Six summer interns, all white guys in sports jackets and slacks, we’re assigned by the Urban League 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 prisons (men, women, youth), it 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.
We kept our jackets on over our short-sleeve dress shirts the first day, but after orientation, a vague, unimpressive affair presided over by the department head, a shrunken-looking man called “Professor” Frizzell, we were assigned to our little cement box, cell-like offices, each with his own desk, chair and yellow pad. Since we were given absolutely nothing to do, college boys with at least one full year under our belts but newbies in the way of the world, four of the group gathered in the office of the kid with the deck of cards and began playing blackjack, keeping score on the yellow pad. Dominic, a neat, black-haired young man of Cuban descent, a year or two older than the rest of us, stood in the doorway and warned, “You guys are going to get in trouble.”
Taking his advice, I kept away from the game. So when the card-players were interrupted in their time-killing pursuit by a guard and department head Frizzell called in to pass judgment on their conduct, only Dominic and I survived to spend our days behind bars that summer working in the Social Services Department of the Rikers Island Reception Center.
Our real work began, we learned, when a new shipment of convicts was sent here after their day — or, more likely, minute — in court. They arrived in big daily batches, like harvested crops or factory deliveries. Dominic and I sat in our office cells conducting formalized “reception interviews” for each new inmate, writing down their responses in ink to a long series of intrusively personal questions on a four-page form.
Who were these men? Why were untrained summer interns, college kids, mere players in the fields of academe, entrusted to carry out these interrogations, however rote and bureaucratic? Who were we to ask such questions of men twice our age, sometimes older? Even the young ones had years more experience than we did when it came to dealing with the criminal justice system.
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?
This was their career. This was no entry-level interview we were conducting. This was re-entry. A sort of annual evaluation, maybe a promotion. I was impressed when my interviewees could cite a half dozen prison stays. Then came the guys with a full dozen. Then numbers up in the teens. The first one 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 should have presided among the councils of the wise. I was callow, privileged, suburban, patting lamb fleece like the child in Blake’s Songs of Innocence.
But here was the bitter land of experience. These men had fought in its wars.
That they were still alive was 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 been consumed by other bodies — the unlucky, whose lives and habits were much like those of the men who sat on the other side of the desk in my office, sharing their open secrets. Or were those who had drunk the juice of the poppy one fatal time to be envied by those still doomed to labor in the harsh fields of experience?
I learned of this world because they told me about it.
My clients were men aged eighteen and older, citizens of metropolitan New York, disproportionately black and Latino, living for the most part in certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx, upper Manhattan, some spots downtown, a few parts of Queens. They referred to their neighborhoods, or spawning grounds, by names I didn’t know.
“They call it Hell’s Kitchen,” one fair-haired young man informed me.
“But you’re white,” I blurted, stupidly.
He laughed. “All Irish,” he said. “The kids I grew up with? They’re all in jail.”
Other men, mostly black, 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.
My colleague (and, increasingly, friend) Dominic, who took a harder line in these matters than I, had no patience for convicts like these. “Spics,” he said, shocking me. His father, he said, lost everything when he was forced to flee Castro’s Cuba and had 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,” a term Professor Frizzell liked to use on those few occasions when some matter of business brought us into contact. And they all “had a story” — another characteristic, as I would learn, held against them by those who had no sympathy with “criminals.” They talked — not all, of course, but many 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 had stolen, first a little here and a little there, generally from their families at the start.
Often their parents were users, or had been, and recognized the signs. If they didn’t stop, for good, at this level — and they didn’t, obviously, because why else would they be here? — they then learned how to break in, how to con, how to appear sympathetic victims, 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 lifestyle of continuous small crime, hustling, selling anything you had, selling anything your friend had, or your brother or your mother. Of knowing people — never themselves; these were “friends” — who took the boots or other possessions from a fellow junkie who had overdosed and required medical assistance, just passed out, or sometimes overdosed beyond the reach of medical assistance and simply died, 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 lost to drug deaths. Of the other ones (lucky ones?) who wound up, like themselves, in prison.
In fact, some of my interviewees regarded being picked up by police and sentenced to Rikers — 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. 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 merited a mention. 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 in your own life from repeating itself in theirs. Your failures.
The work week had its rhythm.
With each new “session” of criminal court in one or other of New York’s counties, the wheels of justice lurched forward, dumping a new load of humanity into the Rikers Island reception center, and I got to interview my half of them. Almost every new arrival has been here before. They know the place, they know the drill, better than I do. They know their fate. Remarkably, or perhaps not, the men give me precise answers to the dreary factual questions on my form: how many arrests. When were they? What were they for? How many convictions? Sentences? It’s their biography. Their resume.
“How long have you been doing heroin, James?” I asked one morning in my little windowless cell-like office, closeted with the first of the day’s new batch of offenders.
It’s the day after the start of a new criminal court session and a great deal of business has apparently been enacted already. The others, lots of them, are splayed out on a bench in the corridor in 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, sensitive, 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 part of an artificial hierarchy. Because of the accidents of birth, the young white college student is planted in the seat of authority. James is a family man and a war veteran. 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 fifty? What were you doing back then?”
“Korea. That’s when I got addicted.”
“You got addicted to drugs in Korea?”
“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.”
I take this in. It’s new to me.
“Morphine and heroin,” I say. “They’re the same thing?”
“Just about… You see, the shot works.” He leans slightly forward. “Lots of guys got addicted in the Army. Then they let you of the Army — then wham, overnight — your supply stops. So you go looking for it on the streets.”
Thank you, James, I think, when he leaves my cell-like office to be escorted to the cell block where he’ll serve his three months for possession. I bless him (and so many others) in my heart for teaching me what I never learned in school.
Robert Knox is a Boston Globe correspondent, a poet and fiction writer, and the author of a recently published novel based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, Suosso’s Lane. A resident of Quincy, Mass., Knox is a contributing editor for the online journal, Verse-Virtual. His short story “Marriage” placed in a Words With Jam competition and was published in the anthology An Earthless Melting Pot. His fiction and creative nonfiction stories have also appeared in various journals including The Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, and 3288 Review.