From The New Plantation

by

05/12/2019

Neighborhood: Featured, Rikers Island

Lessons from Rikers Island

That first morning, I was stopped by the correction officers just before the bridge that leads to the 413-acre, liver-shaped island in the middle of the East River between Queens and the Bronx. 

I was struck by how bored the COs acted. It was as if they were telling me there was nothing I could possibly do that would surprise them. In my younger days, I would have taken that as a challenge—if nothing else, I would have provided them with a bit of Dadaist theater to get them to react. But not today. For the first time in my life, I had a chance at a job I actually wanted.

They checked my new ID card and gave me a temporary parking pass. I drove over the three-quarter mile bridge from Queens to the island which was once the primary garbage dump for the City of New York and since the 1930s has been its primary detention center.

Few shopping malls exist with parking lots as huge as those on Rikers Island. After ten minutes of searching, I found an empty spot by a chain-link fence that towered above me. Concertina wire lined its top, a trailing vine of sorts, a metal stand-in for vegetation. But for the barbed razors running along its coiled edges, it resembled a giant Slinky—not one you’d want to meet coming downstairs.

Looking around at the barren landscape, my soul seemed a liability. I sucked it deep within myself and followed other pedestrians across the parking lot to a sidewalk where a CO allowed everyone to pass but me.

I handed him my ID card.

Except for a customs agent in East Berlin, and occasionally my wife, no one has ever observed my face with such attention. That afternoon as I was leaving, he waved me past. For the remainder of that school year and the two that followed, he would never check my ID again. Thousands of people passed this man each day. If you were new, he checked your ID; otherwise, he waved you past.

Inside the Adolescent Reception and Detention Center (ARDC), we passed through a metal detector. By watching the others, I knew to slip my ID through the slot in the window. The CO who took it, plucked a numbered visitor’s pass from a giant bulletin board and hung my ID in its place. He handed the pass to me. I clipped it to my shirt as though I knew the routine. By now I was feeling confident. It surprised me when he yelled through the slot, “First time here?”

“Yes.”

“Wait.”

From my ID he knew where I was going. He got on the phone and told me someone would be right down.

Soon a young African-American woman appeared on the far side of bulletproof glass. The officer indicated that she would be my guide. I walked through a hydraulically controlled sliding door into a little room the size of an elevator. After the door had shut completely, a similar door opened on the other side. I was now standing at the intersection of several corridors, each so long it resembled a tunnel. But the thing that surprised me most was the smell. This was a smell that seemed familiar, yet I didn’t remember ever smelling it.

I shook the woman’s hand and told her my name. Politely, she reciprocated, but other than that she said nothing. We walked along one of the corridors and turned a corner.

As we approached the elevator, we passed four inmates sweeping the floor. They wore orange jumpsuits stamped with RICF in large caps. Three of these young men were Black while the fourth was Hispanic. They could have been young men I saw every day in the City. One of them looked up and seeing my guide tried to persuade her to come over and talk to them.

Three of the inmates were smoking. The fourth stopped sweeping now, pulled a cigarette from behind his ear, and lit up. He flashed a gold tooth with a smile that struck me as both shy and wicked. He took a deep drag on his cigarette. Opening his mouth, he drew back his head as he pushed out the smoke with his tongue, sculpting thereby a perfect ball which hung magically in the air. My guide didn’t seem to be looking, but I let the young man know I had seen him; I nodded my approval. Even as I did so, I was aware that it was a slightly patrician nod that had nothing to do with me or what I intended to communicate about myself. I felt as though I had responded from within the role he’d projected onto me, and I stood there confused.

My guide dropped me off at the office where I was greeted by Valerie, the secretary who told me to have a seat. She said the principal would be right with me.

“Mr. Trash?” said the voice I’d spoken to on the phone.

“Oh, hi. It’s Trask actually. Nice to meet you, Ms. Jaynes.” We shook hands. She struck me as a strong woman, well on her way to fifty. She gave my hand a loose shake, but she was very friendly. I followed her into the inner office where I was introduced to another African-American woman.

“This is our Assistant Principal, Ms. Cornwell,” she told me. “Ms. Cornwell, this is Mr. Trash.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “It’s Trask, actually.”

“The pleasure is mine,” said Ms. Cornwell.

Ms. Cornwell had maybe five years on Ms. Jaynes, but whereas Ms. Jaynes seemed a bit bored, Ms. Cornwell appeared to be fascinated by everything. She looked as if she had dressed for some special occasion. When she shook my hand it was with genuine strength.

“Ooh, I think Mr. Trask is going to be fine, Sharon,” she said to Ms. Jaynes. “He’s got him a fine, firm grasp. We need more people out here with strong hands.”

Ms. Jaynes ignored what I took to be a dig. “Would you like some coffee, Trash?” she asked me.

“No, thank you.”

The three of us sat awkwardly on a bench, like birds on a wire, with me in the middle.

“So,” Ms. Jaynes said. “Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself.”

I told them about my teaching experience, which consisted entirely of college English as an adjunct instructor, about my writing, and various jobs I’d had. I told them that more than anything I was interested in learning everything I could about life because I wanted to write, and it seemed that Rikers had a good deal to teach me.

My soliloquy seemed to bore Ms. Jaynes. She cut to the chase: “Have you ever had a crime committed against you, Mr. Trash?”

I told them about having two bikes stolen, having my apartment robbed, and a car stolen. “But the big one was when one of my sons was mugged. This was when he was on his way to school—he was in middle school at the time. I was really angry about it, but when his mugger was caught and his mother didn’t even show up at the police station… I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting that.

“At any rate, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that kid, wishing I could work with kids in his situation. Matter of fact, do either of you remember a Jeffrey W coming through your school? He’s the kid who did it. I was hoping I might run into him out here. He’s really…yeah, I guess he’s the main reason I’m so interested in taking this job.”

Neither of them remembered a student by that name, but they explained that they had a huge turnover of students, many of whom were there for just a few days.

“So you have children,” said Ms. Cornwell. “That’s great. I think people with children have a big advantage as teachers out here. Because whether we admit it or not, we all know that any day we could get the call that one of our children has been arrested.” She watched me closely to see how I’d respond.

I nodded but I was absolutely certain it would never happen to my kids. It would be a long time before I’d be proven wrong.

“If you do decide you’d like to teach here,” she said, “I have some strong advice for you: to teach these children successfully, you must forget they’re inmates. Think of them as students. Don’t ask them about their crimes. Ask about their plans. Don’t ask what they’ve done. Ask what they intend to do. Ask about their successes, their hopes, their dreams. Their families. These young men love to talk about their families.”

“She’s right,” said Ms. Jaynes. “These kids are kids. Let corrections think of them as inmates.”

“To us,” said Ms. Cornwell, just shy of interrupting, “they’re kids, and as a parent you should try to picture their parents. You should say to yourself every day, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ”

After this, they gazed at me and said nothing. They seemed a bit puzzled by me. On the one hand, I was clearly the wide-eyed white boy Ms. Jaynes had feared I was over the phone. On the other hand… 

I still wasn’t sure what the other hand was, but I was hopeful that there was one.

They asked a Mr. Cumberbatch to walk me down to the Sprungs. When we came to an intersection, he stopped, remembering he’d left his keys upstairs in the office. He pointed down a corridor so endless its four corners merged into a single point. He said I could walk to the end of the corridor and wait there by the door. He would be along shortly.

As I start down the corridor, I grow apprehensive when I see that in fifty yards or so I’ll be passing a line of inmates. These guys are adults and they’re standing impatiently behind a CO who is smoking.  

Several of them see me coming. I realize how scared I must look when I see them pointing at me and laughing.

As I pass the CO, the only white man in their midst, he nods to me as if we’re on the same team.

One of the inmates comments about my “skinny white man ass.” Another says, “It don’t make no difference to me how skinny it is just so it’s warm.” Someone in the group makes a kissing sound to a round of laughter. Until now, I have not been looking at them as I pass in silence. After a few seconds of this, I begin to feel like a typical, above-it-all white man. I shift my gaze and look at each of them as I pass.

These men look me directly in the eye. I mean directly. They look at me as if they can actually see me. Not the details about me that middle class people use to judge one another—looks, class, intelligence, ethnicity, money, education. There’s none of that. These guys are looking deeper than details of that sort. They’re looking at my central nervous system—somehow they’ve hacked their way in and they’re examining it through the lens of a single question: how afraid is this guy? 

It feels to me that they know more about my fears than my mother does. I look back down the corridor, and as I pass the last man in line he yells to me in white-man-ese: “Well, golly gee; if it’s not a representative of the Caucasian persuasion coming to watch the neeegroes work the fields.” Then in his own voice he adds, “Welcome to the new plantation, Mister.”

***

After teaching English on Rikers Island for three years, Jason Trask, with his wife and three sons, moved to Maine where he taught in a rural high school. His novel I’m Not Muhammad was published in 2011 by Red Wheelbarrow Books. The New Plantation: Lessons from Rikers Island will be released on June 21, 2019. 

The book may be ordered here: https://www.deerbrookeditions.com/the-new-plantation-lessons-from-rikers-island/

Comments
Rate Story
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars
Loading...

§ One Response to “From The New Plantation”

  • Peter Wortsman says:

    Judging from Trask’s mercilessly incisive and insightful take on his first day of teaching at Riker’s Island, his book The New Plantation: Lessons from Rikers Island, promises to shake up all our preconceptions. In vivid prose, the author evokes the raw experience of seeing and being seen in an environment far outside his comfort zone. Every word vibrates.

§ Leave a Reply

Other Stories You May Like

Nearby Rikers Island Stories