. And prisoners, as a group, have a talent for speaking in sound bites.
Memories of my time with the department came flooding back as I smelled the sea air, watched the planes taking off from La Guardia next-door and waited for John. I used to visit Rikers at least a couple of times a month when I worked for the prisons, either escorting dignitaries around or overseeing the publication of The Pen , the department’s official newspaper.
Today, the department’s inmate population is at least double what it was when I worked there. I wouldn’t exactly call Rikers Island a country club back then, but there are far more fences topped with razor wire now than I remember, and where there were once lawns with grazing geese and pheasants, jails now stand. The island isn’t one large prison, but actually a bunch of separate facilities. The Adolescent Reception and Detention Center, which was relatively new back then, is showing its age, and rivulets of rust from where the razor ribbon hits the building are running down its façade.
The writing class was held at the Eric M. Taylor Center, the facility for those who have been sentenced to prison terms of a year or less. Accompanied by Fresh Start’s Marianna Shturman and Susan Blum from the Osborne Association, we stopped to pay homage, as decorum dictates, to the prison’s warden, David Goodman.
Warden Goodman, a modern-day disciplinarian who wears designer Philip Johnson–style spectacles, started as a correction officer in 1981 at the jail he now runs. Contrary to the island’s overburdened appearance, Warden Goodman says that things at his jail are better than they used to be. “We’re much more professional, much more accountable,” he told me. “We have a gang-intelligence unit. We do a lot of searches during the midnight tour. Violence is tremendously down-down 95 percent since ’95.”
Alan Feuer, a New York Times reporter, was leading the class. Whatever rehabilitative effect it may have on the inmates, the program has certainly proved helpful to the careers of the instructors. Jennifer Wynn, who runs the program and teaches a journalism workshop, recently published Inside Rikers , a behind-the-scenes look at the prison. And Raul Correa, who runs the creative-writing workshop with Mr. Feuer, is off at Yaddo and recently published his first novel, I Don’t Know But I’ve Been Told .
I suppose I should include myself in this group. My first assignments as a freelance writer came from editors who figured I was an expert on crime, which wasn’t necessarily true. Actually, my first published piece was about the island’s Christmas pageant, which featured prisoners in drag and quite displeased the clergy.
The assignment the day I visited was to write about “a crisis, the moment of no return.” It wasn’t an especially difficult assignment, since the lives of the prisoners, by definition, are in a constant state of crisis. Many of their stories were about the temptations of drugs, sex and stolen cars, and sometimes a combination of all three.
By itself, it would be hard to see how useful the creative-writing class could be. But it’s part of a comprehensive, four-month program that includes counseling and job training and continues after a prisoner’s release. According to Fresh Start, of the inmates who complete the program, 85 percent avoid reincarceration.
The 10-minute time limit prevented the completion of anything especially polished. But there were some nice turns of phrase, such as “Sweat becomes my flesh.” It was a reference to the sensation one storyteller experienced standing before a judge who was about to decide whether to remand him to prison or dismiss the charges. “That’s a little line of poetry,” Alan said encouragingly.
Another inmate wrote of the headaches of managing a “members only” strip club in Harlem and of “a well-known Black Tail magazine centerfold model” there named Champagne. It was hard to detect the moment of crisis in the piece, unless it was when Champagne showed up for work an hour and a half late. However, when she finally arrived, she gave her customers more than their money’s worth.
A prisoner named Anthony wrote of his bad judgment in deciding to hang out with his crew one fateful afternoon instead of going home to his girlfriend. “I was busy getting what some would call ‘my high’ on,” he wrote. “After that, we were all on our way to rob the major department store.”
As I watched Mr. Mohan scramble to get the prisoners who spoke to me to sign release forms, I couldn’t say I missed my old job. The prisoners aren’t the only ones society forgets. Correction officers and jailhouse P.R. men also tend to be underappreciated. Two years was just about the right amount of time to spend there-I suspect I learned more than if I’d attended journalism school.
After class, Anthony told me he was serving time for violating his probation. Probation for what? I asked. “Robbery 1, 2 and 3,” he said. “I was there. But I didn’t rob nobody.”
In all the time I worked for the Department of Correction, I never once met an inmate who admitted he’d been justifiably arrested. At least some things never change.