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Behind Bars

White summer interns in sports jackets and slacks, we’re assigned to assist the social services department in the Reception Center of the Rikers Island prison complex, run by the New York City Department of Correction. A set of the three big units (men, women, youth), the prison was built on an island in New York City like a harbor fortification, but Francis Scott Key never visited Rikers Island. It is one of the largest prison complexes in the world.

Undergraduates, newbies in the way of the world, we’re assigned to our little cement box of cell-like offices, each with his own desk, chair and yellow pad. Our work begins when a new shipment of convicts is dispatched to the island after their day — or, more likely, minute — in court. They arrive in big daily batches, like harvested crops or factory deliveries. Dominic, a neat, black-haired young man of Cuban descent a year my senior, and I sit in our office cells conducting formalized “reception interviews” for each new inmate, inking down their responses to a long series of intrusively personal questions on a four-page form.

Who are these men? Why are untrained summer interns, college kids, mere players in the fields of academe, entrusted to carry out these interrogations, however rote and bureaucratic? Who are we to ask such questions of men twice our age, sometimes older? Even the young ones have years more knowledge of the criminal justice system, and certainly more experience, than we do.

How often have you been arrested?

What were the charges?

How many convictions?

What was the sentence? For each?

That was when?

And the next one?… And the next?

We are documenting their career. This was no entry-level interview we are learning to conduct, but a re-entry. Or a sort of annual evaluation, perhaps leading to a promotion. Perhaps the inmate should be sent “upstate” to a higher-level security institution.
I am impressed by the detailed recall of my interviewees, most of whom can recite the particulars of a half dozen prison stays; including the offense, the sentence, the year of internment. Then come the guys with a full dozen. Then numbers up into the teens.

The first man who hit twenty was a grandfather, a sage among men of experience. I should have sat on his knee and listened to his tales of long ago. He could easily have presided at the councils of the wise. In comparison I am a callow youth; privileged, suburban, patting lamb fleece and reciting God’s mercy like the child in Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

But Rikers Island is no country of innocence. Here was the bitter land of experience. These men have fought in its wars. That they are still alive is testimony to their possession of skills and endurance. And some good luck, of course. The fatal overdoses, men dying with the hypo still stuck in their vein, had entered into other bodies — the bodies of the unlucky, whose lives and habits were much like those of the men who now sit on the other side of the desk in my little office, my private confessional, sharing their open secrets. Or perhaps those who had drunk the juice of the poppy one fatal time are to be envied by those still doomed to labor in the harsh fields of experience? Perhaps those were the lucky ones.

I learn of this world because my interviews, my returnees, tell me about their travels.

My clients are men aged eighteen and older, citizens for the most part of the vast metropolis, disproportionately black and Latino, living for the most part in particular neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx, upper Manhattan, some spots downtown, a few parts of Queens. Though I myself was born in the Borough of Queens, they speak of neighborhoods, or spawning grounds, by names I am unfamiliar with.

“They call it Hell’s Kitchen,” one fair-haired young man informs me.

“But you’re white,” I blurt, ignorantly.

He laughs. “They’re all Irish,” he tells me. “The kids I grew up with? They’re all in jail.”

Other men, mostly black men, told me they grew up in the South. When their fathers stopped coming home and their mothers went down to the welfare office for help, they were given bus tickets to New York City. Others told me they moved to New York from Puerto Rico or the DR, or other Spanish-speaking countries.

Dominic, my colleague and, increasingly, friend, took a harder line on these men, especially the latter group.

“Spics,” he says, shocking me. His father, he tells me, lost everything when he was forced to flee Castro’s Cuba, but built a life for himself from scratch in the US, with no handouts from anyone. Why couldn’t these others do the same?

Black, white or Hispanic, they all knew the drill. Almost all were “recidivists,” the term Professor Frizzell, the social services department director, an oddly shrunken-looking man of academic disposition, introduced to us. And “they all have a story” — another characteristic, I learn, held against them by those with no sympathy for “criminals.” A ‘story,’ I infer, is another word for a lie constructed to garner sympathy from innocents like myself.

My inmates talked — not all, of course, but most did when I encouraged them merely by listening — about drugs in their neighborhoods, about seeing the older kids on their blocks one by one become addicts. About their own older siblings’ determination to keep ‘stuff,’ ‘horse,’ ‘snow,’ ‘dope,’ ‘skag,’ or ‘death’ away from them. How those efforts failed. How they began stealing, first a little here and a little there, generally from their own families first.

Often their parents were users, or had been, and recognized the signs. If didn’t stop, for good, as teenaged addicts — and they didn’t, obviously, because why else would they be here? — they then learned how to break in, how to con, how to win the trust of those they would victimize, how to ask for help, how to steal from the people who showed them sympathy, gave them help, or were careless enough to leave their pocketbooks or wallets or keys lying around. How a life of needing dope, of always looking for the next fix, led to a daily routine of continuous small crime, hustling, selling anything you had, selling anything your friend had, or your brother or your mother. Or your body. Of knowing people — never themselves; these were always “friends” — who took the boots or other possessions from a fellow junkie who had overdosed and required medical assistance, just passed out, or sometimes passed beyond the reach of medical assistance and simply died stone dead with a needle in a vein, in order to sell them for the next fix, rather than call for help. Of the friends — they counted them off on their fingers — they had already lost to drug deaths. Of the other ones (lucky ones? unlucky?) who wound up, like themselves, in prison.

I am surprised (once more) when some of my interviewees regard being picked up by police and sent away — for three months, six months, nine months — as a lucky break. A chance to dry out. A break from the stress and strain, and danger, of a life continually on the hustle that they are unable to escape from without outside intervention. A bed; regular meals. I heard surprisingly little about the often screen-depicted crisis of “quitting,” “going cold turkey,” “kicking the habit,” the agonies of “withdrawal.” These hardly merit a mention. “It’s like a bad cold,” they tell me. Quitting, apparently, could be done; what was hard was wanting to. What was hard was staying off when things didn’t go so well back in the life. What was agonizing was watching your younger brother or sister follow in your footsteps. Your futile attempts to stop the destruction of personhood you knew all about from personal experience from repeating itself in theirs. Your failures.

The summer weeks have their rhythm, for Dominic and me.

With each new “session” of criminal court in one or another of New York’s counties, the wheels of justice lurch forward, dumping a fresh load of humanity into the Rikers Island reception center, and I get my half to interview. The patterns of my prison summer reinforce themselves as the weeks go on. The men know the drill. They search their memory to give me precise answers to the dreary factual questions on my form.

What are they in for?

How many such convictions?


It’s their biography. Their resume.

“How long have you doing heroin, James?” I ask one morning in my private little windowless cell, closeted with the first of the day’s new batch of offenders.

The others, lots of them, are splayed out on a bare bench in the corridor, wearing their new baggy prison suits. Unlike patients in a doctor’s office, they do not complain about the wait.

James is an African-American man, old enough to be my father, with a sad, sensible, quiet aspect. I am drawn to him. I am aware, so undoubtedly he is as well, of how absurd it is for a twenty-year-old kid to be asking personal questions of a man of his age and experience, questions he is compelled to answer. We are parts of our society’s artificial hierarchy. Because of the accidents of birth, the college student is planted in the seat of authority. James, a family man and a war veteran, must pay homage.
Although he has been incarcerated on a regular basis for a decade or so, my notes suggest he came later to the game than many others.
“So when did you start?”

James considers and gives me a date.

“Nineteen sixty-eight? What were you doing back then?”

“Vietnam. That’s when I got addicted.”

“You got addicted to drugs in Vietnam?” Not Brownsville? Not the East Bronx?

“Morphine, man. That’s what they give you in the Army. You get hurt, you’re in pain, they give you a shot of morphine to kill the pain.”

This is new to me.

“Morphine and heroin,” I say, just to be sure. “They’re the same thing?”

“Just about… You see, the shot works.” He leans forward. He’s in withdrawal right now, having the ‘bad cold,’ but makes the effort to explain. “Lots of guys got addicted in the Army. Then, when they let you out of the Army — then it’s wham! overnight — your supply stops. So you go looking for it on the street.”

Thank you, James, I think, when he leaves my office to be escorted to the cell block where he’ll serve his three months for possession, and the next customer takes his place.

Thank you for my education.

I bless him in my heart — and so many others — for teaching me what I never learned in school. What I do with it is up to me. I’m one of the lucky ones.

Poet AuthorRobert Knox is a Boston Globe correspondent, a poet and fiction writer, and the author of a recently published novel based on the Sacco and Poet AuthorVanzetti case, “Suosso’s Lane.” The first full novel written about the famous case since Sinclair Lewis’s “Boston” (published in 1930), “Suosso’s Lane” centers on the life of anarchist and Italian immigrant Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Plymouth, Massachusetts, before his 1920 arrest. Published by Web-e-Books, the book has received good reviews and been praised by readers. It’s available at: www.web-e-books.com/index.php#load?type=book&product=suosso

His short stories have been published in periodicals. “Lost” was excerpted on the Massachusetts Cultural Council website after he was named a finalist for a fiction fellowship and published in The Rambler.

His story “Marriage” placed in a Words With Jam competition, published in the anthology “An Earthless Melting Pot.” His stories have appeared in The Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, and 3288 Review, among others.

As a contributing editor for the online journal, Verse-Virtual.com, his work appears regularly on that site. And his chapbook “Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty” was published in May of this year. The poems in “Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty” discover a universe in a perennial flower garden. A reporter and a novelist, Robert Knox’s poems are as immediate as today and as universal as the weather.

Website: robertcknox.com

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