On Hazen Street and 19th Avenue in Queens, there is a traffic light that sits to the left of the Rikers Island entrance post. Every time I pull up to that spot, whether I’m first or last in the line of cars, the traffic light is red. Always. It’s as if some unearthly force, God perhaps, is telling me to turn away, to continue driving farther north up the road, past a mile of wilted brown trees and desperate voices that carry in the January winds. But I don’t continue driving. I never do. I sit at the light, adrift. Someone behind me honks, and only then do I realize that the cars in front of me are busy moving ahead. I finally make the right into the lot. Fuck, I think to myself, I’m here again.
I park the car and walk slowly to the Special Operations Division trailer. My boots crunch in the snow, hands trembling tight by my sides. The officer behind the square window, large and straight-faced, asks for my ID. I’ve been coming here to teach this creative-writing program for six consecutive weeks, and still the unfamiliarity weighs heavy between us. There are no smiles, no friendly gestures—only a stark quiet. I hand over my ID.
“What program?” he asks. I answer his question with a practiced deference. He shifts his glasses over the bridge of his nose, and fingers through the yellow carbonless papers on his desk. “Your pass isn’t here,” he says, unconcerned.
“I spoke to the captain yesterday,” I respond, “and he said they had already faxed the form to this trailer.” Smoke clouds around my face after every breath. The officer adjusts the height of the seat, leans back and swivels 180 degrees. He spreads the Daily News out in front of his face with a snap, and continues reading in his heated booth. I take careful steps back toward the car, which is by now covered in a thin layer of snow.
I’ve tried this the other way around. I’ve been strong in the face and forbidding, speaking only a few, necessary words. I know that this isn’t at all who I am. I’d rather smile, wave or shake hands. I’d rather a working relationship. But this place doesn’t believe it can afford goodness, because, according to the logic of the jail, “no one in jail is good.” This logic extends beyond the bodies Rikers detains: it applies to those who visit, those teaching, those mopping, those disciplining, those doctoring. It applies even to those watching from afar. I know the power of this logic well: in one form or another I’ve been fighting it all my life.
In the car I pull out my phone and call the deputy. It’s the only chance I have at getting into the jail. It’s already 1:30 p.m. and classes were scheduled to begin at one. By the time I get over to George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC) and into the housing unit, it’ll be 2:45 p.m. “Classes end at three,” she says apathetically. There’s a short silence between us.
“The fifteen minutes are worth it,” I respond. She laughs.
“The CO isn’t gonna do all the work to transport the inmates for fifteen minutes, Ed. We’ll square things away for next week, alright?”
At this point there’s no more resistance available to me: no new number to call, no higher rank to persuade. “Okay,” I answer.
“Don’t stress this,” the deputy reminds me. “If they had done the right thing they wouldn’t be here to begin with.”
In the best version of this story I get into the jail. Once I get past the SOD trailer there’s the bridge—the only route onto and off Rikers for vehicular traffic, crossing over the East River and Bowery Bay. The bridge cements the distance between the island and the northernmost peak of Queens. My students always joke about wanting to jump into this water, swimming their way to freedom. I drive over the bridge confident that no one is trying, and yet I honestly can’t help but peer down, looking for a splash, for brown arms and legs, some lonely pattern in the expanse of gray water.
The entrance to the GMDC is one story high, but the building levels up the farther in you walk. This is where the bodies are trapped. I put all of my teaching materials on the conveyor belt, remove anything from my person that might sound the alarm and step slowly through the walkthrough metal detector. A CO walks by and spots the juice and chips I bring the inmates. He sneers, shakes his head. I wanna slap this nigga, honestly, but I keep calm. People in this place try to beat the good outta you. I remind myself that they are bound to the logic that the institution demands.
I grab my shit and wait for the escort. I don’t have the specific clearance to walk over to my classroom “unsupervised.” This is the language they use—a euphemism, clearly. They really mean to say they don’t want me to get attacked. Fucked up. In some ways I understand, because there are few experiences like walking through those corridors in Rikers Island. I’m young, I’m black. I wear what niggas in the town wear. What if I’m confused for someone they had beef wit’, some OPP? What if I’m confused for someone I’m not? This is dangerous only because it’s entirely possible—more possible because I present the way I do: the tats, choice wear, just a general aura in the end. The prisoners can sense this. A hood nigga can always sense when another hood nigga’s around: it’s an anxious appreciation, a special discernment—learned after thousands of conversations in code, practiced gestures, years of careful observation in the streets. We know who to worry about and who not to worry about. Folks have told me not to worry. They make mention of the police presence in the jail and imagine it a safe place. But a nigga don’t care where you at when he spots you, doesn’t care who’s around either—if the issues were unsettled, it’s time to settle them. That we’re on Rikers is of course the ultimate irony, but it hasn’t stopped them before. Plenty of my own friends have caught a brand-new charge on the Island. Consequences are always second to principles, unfortunate as it may be.