What It’s Like on the Inside: The Inequities of Rikers Island

Inside Rikers , by Jennifer Wynn. St. Martin’s Press, 206 pages, $24.95.

Albert Einstein thought the “prettiest way” to get to the heart of certain concepts in physics was to think up good thought experiments. This seems as apt a method as any for illuminating the deep fissures of class and race at the heart of Jennifer Wynn’s wrenching little book about the lives of Rikers Island inmates.

Imagine this scenario: The young Al Gore–who, we know from his own mouth, possessed and used illegal drugs on “rare and infrequent” occasions during the 70’s–is living in the South Bronx in the 1990’s. Strip him of his family and money and paint him another color; let him then be captured in a drug sweep by the police and accused of selling an ounce of marijuana–a prison offense. Alternative Al has the typical characteristics of a Rikers Island newbie: 92 percent of the Rikers population is black or Hispanic; one quarter can’t afford, or can’t find somebody else to put up, bail of $500 or less. The predominance of blacks and Hispanics in the system doesn’t mean that whites never encounter the criminal-justice system–on the contrary. The large majority (71 percent) of under-18’s arrested by the police are white, but even in that age group, the selection bias is tilted against minorities: apply the alchemy of the justice system, and two-thirds of the under-18’s who actually end up in jail turn out to be black or Hispanic.

After Al exchanges the clothes he was arrested in for the Rikers greens worn by his 20,000 or so fellow inmates, he’ll discover that he has an official commissary account with a $150 charge against it. He has to come up with that sum before he can purchase such luxuries as deodorant or cigarettes. If he leaves the island without paying it back, he can be arrested for it. However, he can discharge the debt with 10 weeks of menial labor. Mind you, at this point he hasn’t been convicted of a crime–he’s merely being detained for trial, like three-fourths of the Rikers population.

If, like the real Al Gore, our Albert has a problem disguising his own sense of superiority, he is going to have trouble with the guards. Enough of that and you are put in the torture chambers–or, to use the American euphemism, “solitary.” In 1988, Rikers opened the Central Punitive Segregation Unit–the “Bing”–for storing the insolent, the ultra-violent and the psychos. These are the hard-core inmates who assault other inmates, “gas” the correctional officers (i.e., throw urine and feces on them) and, if the conditions are right and a sharpened chicken bone, shank or pen is handy, stab the C.O.’s, too. In the early 90’s, the C.O.’s responded with overwhelming force. Ms. Wynn records conversations with one of the C.O.’s, “The Captain,” who transferred out of the Bing before it was reorganized in 1995. Here’s what happened to an inmate who stabbed an officer in the cheek with a pen: “The officers took the inmate into the receiving room and beat him with batons for fifteen minutes,” The Captain told Ms. Wynn. “They were playing baseball with his face. Every bone in his face was broken. They did everything but make his brains come out of his ears.” When they were done, “Everyone was covered with blood. Eight batons were broken. It made Rodney King look like kindergarten.”

Rikers is much less violent now. In 1996, Commissioner Michael Jacobson decommissioned the old Bing. Inmate stabbings and slashings have dropped 90 percent from 1995 levels.

We imagine Al would be too smart to tangle with the Bing, anyway. If he keeps to a low frequency, does his stint right, he’ll eventually be taken on a transport and dumped off in front of Twin Donuts on Queens Plaza at 4 a.m. This happens to 350 inmates a day. He’ll have a $4.50 MetroCard in his hand, and he’ll be wearing the clothes he was arrested in. If Al was nervous when he was arrested–and if he’s like the real Al Gore, no doubt he’d have been upset at the police meanly misconstruing his sharing a baggie with a pal as some kind of sale of a controlled substance–and say he threw up, he’d be wearing clothes that reek of mildew and vomit. The Corrections Department certainly hasn’t washed them in the interim.

This is from a “recidivism quiz” published in the inmate-written Rikers Review : “When you get off the bus on Queens Plaza, which of the following are you most likely to do? (A) Approach the nearest drug dealer; (B) Call home for a ride; (C) Grab a forty (a 40-ounce can of beer made with malt liquor) and drink it with your buddies; or (D) See if there’s some female action in Twin Donuts.”

If we look a little harder at the two universes revealed by our thought experiment, we find a deep moral paradox which complicates the choice Alternative Al has to make in Queens that morning. Remember that the real Al Gore, who openly confessed to violating the law, became our Vice President and then a professor at Columbia University–all without having to think too hard about his pot-smoking days. But what are the chances for Alternative Al? Even if, say, he could get accepted to Columbia as a student, it’s unlikely he’d be able to attend, thanks to a change in the federal funding law made under the real Al Gore’s watch. Alt Al’s record of being caught and prosecuted for possession or sale of a controlled substance would make him ineligible for a year for “any grant, loan, or work assistance” under the Higher Education Act. Given his meager resources, the cost of living in New York and the amount of living you can do on a minimum-wage salary, that year-long wait could easily doom him. If you’re caught once, you’re caught again for being caught: Stigma piles on stigma. In the real Al’s world, something like the opposite happens: Success breeds success.

Ms. Wynn has worked since the early 90’s with Fresh Start, a rehabilitative program that sponsors classes in Rikers and develops jobs for inmates outside of Rikers. She has been on both ends of the Fresh Start program and has toured other New York prisons under the aegis of the Correctional Association. Her book branches into impressionistic accounts of what’s happened to some of her clients over the last decade. There is a certain Newgate Calendar colorfulness to this crew: Frank, the crazy-looking recidivist who is arrested for a robbery he commits out of habit after he’s landed a salaried position; Anthony, a Columbia student and heroin addict who got caught up in Rikers’ methadone program; and 20 others. But the overall impression is, depressingly, much like what George Orwell once described as the image of totalitarianism at the end of 1984 : “imagine a boot stamping on a human face–forever.”

Ms. Wynn is not an elegant or comprehensive writer, and she ignores large chunks of the Rikers Island experience–most notably sex. Although she strives to be nonpartisan, her style betrays her as the classical liberal. It’s just not in her to condemn absolutely. This is the kind of thing that has driven the right-wing mind crazy since Eleanor Roosevelt was a pup: To conservatives, restraining one’s moral judgment implies not having any. But this reviewer is satisfied that we have more than enough agencies, politicians and pundits out there willing to thunder condemnation. In the meantime, what happens? Three hundred and fifty new Angels, Dwaynes, Franks, Napoleons, Lynwoods, etc., have to hook up each day. Far better if they hook up with a Jennifer Wynn than with the blunt or the 40.

Roger Gathman has written for The American Scholar and In These Times. What It’s Like on the Inside: The Inequities of Rikers Island