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.
My escort arrives. He has a soft limp, imperceptible almost. He doesn’t smile or ask questions, simply waves me over. His shirt is pressed without fault, and his boots are greased. He has a small scar above his right eye, and immediately I wonder if he was attacked on the job. The gate opens slowly, and a loud whir fills the silence between us. We enter a small vestibule before the next gate opens up. I can see him out of the corner of my eye: upright, indifferent, just doing his job.
“How long have you been a CO?” I ask.
“Seven years,” he answers. His voice is brittle. The scar on his face is waxy. The next gate opens and now we’re walking towards the classroom. Two inmates, dressed in oversized tan jumpsuits, are mopping in wide drags. One of them looks up at me, his face obscured by an untamed beard. I offer him a modest head nod. He returns one. The other guy just works, unbothered. His frame is thin, and I can’t help wondering if jail stole his original body, slimmed him down beyond recognition. He stops mopping, abruptly, and palms the top of the stick, the other hand relaxed on his waist. My heart starts beating a little faster.
Why’d he stop now? I think to myself. Stop being soft, I tell myself. The closer we get to them, the more nervous I become. I hate feeling this way. That could otherwise be me, I think. But how could I not feel this way? This place doesn’t exist separate from its reality, no matter how unjust the reality is. I know that prisoners keep the scalpels wrapped in duct tape, hidden away in their mouths or other cavities of the body. They’re swift, too: I’ve watched them unveil and attack almost undetectably. I’ve watched the blood fountain onto the linoleum floors. The real tragedy isn’t that these men are dangerous, though. It’s that they feel they have no choice but to be dangerous. Survival trumps civility in jail, even among the most civil. I get past the two men and nothing happens.
I turn the corner of the hallway. A mural stretches the length of the wall to my right. The image is of a black face, tight cornrows running down to the shoulder. The eyes are large and white, and there is a specific softness in the details, somewhere between the roundness of his nose, the fullness of his lips. He’s young. It’s easy to see. But the mere fact that there is a black face painted on these walls is eerie. In some perverted way it gives us sovereignty over this place—a quiet reminder that the jail is ours: ours to brag about, ours to populate. Their likeness on the walls normalizes the experience, makes us all comfortable in a literal jail. We don’t belong here, I think to myself. We make no claim to this place either.
Prisoners turn the corner down the hall and walk towards me in a straight line. A correctional officer leads in the front. All of the prisoners are black and Latino, wearing tan jumpsuits. Tats cover their bodies in an almost sanctifying way. The halls are silent, except for the echo of their footsteps and the smell of pine that fills the air. My escort takes the lead and now we’re within ten yards of the prisoners. “Ed!” someone yells from the group. I squint, looking towards the end of the line. Oh shit, I think to myself: it’s one of my former students, Kris. Tufts of hair stick up from the two large braids that run down his back.
“No chattin’ on the line,” his CO shouts. I can’t do much so I shoot him a nod.
“Why you here?” I mouth at him.
He extends the fingers on his hands so it takes the shape of a gun. My escort signals “good day” at the other officer. I’m closer to Kris now. I’ll be past him in just a few paces. I force my hands together at the palm. “Pray,” I say aloud to him. “Copy,” he responds.
The inmates in front of Kris slow down at the magnetometers, a low-level body scanner meant to detect scalpels and razors. In 2015 alone they recovered more than two thousand weapons. I turn my head to watch them walk through, one after the other, wondering who might have shoved a weapon up their rectum, or who might be hiding contraband in their mouths. I wonder if their mothers know they have to live this way—if their mothers can allow themselves to know. What were their favorite subjects in school, I wonder? Did they play the game where the concrete was the simmering lava when they were young? Who were their childhood crushes? Did they want to be athletes or doctors? An outburst in front of me suspends these thoughts. I whip my head around quickly, my body tenses, and even my jaw tightens. It’s an inmate traveling with a guard. They are laughing together, walking side by side. For a flickering moment they look like they could be old friends.
I’m in the classroom now. Officer K., a steady in GMDC, walks over to greet me.
“What’d you bring them this time?” she asks.
“The usual,” I respond. “Chips Ahoy cookies, Lay’s chips, juice.”
She smiles, grabs me by the arm. Her grip is strong, matching everything else about Officer K.: defined jawline, wide shoulders and blocky thighs. Her skin is dark and she sports a low haircut. “They’ve behaved this week,” she says. “I’m proud of those guys. You’ll only have five of them today though. The other five are on visits.”
Through the glass in my classroom I can see my students arriving. Officer D leads them through the hallway and opens the door into the Peace Center, where all the classrooms are located. The energy booms when they see me. “Wass poppin’ Ed!” June shouts.
“Wait ’til you read what I wrote about my mother,” says Chef.
Each student takes a turn sharing a small bit of news with me as they cross over into the room. I smile and give them each a pound as they enter. In some ways I feel like I’ve known them for years, like I’m teaching regular niggas from my neighborhood.
The students are all seated in front of me, spanned out in a half circle that stretches towards the back of the classroom. The small talk calms into nothing more than pencil drumming. There is a CO at the door watching everything. Another officer sits directly behind me in the actual classroom. They aren’t my regulars.
“Y’all know the drill,” I begin, “name one good thing that happened to you this week.” No one is desperate to start. Eyes survey the room until June raises his hand. “I finally got sentenced,” he says. “That’s my good news. Now I can get this time done and move the fuck on. Niggas get tired of going back and forth to court in here.”
Of course I want to ask him about the number the judge decided on, but I can almost feel the CO’s breath behind me. We cannot afford to speak freely around them. My students’ opinions can be self-indicting, even if not legally. The thoughts they share might not have any consequences in court, but they certainly can in their cells. It is that logic again—no inmate is good. And by virtue of that fact, all of the things they say are no good. It’s important to know that this is not an exaggeration. I have heard officers argue that some of the prisoners were born evil. I’ve known officers to keep food from inmates. Ruin their court papers; throw cups of piss into their cells. Forget “innocent until proven guilty”—that is fantasy, a form of American ideological porn. As some officers see it, a conviction in court is merely one step on the way to the inevitable. In plainer words, correctional officers aren’t only officers on Rikers Island—they’re judges too, and they’ve already found my students guilty.
Ron, an inmate down on a gun charge, raises his hand. He is the tallest person in the class, standing six-foot-three, with a tattoo of a money bag wrapping around the front of his throat like a turtleneck.
“My girl finally gave birth to our baby boy,” he says. Ron fights back a smile. We all clap for him and even the guards join in on the applause. “It’s not really good news, though, because I can’t be with my child right now,” he continues.
“It’s still good news,” I answer. He shrugs.
CJ is next. He’s been on Rikers for nearly two years, fighting an attempted-murder charge. His arms fill out the flimsy beige jail shirt and his eyes are downcast, fingers locked over his head. “My mother showed up to court,” he says. He had not seen her for five years. Ron, sitting to his left, pats him on the shoulder. “I’ve seen a pic of his mom, Ed,” Ron says through a smile. “Wish she was my mom, deadass.” All of the students laugh. I try not to but I give in. Chef pumps his hands for everyone to quiet down. He’s on Rikers for a drug-trafficking charge but maintains his innocence. Chef was a football player in high school, and his build tells that story well. His arms are muscly, striated. His legs are short and full. “What’s your good news?” I ask him.
“My mom took out a loan for a paid lawyer,” he says. “Now I actually have a shot at beating this dumbass case.”
“Your mom is official,” I say to him.
“Word,” June agrees. “My mom would never do some shit like that for me.”
I want to ask about the loan amount but I keep quiet. I steal a look up the clock and realize it’s time to start.
“If you beat the case brodie, don’t fuck it up like Shells did,” CJ says. “Nigga goin’ on like his fourth trial.” The class breaks out into laughter, slapping their hands onto the desks.
I don’t laugh at this joke—I can’t. Shells was also a student of mine. He’s a black Dominican from East Harlem. He stands at about five-ten, and all of his visible flesh, except for his face, is covered in sprawling tattoos. Although he has no particular build that would call attention to itself, it’s unlikely that you’d forget him after your first meeting.
Four years ago he caught his first case, and he’s caught a new case each year since, his last a gun charge. He was loud, aggressively loud, and students were constantly browbeaten into agreeing with his points, no matter how strongly they disagreed. Sometimes class would be moving along smoothly, an almost numinous momentum in a place like Rikers, and Shells would find a way to get in someone’s ear—“You heard this nigga jackin’ Ape right?” or “I heard so-and-so got clipped in da town.” Most times this is all it takes in a classroom. The thrusting forward hits a wall: students lose focus and now they’re all beefin’ over who shot who, or who’s really wit’ it and who ain’t? But even that isn’t the problem.
Shells walks around slapping walls, inviting COs to suck his dick, and shouting down anyone who challenges his provocations. He’s in and out of the box, and even thirty consecutive days of sadistic confinement—locked away in a cell that measures six-by-eight feet, 23 hours a day—hasn’t kept him from overstepping the rules. In fact, for Shells rules function as motivations for his illimitable unruliness.
“You gonna fuck around and catch some real time if you keep actin’ up,” I said to him once in class.
“Judge can give me all the time she wants,” he answered, “I don’t give a fuck.”
“But your parents do,” I respond.
I knew his parents. I got involved with them early because I really cared about Shells. His dad was an electrician, his mom a kindergarten teacher. Shells came from a solid home. He didn’t have the war story that he wanted, but he was intent on creating one for himself.
And this is exactly the problem. Shells does care if he’s super-sentenced; he cares intensely. But to survive a place like Rikers Island—to thrive there, if one could say—he must pretend that he doesn’t care. And in the end, this is precisely what Shells is participating in: a dangerous yet worthwhile game of pretend, or what I have termed, almost inevitably, PTS—performing to survive. This phenomenon, cold-blooded as it is, includes almost all of Shells’s erratic behaviors, and for that matter, helps explain the behaviors of young men and women, myself included, who grow up in hoods where the ethos of the prison is reproduced in the code of “the streets.” It’s simple: the better Shells gets at convincing the men around him, prisoners or otherwise, that he is wholly uninterested in the self—which is to say, that consequences of literally any kind on his body or mind are non-threats—the more influence he earns over his peers. This might seem pathological to some, but only to those that don’t understand the experience of living in jail or the hood, and similarly to those that don’t empathize with the difficulty of surviving it.
This influence pays immeasurable dividends, both in jail and in the hood. Very few people ever wanna fuck wit’ the nigga that don’t care about anything, precisely because he doesn’t care what’ll happen. He is a risk almost no one wants to take. This exactly is his success though. It is what he’s wanted all along—to be left alone, avoided, feared. There is simply no higher privilege in the hood or in jail than total security of the body. Those who perform with perfect abandon have earned this social standing. But here is also the great irony of it all: the very performance meant to serve as our bodily life insurance also ends up undermining our lives. Why? Because no one person is ever the only person experiencing PTS, and so naturally, we must ask, what happens when opposing parties are both trying to prove that they’ll go the furthest? There is death. There are broken bones. There is abuse of the mind. There is hopelessness. There is prison.
PTS is one of the most troubling dictates of urban culture. But it is absolutely one of the most necessary. And it’s only necessary because black and brown populations have been forced to live in the ghettos of this country, and in the ghettos of this country, we are forced to exchange violence for peace.
There’s no happy ending to Shells’s story. He’s still fighting his case. He’s still knocking inmates out. He’s still telling COs to suck his dick. He’s still getting sent to the box. He still doesn’t give a fuck about anything. And yet he cares about his life so intensely that he’s willing to pretend he doesn’t. He cares about his life so intensely that he’s willing to do all of the things that threaten it.
I see bits of him in my students now. I see the nihilism digging at them. I see the desperation on their faces. I hear the worry in their voices. It is clear to me that this isn’t the life they want for themselves. It never was. They’re simply performing to survive. And they will have to continue performing because the conditions of jail demand it. And when they leave jail, they will return to the ghetto—America’s birth child. Here too they will be forced to perform. Here too their life will be caught in the stranglehold of PTS. You see, it has never been the people—it has always been the place.
But what happens when the place shows no sign of changing? As I see it, there are only two options. Either you keep fighting to change the place, which is possible, or you opt for helping the people adjust to the place that won’t change. This is why I keep coming back to Rikers Island: I simply believe in the people more than I believe in the reordering of a system. I need the students to know that we too can succeed as we perform. And as we succeed, we can become the very people that change the place.
After all, I am no stranger to PTS—I’ve wriggled in its hold, I too have followed its ruthless orders. I grew up in the South Bronx, and very early on, the performance controlled me. I did wild shit I shouldn’t have done. Stashing guns for niggas, picking fights I shouldn’t have. But I also did the whole school thing too. And this isn’t to say that I fell in love with the system that is school. But I fell in love with the small discoveries you make within the system. I found Toni Morrison. I found Kafka and Shakespeare. I found Sandra Cisneros. I found Dewey and Maxine Hong Kingston. I found Plato. But finding them alone was miserable. I wanted so badly for other niggas in my hood to make these discoveries too. They were the folks I loved, the ones I wanted to chop it up with, especially since we were already philosophizing in our own ways. But they wouldn’t let themselves, and that’s what hurt the most. Instead, I watched niggas that I loved—men and women I grew up with—give themselves permission to die, all because they were fighting to live.
On Rikers Island, the state has architected a perfect physical structure, and an equally devilish set of rules, that will guarantee the PTS experience. Nowhere is it more flagrant. You can’t possibly think that sixteen-year-olds are cutting each other’s faces open for fun. Shoving weapons up their asses ’cause it’s a great time. You can’t possibly think that anyone enjoys spending hours, days, months and years all alone in a cell with a complete stranger. No family. Very few phone calls. Terrible food. And then there’s solitary confinement: 23 hours locked in and one hour of recreation—all in a cell that measures six-by-eight feet.
Who would want this for themselves? Who? The truth is that too many folks insist on believing the lies they tell themselves about prisoners. Too many folks that need to believe prisoners are animals because their humanity depends on the bastardization of black and brown lives. Correctional officers, doctors, janitors, teachers, even—all of them trying their best not to see the truth. But the truth remains. It will always be there. These representations are never truly who they are, but always whom they must pretend to be to survive.
Art credit: Tomás Mantilla, “Rikers Island”