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Bright Minds in a Dark Place

Why are we warehousing our bright, strong youth?

I rode the bus across the bridge with Nick, a librarian from the Brooklyn Public Library. Nick had generously invited me to join him as he took the library cart through the block on Riker’s Island occupied by young men in their teens and early twenties. I had with me a selection of the books donated by First Book to add to the cart. Nick was excited to see amongst the books I had a colorfully illustrated version of Homer’s Odyssey, as one of the young men had requested it at his last visit.

Crossing the bridge I thought about Prison Writes blog contributor Justin Corney’s story of his first trip to Riker’s. While he had sat on the crowded corrections bus realizing the grim and violent reality of his fate, I now sat on the cool city bus chatting about literature with Nick.

I thought about the mundane horror of this island I was visiting. It’s geometric block patterns, chain linked fence and razor wire. I thought about the many young people I’ve worked with who, although in some part of themselves found it inevitable they would wind up at Riker’s, were surely bewildered and stunned by their arrival there.

The entrance was non descript as many city offices of administration.

The lobby was large with old tile and painted cinder block walls. There was a desk protected by bullet proof Plexiglas, to the right of which were turnstiles and a uniformed guard. Employees arrived and, showing their ID, casually passed through the turnstiles.

While I walked untouched and unquestioned into the employees waiting area of the jail, I recalled stories of family members whose visitations were marked by the humiliation of searches and implicit accusations by guards of their guilt by association.

My clearance, however, hadn’t gone through. One unit had to call another, faxes had to be sent and received. Nick waited patiently with me on the 70’s era plastic chairs lining the walls. At one point men in orange jumpsuits appeared, standing in the doorway of the men’s room in the lobby, casually staring out. The effect was extras on a set. The place seemed unreal. I read one of the books Nick said was popular amongst the incarcerated, ‘hood books’, a dramatic soap operatic story filled with sex and drugs, kind of like a literary Board Walk Empire. It was indeed entertaining. I thought of the classic movie ‘To Sir With Love’ where Sidney Poitier plays a teacher in a London slum. He engages the youth in reading with titillating books that would most certainly not be considered appropriate.

After several hours I was finally cleared, only to pass through that building to take a bus to another where we put our belongings in a locker outside and went through the metal detector, to another Plexiglas window to get a card and then through another check point, another set of doors and finally entered within the walls of the jail. It was quiet and uniformed officers milled about. We were escorted to the unit where the young men were being held through the concrete corridors painted a dull brown. There were indications that some thought had been put into the design of the place, vestiges of design reminiscent again of the 70’s. A light breeze passed through the barred windows.

Another narrow corridor and we were at the next checkpoint before getting to the cart. In a cluttered dark cubicle a guard unlocked the last door. I did not see one white face amongst the prisoners. They looked curious and restless, as anyone would in such a situation. The guards told them to go into the community room. One young man protested, “I’m tired! I just want to lie down!”

“There are no mattresses in your cells.” The guards said.

“I don’t care. I’ll just lie on the floor.”

“Go to the community room.”

After getting assistance to unlock the old gate, and kicking aside some trash and one very large dead water bug, we retrieved the cart from a locked cell and wheeled it into the community room.

The community room was a bleak cinder blocked room with tables and chairs welded to the floors. There were TV monitors with no sound. I looked at the young men and realized that they were wearing, some sharing, small headphones attached to a transmitter. They sat on the tables as well as the seats. Most of them were watching Jerry Springer. Along one wall of the room was a window facing the guards’ cubicle. Along another other wall there was a window facing a green lawn between buildings. Around the tables lunch trays were strewn on the floor. There was a pack of tattered cards strewn about, a checkerboard overturned. I resisted the urge, as a mom accustomed to tidying around my children or nagging them to pick up after themselves, to do the same here. I approached four young men in the corner who were watching TV and invited them to come and see if any books appealed to them.

They were very cordial.

Three young men had taken out books before. They picked the books off the cart and examined them, asking us for recommendations.

I wondered about the cost of the headphones, the technology, and considered if it were possible to provide headphones, why not something more edifying than Jerry Springer. I guess they get to choose, as my children had often chosen TV shows I didn’t like.

As we brought the cart to two additional community rooms the setting was the same, bleak, concrete, with the odor of sweat and stale food. The young men I met were interested in reading: history, memoir, biographies, and yes, the ‘hood’ books, fiction. They appeared, for the most part, healthy and fit. All along the way Nick was gracious and thoughtful in his recommendations of books, to the young man interested in Egyptian history, to the young man who wanted to know more about political systems.

On the ride back across the bridge I felt a deep sadness. What I had witnessed was warehousing of our bright, strong youth. These young men should be in classrooms, working, thinking, developing, and growing. How does it serve our society, our well being, to lock them up? For so many of the youth I worked with Riker’s is just part of their life narrative. How does that impact a young persons spirit and belief in their value and potential? How do we expect this institutionalized degeneracy to somehow improve their character? We must remind ourselves, Riker’s is a holding place, where people await trial. How many of those bright young men were there for misdemeanors or were entirely innocent. How many innocent men take a plea to avoid the fate of Kalief Browder? What are we going to do about all this?

I thank Nick, and the Brooklyn Public Library for their commitment to providing the hope of literature to these young men. When it costs twice as much to lock up a young person as it does to send them to Harvard, we have to ask ourselves, what is going on? Why do we lock up these bright minds in such a dark place?

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