Friday, December 11, 2009

Don't Bother Mr, I'm Working

Lloyd asked me for some bottle caps. "I'm losing me skill by being idle in here. I run a Three-Card Monte operation on 42nd Street. Actually, I use bottle caps and hide the pea." Lloyd is too fat, too sloppy, and too silly for anyone to take him seriously. The other residents, especially the younger ones made fun of him. They thought he was slow, maybe dim-witted. He wanted to be taken for a fool. He wanted people to think he was none too bright and that he could easily be taken advantage.

After he practiced with his bottle caps for awhile, some of the other residents tried to challenge him. For several days they took all of his cigarettes. When they were sure they could beat most of the time, Lloyd suggested a few small wagers. After he had taken all their money and their commissary, he had them doing his laundry, bringing him his meals, and running little errands for him, he stopped.

One day he took me aside and said, " Don't ever come watch if you see me on the street. When I'm working, I can't watch out for you. I know you are smart enough not to play me, but my partners will pick your pockets clean. They don't know that you and I are friends. Just wink at me when you go by and let me know you remember me."

I keep a watch out for Lloyd and I know that one day I will see him and I will wink as I go by.

Friday, November 20, 2009

When I interview a Rikers resident for the first time, I have a series of questions to ask. It is mostly demographic information but it also verifies my time with the client. As I was going through the initial questionnaire, I asked Jack why he was in jail. He said that it was because he was caught stealing. Then I asked him what he did for a living before he came to jail. He looked as if I hadn't hear him the first time. "I am a thief. Didn't you hear what I said? I am a thief and that is my profession." He said that he would never burglarize a person's home. "In all my years, I think that I only invited three people into my home. I consider it a real privilege if some one asks me into his home. I would never go into a person's home to steal anything. It would be a terrible thing to do. If your things aren't safe where you live, where are they safe. I only steal from companies. I am a pretty good thief but I have my own morale code, you know."

Monday, November 9, 2009

God's Choice

Charles may well have been gravely ill but he was always cheerful, helpful, and energetic. He spent a great deal of his time reading and writing in his journal. He talked to the other residents and occasionally spoke to me but he seems to be more concerned with his writing.

One day, he came to me and said, "I think that I figured it out. People say that they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu but what does God think about it? Does anyone ever wonder whether God accepts what people say they are. I have been wondering about that. If you ask someone what religion they are, they will tell you but I wonder if God accepts them."

This was really deep and I wasn't sure how to stay in this conversation without offending Charles or saying anything stupid. His idea was interesting and I did want to know more.

"Every religion was its own set of rules and laws. If someone says they are Christian but steals from his neighbors, cheats on his wife, and doesn't live by the rules, does God accept him as a Christian? A person can call themselves anything they want but it only matters if God believes in him. If a person says they are Muslim but tortures people, kills them, and only accepts one type of Muslimisn, does God accept him as a Muslim? Maybe God rejects them even if they don't know it. You can't be some thing if the head doesn't accept you. If you say you are Jewish and don't keep the laws, are you really Jewish? You can't be in a religion if you don't obey the laws."

"God has a set of rules and laws for every religion and if you don't obey them, then maybe God doesn't accept you either. I think that it makes God angry when we do bad stuff and say that we are doing it in his name. That is when he casts us out. I believe that God loves us but he doesn't accept us when we don't obey his word.. He rejects us no matter what we call ourself.

I think God will forgive someone if he thinks about his ways and then tries to live up to the way it is supposed it be. I think that God will forgive us and take us back. People take God for granted. They think that He lives by our rules and we can do anything and still be in His church. I don't think that is true. I think you have to live by God's message. If you don't he won't keep you.

I don't know if this is true but it is what I believe." Charles went back to his journal and we never talked about this again but I have never forgotten our conversation.

Monday, November 2, 2009


When Larry came back I recognized him right away. His short cropped blond hair, light blue eyes, and missing leg made it easy. We used crazy glue to try to patch up that fiberglass leg that kept cracking near the appliance that attaches the leg to Larry. "You were just here a few months ago. Why are you back", I asked him. "It's always the same thing, driving with a suspended license. I got 90 days again. You would think they would learn." he said."Why were you driving with a suspended license?" I asked. "I tried to get a handicap parking pass. They refused. I got thousand of dollars in parking tickets because I can't walk that far on my leg. I can't pay the tickets because I don't have that kind of money. I can't buy car insurance either so I can't get my license renewed. I am a car mechanic. After I fix a car, I have to drive it to be sure that it works right. I get picked up for driving with a suspended license and they put me in jail. It costs them a lot more to keep me in jail than if they paid off my tickets. If I could get a handicap parking pass, I wouldn't get any more tickets. Then I could make some money and buy car insurance. I would be able to fix cars and test them. My driver's license would be good. It would be cheaper for them. But no. I can't afford a lawyer to help me with the tickets. I can't afford to pay the tickets so I guess that I'll just have to come back to jail every few months. I wish they would time it better. The weather is good. I could be making money. I would rather be in jail when the winter comes and it's to cold to work outside."

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Toasts To The Sportin' Life

Howard is a teacher. He is in his mid thirties and has spent many of those years in prison. He is forceful, direct, and people listen to him. I think that it is the sound of his voice that makes him so attractive. He said that he was from North Carolina but it has been years since he has been back. There is something about the south that remains. Howard told me that he has a fifth grade education and that his writing and spelling aren't very good. His memory is very good.

Howard can recall "Toasts" and he can recite them for hours. "Toasts" are folk tales that have been told for many, many years. They are most likely to be told in prison. Some of the most famous ones are "The Titanic", "Signifying Monkey", and "King Heroin". Howard knows them and a great may more. Many of the residents, especially the younger ones who have not been upstate have never heard of the Toasts. The young residents know rap songs but they soon recognize that Toasts are an earlier, more sophisticated part of the oral tradition. Many of the residents are so young that they don't even know "Dozens". No matter how bad these young residents think they are, no matter how much power they think they have in or out of jail, in gangs, on the street, or how they outwardly disdain anyone over twenty-five, they come to listen to Howard, the older gentleman. They gather around when he begins to recite. The TV is turned off, the phones are silent. They gather around to hear, not to miss a single word. They try to remember the words. Howard is good. His voice is rich and he makes his characters come alive. He is passing on a rich tradition to a new generation. It is easy to see Howard as a teacher, passing on information from the elders to the young.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Natural

His name is Ennet but they called him Annette. He is tall, attractive with a smile that could light up a dark room. He is always generous with his commissary, his clothing, and everything else his family brings him. He will always help another resident and will care for him when necessary. He formed an AIDS support group in the dorm and we run it together. We bring in new information, reading material, and occasionally outside speakers to keep in touch with other resources in the community.

Ennet is out there as they say and he has always wanted to be grand. When he is on the street, he wants people to see him as special. He does it by having money, having drugs, knowing the latest fashion, bars, restaurants, and every other currency of being in.

Ennet has the personality, the humor, the generosity of spirit, and the loving nature to he grand if he didn't have a dime. The sad thing is that Ennet doesn't know that he is grand just the way he is.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Sleeping Giant

Paul is a giant. He is seven feet tall. He doesn't look like the jolly green giant or any camera-loving athlete. He looks like a major force. He has a lot of dark hair that is well groomed after the barbers come in but not for long after. His eyes are dark but his heavily hooded eyelids make it difficult to see them. His beard is heavy and even when he shaves, it doesn't take long before his face begins to look dark again. He stands very straight and looks very large. I have had a few brief conversations with him so I know that him to be articulate and polite. He doesn't speak often and most of the other residents avoid him. The C.O.s keep a respectful distance.

One morning the captain called me because he said that Paul had gone crazy. He said that Paul was running around the dorm screaming. The captain said that he was going to have the men suited to take him down. When officers suit up, they are wear helmets, flack jackets. and body plastic shields. They carry large wood batons and are able to use them freely. They are fondly called the ninja turtles.

I went to the dorm because I didn't want to see anyone get hurt. When I got there, I saw a dorm of 49 men crushed to one side of the room and a very large man running around, screaming words I couldn't understand. He seemed to be ignoring everyone. I went into the dorm and stood by the officers. Paul stopped running and stood panting beside the entrance to the bathroom. In a few moments, I walked over to him. I took his hand and led him to his bed. "Sit down," I said. "No one is going to hurt you." I realized that Paul was sleep running and had no idea what he had done. I said, "Paul, wake up. No one will hurt you." I spoke to him very softly and he started to wake up. He looked confused for a minute but as he woke up more completely, he said, "I do walk in my sleep. I have done since I was a little kid. I am sorry if I bothered anyone." With that , he turned over on his stomach and went to sleep. This time he stayed in his bed and the dorm went back to normal.

When he woke up, he came to me, bowed deeply, and kissed my hand to thank me,

Friday, September 4, 2009

Professional Pride

Robbie was a very handsome man. He was tall, elegant, and well-spoken. His dark, curly hair was well cut. His brown eyes never leave mine and he maked me feel as if everything I said is new.

"I'm a burglar," he said, "and a very good one. My last job, the one before this got me $150,000. This one was was small and I won't get much time. I used to be a drug dealer but I decided that it was too much risk. When I considered new career choices, I decided to go to school to become a burglar. I knew that I would need the skills of a locksmith, a welder, and an electrician to be good at my new profession. Since I was upstate in prison doing 2 to 4 on a drug charge, I figured that I would use my time wisely and go to school to learn locksmith, welding, and electrical work. No only did my dedication impress the parole board, it developed the necessary skills to become a burglar. It was become a very successful choice. I will go upstate again for this arrest. Maybe it will be time to think about other possibilities. I won't know until I find out what opportunities are being offered. Prison is a good place to learn about future opportunities and to become prepared. You never know who you will meet upstate, especially now. Maybe I will make a new choice for my future career."

One night I was coming home from the theater about 11 o'clock. I was alone. My neighborhood is quiet and usually safe. However, shortly after I got out of the subway and was about two blocks from my apartment, I found myself closely followed by a small group of young men. One of the men asked me for a dollar. The translation is "give me your money". I told him that I wouldn't give him any money. As I found myself surrounded, I turned to the young man nearest to me and said, "Back off. I work on Rikers Island and I deal with men like you every day. If you bother me, I promise you that I will get you arrested and when I find out where you are housed you will do very hard time." He knew that I wasn't playing and he backed off because he knew that I could do what I said I could. It all about having friends in low places.

My fantasy has always been that if I were mugged, the intended mugger would recognize me and say, "Gee, Dr. Posner, I'm sorry. I didn't know it was you." That is my fantasy. The other night was a reality but I wasn't frightened. I knew exactly what to do and felt confident that I could handle it. It is all in having an attitude. Again, thank you, my good friends.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hard Choices

Pat was an ex-marine. He had several tattoos in honor of his ten years of service. He was also a power weight lifter. "I left the service because my wife didn' t like the life. She didn't want to travel with me and she got lonely at home. I really loved the marines. I did well. As a weight lifter, I was well-known and I considered trying out for the Olympics. I was a sergent. and my future looked bright. But I saw her point. We had three kids. It was hard on her. I resigned from the marines and I got a job selling advertising for the local newspaper and it was OK. The money was all right and I was home every night. I got to spend a lot of time with my kids and that was great too. I never used drugs and I had a can of beer once in awhile. I had never been in trouble in my life but I knew how to take care of myself.

One night, I was coming home from work and I was attacked by three guys. I guess I just looked like some fat guy in a suit. I was defending myself when I hit the guy. Maybe he was sick. Maybe we will find out at the trial. Anyway, he died and I'm here. I can't believe this happened to me.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Songs and the Singer

Bob writes songs. He sings them to anyone who will listen. Bob is in his 30's and looks like everyone else. He looks like a good guy, a straight arrow. His sandy hair is short, his brown eyes are direct and engage you immediately. Some of his songs are very good. Some of them even sound familiar. As soon as he finishes writing a song, he takes it to the law library and has his name notarized as the author. He uses that to copyright each song. I asked him if he ever wrote one to be sung by a particular artist. "Sure I do. I know exactly who I write each one for." I asked if he ever sold any. "I sell most of my songs and they are usually on the best seller charts. I make a very good living writing songs." So I asked the obvious question, "OK, then why are you here?" "Well," he said, "I'm gay even though I don't look and most people can't guess but I have this macho thing. I tell drug dealers that I'm a cop and they offer me money. I don't take the money but I get busted for impersonating a police officer. This is my third arrest. Hey, we all do what we do."

Monday, July 20, 2009

I Know My Rights

When Fred came into the CDU he was angry. "I am fifty years and I have no business being in jail. I was arrested for no reason. I had some chukka sticks in my backpack. This is not illegal. They're not considered a weapon. If I hadn't been poor, the police never would have hassled me and searched by backpack"

Everyone has an x-ray when they come to jail and Fred's x-ray was read as suspicious. He was sent to the CDU and was required to provide three sputums. If these sputums came back negative, Fred would be released to general population. "The mark on my lungs is the result of some scar tissue I got from a stab wound. I have had it for thirty years."

Fred refused to give sputums. By law, a resident can not go to court if medical services
says that he may be infected with a contagious disease. Fred did not go to court. The court date was rescheduled. Fred refused to give sputums. As a matter of fact, Fred did not leave his cell. He refused all contact with the medical staff. I saw him regularly to see if he was deteriorating mentally. If there was any sign that he might have a mental problem that might prevent him from cooperating with medical advice, it might be possible to get a court order. However, in practical terms, even with a court order, it would be difficult to force Fred to spit into a cup.

Since it was winter, some of the staff thought that Fred might have found a home with "three hots and a cot", the common expression for three meals and a bed. This is not unknown and jail population always increases when the weather gets cold. However, Fred had been here for six months. I realized that he wasn't getting any new court dates. It seemed as if the court had forgotten about him. Theoretically, that meant that Fred could spend the rest of his life locked up in this cell. Fred said that he was making a political statement about false arrest. I thought that he was spending an inordinate amount of taxpayer money. I really believed that he knew his medical condition and that he had an old scar from a stab wound.

April was warm and spring looked like was here to stay. It looked as if Fred was here to stay too. I couldn't find the lawyer assigned to the case but I was able to locate the district attorney. She couldn't believe that the case hadn't been settled and that Fred was still in jail. She asked me to call the judge. The judge say that he would have only gotten about 20 days if he had been convicted. The judge said that he would write the order the release him.

When Fred left, he winked. I still don't know if he was actually morally indignant about about his "false arrest" or if he preferred the CDU to a shelter.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Leaders are Leaders

Kip was gorgeous. He was 6'1", brown curly hair and a buff body only seen on television, a beach show, or in the jail yard during exercise time. The only difference about Kip was that he only had one leg. A shoot-out with a drug dealer cost the dealer his life and Kip his leg.

Most of the time Kip used a wheel chair. He was the unchallenged leader of the dorm and he managed it very well. Whatever was coming into the dorm, legal or illegal, Kip controlled it. He checked out the other residents received during visits. He ordered some deliveries himself. He always got some part of the gifts that came from families. He was the chief and he expected tribute. No one defied him.

Even the officers respected him because he kept fighting at a minimum. If there was a resident that I thought need protection, I could ask Kip to keep him safe and if there wasn't some special conflict, Kip would see that he was protected. Residents come and go. Once a leader, always a leader.

One day a resident who came in. He was from a rival gang faction on the street. He challenged Kip. Kip came up from his wheel chair and stood on his one leg. His other leg had been amputated at the hip. His body did not waver. He was as steady as a tree. He beat up the interloper and there was no more trouble.

Kip kept what was his and no one came looking for him again.

Kip said that when he gets out, he is going to develop body building exercise tapes for other who are disabled. He said that he might open a body building studio when he comes in 8 1/2 to 12.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Communication is Inportant

Clyde was brought into the Communicable Disease Unit when his x-ray indicated an area of concern on his left lung. The Communicable Disease Unit (CDU) houses residents in individual units when they are suspected of having tuberculosis or other infectious diseases. The residents are placed in these isolation units until it is determined medically that there in no danger to them or to the general population. The unit was very helpful in cutting down the number of people infected with TB because many of our residents do not seek medical attention when they are not in jail. In addition, since some residents are infected with HIV, they are more susceptible to infections and need additional protection.

The units have a very elaborate air-filter system with two locking door to allow for the air exchange. All personal wear masks when these patients are out of their units for medical treatment. The units are equipped with a shower, toilet, phone, a shelf with an attached seat bolted to the floor, and a television. Meals are placed a shelf between the inner and outer door. Both door are locked unless there is a reason and both door are only open when the patient comes out to see the doctor or nurse. On occasion, a nurse, doctor or mental health professional may go into the cell to speak with a patient. Whenever I go in, I always ask permission. I always ask permission to sit at the table. After all, this is his cell and I am entering only with his consent. Good manners are as important here as they are anywhere else.

The fourteen units are in a semi-circle. The fourteen units are separated by two sets of security door operated by an electrical system house in a building called the Sprung. It is a modern equivalent of a Quonset hut. Each door is opened by an officer with a key. There is a system whereby all the doors can be opened at once in case of an emergency. As with many newly built facilities all doors do not operate exactly as planned. One of the biggest complaints is about the phone system. The intercom that connects the resident with the outer world and the Correction Officer is frequently out of order. The Correction Officer can not see into each unit unless he/she takes a tour and the units are not visible from the nurses station.

The phone is the single most important privilege for a resident. He is usually given two phone calls each day. He is given a pin number as his identification number. He has six minutes of phone time. Residents may use their commissary money to charge additional phone calls. Only one resident can use the phone at any time. He must call the officers to have his phone turned on. The patient can cannot ask the officer to use the phone if the intercom doesn't work.

Clyde was a very well-groomed young man with a British accent. His manner were charming. He said that he was born in Jamaica but raised in London. He said that he went to Eton and was graduated from Oxford with a first in literature.

He was settled in a second unit, which was to the left of the officer's station and out of sight of the nursing station as well. Clyde was a model patient and resident. He was always polite, always pleasant and made no demands on anyone. He seemed to spend time on the phone but no officer remembered opening his line. Since no one remembered anything but complaints, no one took notice of Clyde beyond the usual nursing administrations and the meal deliveries.

Mental Health has the responsibility to see that every patient in isolation is at least well enough to respond by acknowledging a greeting. Clyde was always obliging. One day however, it was nearly time for Clyde to be discharged to general population. The scar on his lung was determined to be benign. He invited me into his cell and asked me to convey his thanks and appreciation to all the staff for their many kindnesses toward him. I told him that he had been a model patient and I wondered how he was able to pass his time so peacefully, without stress. "I'm always on the phone, you see. I talk to my friends and family all over the world." he said. My first reaction was fright. Had I missed some florid psychotic process? "Don't be alarmed " he said. "I'm a computer expert. I am able to tap into the computer here to make my calls. If you don't believe me, give me any phone number any place in the world and I'll connect you." I gave him the number of my sister's office in Cincinnati and he connected me. "All the calls are undetectable. They won't show up on any bill because I re-route them. I'm never bored, you see. For my next trick, would you like to see me open my cell door...all the cell doors in the unit?" I thanked him kindly but declined. The security breeches were too profound and I could not even contemplate the consequences.

A few weeks later, I went into a cell to speak with a patient. The officer opened the door to let me in. Unbeknownst to me, he was a meal relief officer. My conversation with the patient went on for some time and when I was ready to leave, I press the intercom and typically it was not working. Unfortunately when the regular officer came back from lunch, his relief did not tell him I was in the cell. It was not until the shift changed, three hours later, that the new tour began that the incoming officer checked all the cells and found me. The patient and I had watched the afternoon soaps operas together. Since I am not generally available between noon and three to watch television, the patient was kind enough to tell me the plots. It was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Too Expert...Or Not Too expert

"It wasn't as if I was trying to blow up the house and to kill my kids. I am not a terrorist." said John. John looked more like a freshly wrapped mummy. Most of his head, except for two large green eyes and a mouth with only one tooth, was wrapped in white gauze bandage. Both hands were similarly wrapped. "I live in a bad neighborhood and I got robbed three times. I get tired of telling the police and nothing happens. I decided to rig up a big surprise for the the next guy that tried to rob me. I got some cookies (small plastic explosives) and rigged up a device in the closet. I learned about demolitions in the army. I figured that when the thief opened the closet door, it would go off and have a real loud bang. It wouldn't hurt anyone but it would sure scare the hell out of them. It seemed like a really good idea. But then my wife started to talk me out of it. She said it was a bad idea. She said that maybe I would be drinking and forget about it. Anyway, I was going to dismantle it. As I was kneeling down, about to take off the wire, my stupid dog pushes in. I dropped the wire to push the dog away before he got hurt and the damn thing goes off in my face. You see, I expect the thief to open the door by the handle. No one would have gotten hurt. But I was right over the thing. I am lucky that I just got burned and didn't get anything blown off." John said that he learned demotions in the army. He didn't say he was any expert.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Master Artist

Among the other examples of creativity are Frank's tools. Jailhouse tattooing is very common. Designs include gang signs, hearts, names of lovers, family members, children, tributes to mother, religious pictures, and a wide variety of animals. Local jailhouse artists apply most of the tattoos. They use needles and ink for the task and it is very time consuming. Frank decided that his artistry was not sufficiently demonstrated by this method.

Frank used the inside of a cheap ballpoint pen, the motor from a portable radio, the batteries from a Walkman and he made his own mechanical tattooing pen. He said that it more nearly compared with the professional devices used by tattoo parlors on the street. Since all advertising is word of mouth, Frank used his own body to demonstrate his artistic talents. After he produced a few illustrations on other clients, they too became his advertisements.

Inmates get one hour a day of exercise in the yard and this opportunity expanded Frank's clients. Naturally his clientele was appreciative and rewarded Frank accordingly. There is something about necessity being the mother of invention and I suppose this is like building a better mousetrap.

Friday, June 5, 2009


There is so much talent in jail. Louis has a great deal of imagination. So much so that he designed a flying vehicle called the "Flying Duck". Louis used regular 81/2 by 11 inch paper. The design is so well executed that it could be build as a model or full scale. The engine room is complete, all the electrical wiring is illustrated, the stairs are in, the the rails, walls, floors, etc are all perfectly visible. There are several views, showing the "Flying Duck" from above, cross section, and from below. The details are exquisite. What makes this even more amazing is that Louis has no mechanical arts training and he didn't even have a ruler but had to use the side of a book for a straight edge.

I have hung his drawings in my office. I love it not only because it is a beautiful rendering and so clever but I also use it to illustrate that goals that are well-defined are most likely to be realized.

Friday, May 29, 2009

One Man's Story

Gerry said that the moment they put handcuff on him, he said "Oh Lord, don't let me die in jail.". Gerry is thirty-four years old. "I'm not going to lie. When I was younger, I was a real hustler. I sold drugs from New York to Miami. I was on the road all the time, buying and selling. I made a lot of money and I didn't think there was any end to the business I was in. When I was about twenty-nine, I started not feeling quite right. I thought it was because I was running the road so much, doing alcohol and drugs. I thought I was just tired. I took a vacation but even that didn't help. Then I had pneumonia. They asked me if I wanted to be tested for the HIV virus. I told then yes. When it came back positive, I signed myself out of the hospital. I refused to believe it. Not me. Oh God, not me. I thought I would died in the next few days. I really started using drugs. I figured that if I was going to die anyway, I might as well do it my way. I went through all my money. I kept driving up and down the coast as if I could out run it. I had nothing left. I started to sleep on the subway. I saw some kids trying to steal anything out of my pockets. I would have cut them if they had tried to doing anything like that in the past. Now, I just didn't care what happened. About four months later, I ended up in the hospital again. I weight 100 pounds and I am over 6 feet tall. I was just too tired to run anymore. I came in to die. I didn't. By this time, I had full-blown AIDS. My T-Cells was 70. I didn't know how long I had the virus before I actually found out that I had it. I do know that my drugging, my running,and my stress had taken a real toll on my health. While I was in the hospital, I started to read up on the virus. I attended some groups while I was still there. When I came out, I became active in the AIDS program. I cleaned up my act and and I took training to become an AIDS peer counselor. I would talk to young kids in school. I was in the outreach program to try to teach people how to prevent AIDS, how to have safe sex without feeling like less of a man. I found that people would listen to me because I had been in the streets, that I had used drugs, that I had spent time up north(state prison). I really liked being a counselor. For the first time in my life I felt good about what I was doing and really proud of myself. This went on for almost four years, I even found a woman who had the virus and we planned to get married and to take care of each other. The one night, when I was coming home from an AIDS meeting, some guy tried to rob me. I struggled against him and I hit him. He fell and hit is head on a fire hydrant. He died. I never meant it to happen. There is no self defense plea in New York. I am here until they lower my bail."

Gerry has become a peer counselor on the dorm and the most effective, generous person there. He takes charge when a new person comes, especially if the man has been newly diagnosed with the virus. Gerry is the best person to help acclimate someone to the dorm and to the awareness of having AIDS. Oh, Lord, don't let him die in jail.

Friday, May 22, 2009

AIDS Groups

Before I worked in the AIDS unit,I ran an AIDS support group every week in general population. There are about 14 men in the core group and usually a medical staff person would co-lead the group so that medical issues could be addressed. The group was on-going. New members came and others were discharge to go home, to go upstate, or to go to the hospital. No one wanted to go to the AIDS unit because it was called the morgue. People only went there to die.

One of the topics which often came up in the group was the attitude of people who were not infected toward those who are infected. In general population, the men were very wary about letting others know that they had the virus. We called the group The Wellness Group. When the correction officers called for them, they announced "The Wellness Group Meeting". I don't know how many men were fooled but they felt better than having officers announce "The AIDS Group" meeting.

The group sometimes talked about hurt and the pain they feel by the rejection of their families, friends, neighbors, and other residents. Even some of the lawyers who represented them said stupid things. One attorney called me and asked about her client's T-Cell count. With his permission and because I thought that she would ask the judge to consider an alternative to incarceration program, I told her that his T-Cell count was in the single digits. She said that she was worried that he would infect people in the court. I told her that if she didn't plan to have unprotected sex with him or to share a needle with him in court that she was safe and so was the court.

The group members said that it makes them feel like lepers and generally lousy about themselves. One of the ways we used to combat the feeling was by asking group members if they gave the person that right to judge them. The court might judge their crime, a jury might judge them but did they give that person the same right? We discussed these outside opinions and when they became more important than our own judgment. The group members thought about all the people they each gave power to judge them. One man said that he gave smiles to his mother when she fed him, or bathed him, or played with him. He said that he began trying to please early on and gave a lot of power to judge him. He said that he gave power to teachers to tell him if he was smart or dumb. Another group member said that he gave power to the coach at school to tell him if he was a good enough player to make the team. Someone else talked about how important it was for him to be liked at school and that he let others judge him, to let him know if he was cool. He said that he let them judge him. The group discussed all the power they had given to let other people judge them. We all give power to people. We cared what they thought and we gave people power to judge us. We gave them power to make us feel lousy about ourselves.

I use poker chips to illustrate power. The blue chips represent a lot of power. We usually give blue chips to people who are really important to us, mothers, wives, significant others. The red chips are still enough power to hurt. We give them to friends, associates, and other people we care about. The white chips have less power and sometimes we give them out without thinking. We allow anyone to judge us.

I put a lot of power chips of all colors on the table and asked the men to take as many as they wanted. I asked them to think about how much power they gave and take chips to represent it. I asked them to name the people they gave the power to but not to say it out loud if they didn't want to reveal. I asked them to think about whether or not they were happy with the power they gave. I asked them to decide whether or not they wanted the person to keep the power. I asked they to remember they they gave the power and they could take it back anytime they wanted. I asked them to remember that no one can take it, they could only give it for as long as they wanted the person to have it.

I gave they each a blue chip to keep to remind them who had the power. There is nothing magical or mystical about the chip. It is just a reminder.

Friday, May 15, 2009


The AIDS dorm is voluntary. It is housed in the medical infirmary building but no one is placed there without hus consent. Alex runs the dorm. He is a resident and he has AIDS. Fortunately, Alex has been able to stay healthy. Although his T-cell count is 0, he has had no opportunistic infections and he takes good care of himself. His picture could appear on the cover of a body builder magazine. He is also a natural born leader and has assumed his position. he takes care of new patients when they arrive. He sees that they have clothing, cosmetics, soap, deoderant, and anything else that will make them more comfortable. Many things can be purchased in the commissery but many residents do not have any money and there is no one on the outside to send them any. Alex sees that special needs are met. If a patient is very sick, as a few are, Alex sees that their meals are brought to their bed. If a patient is too sick to take a shower by himself, Alex will see that he is properly bathed. There are nurses on the unit but not enough to see that everyone gets everything. Alex takes it as his responsibility. Alex sees that the the food is given out fairly and that anyone who needs extras get them. Most patients are able to take care of themselves but Alex sees see that no one takes advantage of those who can not. The other day Alex asked me my first name. It is printed on my badge but I confirmed it. I asked him if he wanted to look me up in the phone book. Alex said, "No, I want to show you something." Alex showed me a letter written to the editor of a magazine called Newsline, the people with AIDS Coalition of New York. It is for patients with AIDS. A man wrote that he had been HIV+ for six years. HE said that the was facing six to tweleve years in prison and a life sentence with his illness. The writer told of his bitterness whaen he found out that the HIV viras had infected him. The writer said that people like, and he named me and the people of PWA (People with AIDS) helped him come to terms with his illness. He said that the was able to come to terms witht he virus but it also made a radical change in his attitude thoward himself, others, and life in general. Alex asked me if I remembered Mike, the author of the letter. I told him that I remembered Mike very well. Mike wrote some lovely poetry. He also told me about the jailhouse mouse. I will never

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Phone Man

This is dated. It was in the days before everyone had a cell phone. This was a time when there was a pay phone on every corner.

Mike was a fat white dough boy. He wore thick glasses and looked like a nerd. He wasn't. Mike ran 30 phones in the Wall Street area. He was King of the Phones. Worthy of great respect. He was well known and very well connected in jail. "Here's how it works." He explained to me on one long, boring afternoon. "I run dental floss down into the pay phone and stuff it. Then, after someone puts in the money and the call doesn't go through, the money backs up and I can collect it. It's got to be unwaxed dental floss and a spearmint doesn't work. It does no good to have just a couple of phones. At takes least fifteen phones to make it worthwhile. I've got thirty phones and I make a very good living. Of course once in awhile I get caught but every business has its overhead. I've got an employee collecting for me while I'm in here. The cops never find out where all my phones are. They may pick up one or two but I've got lots more. Part of the fun is designing a pattern of the operation. It has got be convenient. I'm not going all over the city to milk my machines. It has be a pattern I can remember so that I know where I set them. I place a grid over the section of the city and I make my design. I'm pretty artistic and so I design some really great ones. Some of my designs are classics. Some are birds, on owl for the wise, a hawk for the brave, and an ostrich for those who have their head in the sand. Some are flowers, a daisy not to forget, a rose for mothers, a lilac if the neighborhood smells bad. I have designed cars from outer space, cars of the future, antique cars. Sometimes I think that I really enjoy the designs better that the money I get from the phones No, that isn't true. It is the money that makes it all worthwhile. I've been doing it for twenty years, I guess. Even the cops respect me for being the best. Everyone has to take pride in his work." I wonder what he is doing now. Maybe he retired or maybe he has a better scheme.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The History Lesson

Ralph is forty-nine years old. He has been in jail for twenty-eight of those years. "I've become an old man in jail. When I first started coming in, I had all my hair. It wasn't turning gray like now. I had all my teeth. I got most of the scars on my face and body upstate. I got into more fights there than on the street. You would think that I knew how to get along incarcerated by now." Ralph's body was was stooped and his hands shook a little from "his nerves". He said that he was not proud of all his time upstate but he said that it does give him some expertise in the jail system. He said that he knows more than the correction officers who don't have seniority. Most of his arrests come from minor drug charges. He is more disgusted in how the the jail population has changed over the years. "Years ago, you knew what to expect from the officers. They knew what to expect from you. You were safe in jail but that was before the gangs. Now the gangs run the jail. The officers are more afraid of them than we are. There was a time when you respected the officers. There was no talking in the halls. When an officer told you to move, you moved. Now you only move for the gangs. The gangs control everything. They control the drugs coming. They control the "kites" (the internal mail system). You know,jail is more stressful than prison. You know what time you are going to do, in jail, you come in you've been drugging. Until you get connected, you got to be drug free. You don't know if you are going to beat your case. You don't know if they are will try you on your record on just this bid. You don't know how your family is making out. You don't know who your friends are and what enemies are here with you. Jail is really tough and getting tougher all the time. Besides, there aren't many things to do in jail. There are a lot more programs and activities upstate. I don't know why I keep coming in here. I am too old for this. It isn't safe anymore...not for me, not for the officers.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Writer

C.O. Lottie, a Correction Officer who is the regular A officer on Dorm 3 called me. She said that an resident had given her book a he wrote and there was a suicide note enclosed. C.O. Lottie is a very sharp woman who has been on this post for several years. Although she may look like a fashion model, actually she is a professional ballet dancer on the weekends. She has walked this street for long enough to know all the cracks. She is not easily alarmed and never without a very good reason. "Please see him as soon as possible. He has me worried." Preventing suicides is my primary duty. No one wants any hang ups on their tour and the Department of Corrections doesn't want them at any time. When I first asked Charles to talk with me it was too near the count to bring him into my office. We met in the intake officer's office. It is hostile territory and neither of us liked to be there. Charles was about 32 years old with dark hair, dark eyes, and a new scar ran from his eye to his mouth. "I finished my book and now I want to die. I am tired of fighting. They killed two of my brothers and they are threatening the rest of my family. I've been cut 7 times. This one on my face is just the last one. They say that I told on them but I didn't. There is a contract on my life for $50,000. If I go upstate again, I am dead. They don't say bad things about the dead. They only say good things. When I die, they will only remember the good things that I did."

I don't know why residents always threaten suicide on Friday afternoon. I had to decide if I thought he would stay alive over the weekend or if was safer to sent him to the hospital. The hospital prison psychiatric ward would probably send him back and I didn't think that bus therapy was going to work with Charles. I asked him if I could meet with him again on Monday before he made up his mind to kill himself immediately. I told him that I would like to discuss the book more and see if there was anyway he could think of that would allow him to live. Charles promised to think about it and meet me on Monday. Meanwhile I put him om suicide watch which means that the officers have to check him on him every 15 minutes around the clock.

Monday Charles was not a lot better but we had the privacy of my office which was more neutral territory. Charles said that he had been upstate for dealing drugs. "I got six to life which means that I am on parole for the rest of my like. No matter what I get picked up for, I'm in trouble, I got busted for a robbery I didn't do. I do not do robbery. I do drugs. Anyway, I wrote this book because if I'm going to be called a snitch, I might as well tell what I know. They are going to kill me anyway." Charles was very depressed. I asked him to go into the mental observation unit. He said that he didn't want to go because he had a few people he trusted in this dorm. He knew that they wouldn't let anyone get him while he was asleep. I respected his request not to go to the mental health unit because if he didn't want to go, he would deny that he has any intention of hurting himself and they would send him back to general population.

Charles and I began to meet every day. About a week later, he offered to let me read his book. The book was amazing. It was so real. Every time I read a book of fiction and the author tries of sound like he is an inmate, I cringe at the bogus language. Charles' book was real. The next time we met I told him that I was impressed I asked him if he ever thought of having his book published. It seemed like a good therapeutic intervention. If Charles would think longer term. perhaps the suicidal ideation would become more remote. Charles said that he hadn't though about it but he had something to say the young people who thoughts that the streets were so cool. I told him that a national magazine had run article about the streets and young people and maybe they would like to follow it up with some of the things that he had to say. I showed him a recent copy of the magazine and showed him the address of and name of the editor. "You know, three years ago I couldn't read or write. When I was upstate, an old man would sit in the yard with me and everyday, he would give me ten words. When I got back to my cell, I would write the words and study what they meant. That's how I learned to read and write. I passed my GED the first time and got a good score on the SATs." Two days later, C.O. Lottie called me late in the afternoon. "You've got to come quick! Charles has something to show you." When I went to the dorm, Charles brought me a letter. "I didn't write to the editor of the magazine. I just called her and to her about my book. She said that she would get back to me." The letter was from the editor of the magazine. She gave Charles the name of a book agent and told the agent to call Charles. Residents can not receive phone calls. Charles call the agent and the agent wasn't in. I gave Charles my beeper number to give to the agent. Charles left my beeper number. The agent beeped me later that afternoon. I spoke to the agent because I didn't recognize the number on my beeper. The only people who have my beeper number are people I work with in jail and residents' attorneys that I am trying to reach. Anyway, the agent said that the editor had given him Charles' name. He told me about the book that Charles presented and the editor and the agent were impressed. I told Charles to call the agent now. They spoke and Charles arranged to have his sister pick up the book from Rikers and take it to the agent. A few days later, the man who wrote the article for the magazine beeped me. He said that the editor of the magazine and the agent called him. He said that the agent gave him my beeper number. He said that he was was very interested in talking to Charles. When I left on Friday, Charles was having a phone interview with the writer.

Charles told me that he wants to write more books. He said that he has a lot of information about the street and about drug dealing and about life. He said that instead of killing himself, he would like to get into the witness protection program because that way, he will be safe and he will still be able to write. I asked him if he wanted to get off the suicide watch, he said, "no it's just someone esle to watch my back"

Friday, April 17, 2009


A dorm has anywhere from thirty to sixty residents. The beds are lined up on each side of the room in two rows, placed head to head in the center. Between each bed is a metal locker that is about three feet high and one foot square, It is used for personal items like cosmetics, clothing, pictures, legal papers, and books. At one end of the dorm, there are showers and toilets. Most disputes are settled here. Sometimes the arguments are settled peacefully and sometimes they are not. When a controversy reaches the point when one resident invites another resident to meet in the shower it is unlikely that blood will not be shed.

At the other end of the dorm is the day room. The day room is used to watch TV, play cards, chess, dominoes, or talk. There are plastic chairs in the room that can be grouped or set apart for privacy. Meals are served in the day room. Assigned residents on work deatil bring large containers of food that is prepared in the kitchen. The meals are served cafeteria style. The choice is between regular food and a mealwithout pork to meet the religious restrictions. The day rooms have two long tables with attached seats. Both are bolted to the floor. Breakfast is served at 4:30 AM, lunch at 10:30 AM and dinner at 4:30 PM. This allows all meals to be served on one shift. It is a security issue. It was found that the most fights and riots began when large numbers of residents were moved from one area to another. To cut down on the traffic, meals are served in the dorm.

The D.O.C. (Department of Corrections) shifts are 7 AM to 3PM, 3PM to 11 PM, and 11PM to 7 AM. Each dorm, or pair of dorms has an "A" officer. He or she sits in a Plexiglas area. This area, often encased in metal bars to prevent attacks on the officer, is called the "bubble". In some dorms, usually smaller ones with 30 residents, the bubble is between to dorms and the A officer is responsible to both. There is a "B" officer in each dorm. The B officers usually sits by the door to be able to watch the whole room from that vantage points. The officer in the bubble is in charge. The A officer is responsible for the whereabouts of all residents. The A officer has the keys to the dorms and to the outside corridor. No one can leave or enter the dorm without the officer's permission. This also included all medical, mental health or other civilian personnel. There are never any problems for civilians. Even if there is a fight going on, the residents will always see that we are not involved. We are not seen as the enemy and are therefore worthy of protection.

The officers logs residents who are out for work detail, sick call, recreation, court appearances, visits, law library, and religious services.

The "count" is taken several times a day. Each resident stands by his/her bed so that the B officer who is stationed inside the dorm can be sure that all residents are counted. If a resident is missing or unaccounted for, an alarm goes out. This is serious. The entire jail is locked down until the resident is found or accounted for.

When I go into the dorm it is with permission of both officers. The A officer's post is usually a steady post. Most officers are on duty for four day and off for two days. The regular officers usually know all of the residents assigned to their dorm. When the regular officer is on their "pass days" non-working days, there is a substitute officer who is often on the "wheel", meaning that the officer does not have a permanent post and will fill in during any shift, at any post. These officers are usually new officers or new to the jail. When they are on, the residents are often the best source of information because they know the whereabouts of all the other residents.

The intake area is the entrance and exit of all residents. There is a counter, behind which, the officers log in and out the residents as they come in or leave. There are two holding cells where residents waiting to be transferred to court, clinics, other jails, or to the street. They wait for transportation to move them from place to place. They have their own door and they pass through a metal detector. The intake office is in the bubble where the captain can watch. It is not often used because all the activity is on the floor.

A "shakedown" or search is conducted without notice. Officers from other buildings come into the dorm and strip down the beds, take everything from the metal lockers, and look everywhere for contraband. That includes drugs, weapons, forbidden clothing, gang related beads, headscarves, or lotions that may be flamable. An AirNikes has chambers that could be used to transport drugs and is classified as contraband. The residents are sent to the day room with their backs against the window so that they cannot watch the search. They may take some personal exception to the officer who is going through their property. Searches are frequent and necessary but disruptive.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ask An Expert

My daughter told me that someone tried to steal her bike from the garage. The bike was chained to a pole but the thief had tried to cut the chain with cutters. Apparently he was interrupted before he completed his mission.
I asked Mark. Mark is a very sweet man. He is about 42 years old. Hie is 6 feet tal with black hair and black eyes. He would be more attractive if he had a few more teeth. Nevertheless, his smile is bright and very warm. Although he doesn't have a great deal of formal education, he tries to use good grammar and refrain from cursing. He takes pride in his efforts to speak well and to behave as a gentleman. However, he also takes pride in rarely stepping away from a fight if he feels that he is being treated with a lack of respect. For example, Mark was using the phone when a gang member thought that Mark should hang up the phone and give to him. Mark took this attitude as a sign of disrespect and took out several of the intruder's teeth with the phone receiver. In any case, Mark was the terror of the Westside. "I can steal any car within 60 seconds. Forget about The Club or car alarms. They are only for amateurs. A professional can disable any of the systems in less than 10 seconds. I can spray Freon on The Club and it was crack in less than 30 seconds. Car alarms annoy the neighbors. No one cares about the car. People are so used to noise that the are angry when it wakes the up. They are not about to try to see if anyone is stealing the car. For all they know, I could be the car's owner. Alarms make money for the people who sell them. They won't stop anyone. I can get a car to a chop shop in five minutes. In less than an hour, I can have a car in pieces that look like an excellent surgeon was operating. I can dissect a car for parts on less time than it takes for a doctor to remove a wart. I am so good that it looks like the car manufacturer placed "cut on this line" for me. Now if you really want to protect your car, there is a "U" shaped lock. If you put but a good one made of hardened steel, no one is going to steal your car. Tell your daughter to remove that rear wheel, place the lock around the mainframe and the rear wheel. If she put that lock around the pole, no one is going to steal her bike. Also, there is a chain that is used to hook subway cars together. It is a little heavy but it would take a blow torch to break that. The thief would have burned up the garage before he got the chain off."
Mark is a street mechanic and a very good one. He was no business card but if you need any car repairs, he is the best around. He has given me a great deal of advice about my car. He told me what certain repairs should cost and how to know if the repairs are necessary. I have a great deal of confidence in Mark. Unfortunately he will not be available to the next three and a have years. He did recommend a friend for me to use in the meantime.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Carrier

Milo spoke no English. His chart said that he was nineteen but he looked twelve. Slim, small boned, frail, curled up in a fetal position on his bed weeping. I asked Joe, a twenty year old Latino to translate. Joe helped Milo into his wheel chair and came into my office. Between sobs, Milo told me that he had just arrived from Venezuela, his first time in the United States. He said that he collapsed in the airport. At the hospital they removed balloons filled with heroin. Two of the balloons had burst. Naturally he was arrested immediately. According to Milo, he had been forced to swallow the heroin by a drug dealer in Venezuela who told him that he had seen the dealer's face and now he had no choice. The dealer also told that there was a contract on his life if the delivery did not take place. The police told Milo that he would get a fifteen year sentence. Milo was terrified. His mother was hysterical. She had no idea that her son was carrying drugs. I went to speak to my friendly drug dealer in the next dorm. He said that it sounded as if Milo was carrying about a million dollars worth of heroin. He thought that it was possible that there was a contract out on his life but if he kept his mouth shut he would be OK because the danger came from the Venezuelans, not the locals. As far as the sentence, my friend said that it was more likely that he would get six months and then be deported because it was cheaper for our government than keeping him in prison. He said that he was pretty sure that Milo would be all right but he would check around outside. A few days later, my friend confirmed his information and that somehow he was allowed to talk to Milo and reassure him. It is important to know where to go to for expert advice.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

This Hat Is Mine

Sammy was a very little man. He was not more than 5'3 inches. He was skinny with very knobby knees. He wore shorts although it was January when he was arrested. He had huge blue eyes and a very sweet smile. He wore a worn brown hat called a pork pie when I was very young. On the inside of the hat was were pictures of a very beautiful, very famous super model. Sammy loved her. Actually that was why Sammy was in jail. Although he would say that he just wanted to see her as often as he could, the police called it stalking. He admitted that he did wait at her apartment for her to come home. He made friends with the doorman so he could find out when she went out in the morning. "I don't stalk her. I just want to see her. Why couldn't she love me. I'm not a bad guy. I am a real gentleman. I know how to treat a lady. After all, I've got everything but money and hey, she doesn't need my money. She has plenty. I would never hurt her so what's the problem." Sammy had another problem. The problem was the hat. Someone in the dorm coveted the hat. This someone was used to controlling things and the hat became the object of his control needs. Sammy probably would have given him the hat to save his life. I could have come to that but Sammy was not going to give up the pictures of his fail lady. Sammy scratched his head. I thought that he was just thinking. Sammy continued to scratch his head. He took off this hat and peered inside. He spotted something. He picked it up between two fingers and then squashed. The person who coveted the hat watched in disgust and walked away. Sammy looked at me and winked.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Woman's World

Although there are several hundred women at Rikers, I don't usually work with them. However there was one woman I do remember vividly. Bernice was a pleasant woman about forty-two years old. She looked like every third woman you see on the bus. She had brown hair, just starting to get gray. I thought that she would probably get a red color rinse to hide the gray when she got out. It is possible to dye your hair in jail, to bleach it, and to get any other cosmetic product. Most of it is illegal contraband but if you are really well connected you can get anything including drugs. Anyway, she usually wore a nylon sweat suit with sneakers. She always looked very clean and eager to please. Attractive, a little overweight and very pleasant. This was her first incarceration and she had never been in trouble before. She said that she was in jail for writing bad checks on her employer's account. "I was a bookkeeper for a small linen supply company and my husband was a machine shop foreman. My husband and I worked hard for everything. We bought a nice house; we had two cars and even managed a vacation once in a while. Everything was great until my husband got laid off. Then the bills started to pile up. I tried to pay everyone some of what I owed. I figured that before long Mike would go back to work and we would catch up. Then Mike hurt his back. My insurance didn't cover all the doctor's bills and I didn't think that Mike could do his old job even if they did call him back. Then I had some woman trouble and needed an operation. Even then there were problems because I don't think the doctors did the right thing for my condition. You know, when you are down, nothing seems to come except more trouble. The bill collectors were hounding us. We borrowed all the money we could but it still wasn't enough. We lost our house and I just didn't know what to do so I started writing some checks out of my office's accounts. Finally my boss caught on. He said that he was sorry but he called the police and I got arrested. " I guess that there are millions of people with the same stories. I really felt sorry for her. She didn't use drugs. She was so middle class and that is very unusual in the jail population. Even the Correction Officers felt sorry for her. The captain gave her a job in his office and told her that she could apply for a job as a civilian when she served her time. I saw her for the last time just before she went downstate for her prison assignment. Downstate is the processing facility. Sentenced inmates go to Downstate, from there they are sent to various prisons though out the state. She gave me a fond good-bye and thanked me for listening to her these past several weeks. "By the way, "she said, "you know, I just spoke to my husband and he said that the lawyer called and said that I would get a check for 11 million dollars for the surgery that the doctor's botched up." She was gone before I could ask any questions. I will never know.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

What Goes Around

When I hold substance abuse groups, I often ask the members "what is the worst thing that would happen if you stopped using drugs?". I get some very interesting answers. Sometimes I even get the truth.
Jay told the truth, "when you get out of prison, you look good. You put on weight, you work out, build some muscles. Everyone knows you just came home from up north. Pretty soon somebody will offer you some drugs. They don't even charge you. They give them to you for free. When you get hooked, then they charge you. They know you are a customer again and you are theirs for life. It's never your men friends who will get you to go back to drugs, They may stay clear of you but they won't try to get you to use again. No, it is Suzy Hotpants who walks by. She says just buy me a little and I'll show you how wild I can be. She takes a hit on the pipe and just sets down where it is in easy reach. You are on your own then and it isn't easy. One day when I was on the block I ran into a real good friend of mine. He said "look, I've got $800. I remember allthe times you took care of me. I'm going to buy you some new clothes . I'm going to take you out for the best dinner. You are my best friend and I really owe you." Just then , Suzy Hotpants walks by. She is walking slowly, giving both of you time to see just how good she looks. In no time, she says to me, "let's you and me get together. Tell your friend that you'll be back later." My friend takes off. He says to me, "see you later". "It starts with getting her something. You may take a little hit and that's all it takes. That is the way it happens all the time. And that's the truth." I believe Jay and I know that he speaks the truth. He is a small man, missing more than a few teeth. In another life, he would have made a great stand up comic. His delivery and timing were excellent.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Tattoo Artist

Timothy was a victim of drugs. He was 25 going on 50. His hair was red, balding on top, shaggy on his neck. His face was covered with freckles. Timothy had tattoos on his neck, shoulders, arms, chest and legs, and even on his ears. "Every time I got high, I got a new tat. Just imagine all the fun I had when the police asked me if I had any identifying marks. It took a whole page just to catalog my pictures. I'm some kind of an art gallery." "You know, " he said, "I used to be pretty good at my job. I learned electrical maintenance when I did a bid as a kid. They say that no knowledge is ever wasted. I put it to good use. I figured out how to pass alarm systems. That was my thing and I had been a pretty successful burglar. My specialty was robbing video stores and selling the tapes to other dealers. People placed orders with me and I would rob a store and sell them the videos they wanted. I was very reliable and I had a lot of steady customers. People liked me and they knew I could be trusted to deliver. I seldom got caught and I was pretty proud of my ability until I started to use cocaine. I got sloppy. I stopped going to see my parole officer, my urine was dirty. I had a bunch of warrants and the police were beginning to notice me and watch me. When I used cocaine, I thought that I was invisible. I was invisible until I used so much that I began to see things. One day I was so sure that I was being chased by tigers that I began to run frantically to find some place to hide and get away. I was so scared that I ran into the back of a police car to escape. Is that being scared or what? I got 9 1/2 to 18 years. No more tigers."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Not On The Forbes List, But...

On of the most successful drug dealers I met was Joe. Joe did not look like anyone that Central Casting would send to a movie audition for the part. He looked like TV's idea of a very successful, well-respected business leader. And he was. His hair was dark brown and well timed as if he frequented and expensive stylist. And he did. His brown eyes were clear, alert and attentive. Despite his current address, he wore well-pressed slacks with a fit that was a tribute to his tailor. There was nothing on the rack that was good enough for this gentleman. If his picture were on the cover of a financial magazine, it would be appropriate. He might look a little younger than the average billionaire but not if he were a venture capitalist or a computer designer. He was not aggressive, he was just clearly in charge. The other residents knew it and so did the officers. The man had presence. He was shorter than average just like many financial tycoons and movie actors. His eyes were calm and all knowing. He spoke in a quiet, soft-spoken tone that one had to listen to very carefully or miss. Everyone listened very carefully because no one wanted to miss a word he said. His shirts were always ironed. Since there is no such service in jail, he must have has a special delivery service to send his laundry in and out.
Joe moved through the dorm as if he were on his own plantation. The residents moved aside in a natural way without seeming to resent or fear him. I thought that Joe probably provoked the same reaction wherever he was, in jail or on the street. Most successful drug dealers are not in jail but he was unlucky for the minute.
He explained that it takes a lot of hard work to run a successful drug business just like any other successful business. He said that that people didn't realize that it takes a lot more than guns to keep a territory and make it profitable. The competition is fierce, loyalty is problematic. Iimporting, manufacturing, and distribution had to be planned carefully. No detail was overlooked. He said that he knew his market and knew that he has to persuade consumers that his product was superior to other similar products. He told me that it took a great deal of research and development to produce a grade of drug that was sufficiently satisfying yet profitable. He was concerned about profit margins. He said that he also like the prestige of being successful because people in the community looked up to him when he walked down the street. People stepped aside and women were thrilled to be seen with him. I kept wondering what made him different from any other successful businessman, except for the product he was selling.
Joe told me that you can tell who is the salesman and who is the salesperson by the car he/she drives. You can also tell what product is being sold by the color of the car.
Joe said that there is a great of prestige is being a successful dealer. All he was doing was selling the wrong product because he could not go public. He may be a venture capitalist. He bailed himself out. As a parting message, he said that never underestimate the skills of a successful drug dealer. If you can sell one product, you can sell another one just as easily.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Psychic Connection

When I first started to work on Rikers in 1989, I met Mason. He was about 30 years old but had no teeth. His hair was thick and classically shaped by the inmate barbers. Inmate barbers are literally the cutting edge. They are the point men of fashion or as they phrased it, they are on Avenue A (the front line). Mason's skin was smooth and if it wasn't for the small blue teardrop tattooed beneath is right eye, he would have looked much younger. The tattoo was in memory for a close friend or enemy who had been killed. Mason could neither read nor write but he never forgot anything. His memory was uncanny. He never forgot a movie he had ever seen, a television show, every piece of music and every lyric. He could repeat long passages from the bible and sermons that he had heard. More than remembering, he could also process the information and draw his own conclusions. His conclusions were sophisticated and erudite. His opinions were developed as a result of several different pieces of data he heard from different sources. People thought that he was stupid because he was illiterate but his memory was remarkable. However, Mason also told me about aliens, little green men who visited him in his cell. I listened, Then he told me stories about the affairs of celebrities who were having marital troubles, who was having drug problems, who would soon be indited for illegal activities, and who was going to jail. Since these events had not been reported, I took it about as seriously as the stories about the little green visitors. But every time there was a newspaper report of the event Mason had predicted, he brought me a newspaper article confirming the story.
Mason never predicted lottery numbers or stock tips but he was not wrong on the messages he did get from wherever.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Flour Flowers

When Scott entered the doorway, he blocked out the light. He was about 6 foot 6, three hundred pounds and had less fat than skim milk. He told me that he had been in Special Forces and could kill a man with his hands in at least 12 ways. He wasn't proud of his skill and mentioned them casually. He said that he went into the service at eighteen and was trained to be a killer. He said that he was good at it but that there wasn't much else he could do well. Scott was depressed with the world and its violence. He was particularly concerned about young people and the gangs. Scott wanted to start an Alternative to Violence program in the dorm but he said that the other men seemed too intimidated to believe that he wanted to teach something besides hurting. He said that there were certain disadvantages to his size because people made assumptions that were not true. He said that he really wanted to be a teacher and he would especially like to teach youngsters about art, classical music, and great literature. "I don't want to think about killings", he said. "I want to think about love and the beauty of the world. I know that I have been sentenced to life without parole but even in prison I can teach someone." He wrote poetry and loved music.

One day he brought me a flower. The vase was the top of a shampoo bottle. The flower was made of bread. The stem and leaves were colored green by string beans. The flower was red with beet juice. It seemed incredibly tiny in his huge hand. I kept it until it finally returned to the flour from whence it came.

A friend and I were watching TV and she asked me if I thought that there were really men who were built like those buff guys on the beach. I told her that I see hard bodies every day. I see more hard bodies than on all TV shows and on all beaches.

There was a very nice young man and with a six-pack and cuts on his whole body. His was gorgeous and he was a paraplegic. A bullet severed his spine. It was not an accident. He was selling drugs out of his territory and the dealer wanted to make a point. This is not uncommon. Anyway, this young man was going up north for 6 1/2 to 12 and said that he wanted to keep in shape in case there was some research drugs or surgery and he wanted to be a candidate for clinical trials. He had hopes in a cure. He wanted to be part of it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Before soup was served last Tuesday evening, dressed by Bijou, manicured by Bergdorf, and haircut by Barney, my dinner partner told me that his very good friend, a Forbes billionaire was not caught into the Madoff mess because he was too smart to be fooled by the investment fund. The gentlemen to my right, schooled at Harvard and Oxford, and seasoned in HongKong said that his best friend as a possible candidate for a Pulitzer.

At the sports club, I overheard two beautifully toned young women talking as they climbed the stair machines to infinity. The first one said that her former roommate from college was starring in a play on Broadway. The other young lady said that one of her best friends was on the Obama short list for employment.

When I got my haircut at a fancy Madison Avenue salon, a gift from my children, the hairdresser snipped as he told me that one of his famous clients was going to the Oscar's.

The attendant in the garage said that one of his customers and very good friend had just received a MacArthur Grant.

A friend of a friend of mine said that he just attended a party given by a fashion magazine and met a super model. It seems that everyone has friends in high places. I don't...I have friends in low places.

Rikers Island is a jail. Most of the residents are waiting to go to court to be tried for their offense. They are innocent until proven quilty. There are some residents who are sentenced and serving city time...less than one year. Many New Yorkers think that they see Rikers from the TriBorough (Robert Kennedy) Bridge to Queens. The tall buildings on the right on Wards Island are Kirby Forensic Hospital. Rikers Island can be seen from one of the runways at LaGuardia Airport if you know where to look and you know what you are seeing.

It takes me about twenty minutes to drive to work because I drive against traffic from Manhattan toward LaGuardia Airport. The Grand Central Parkway exit for Marine Terminal is in East Elmhurst. East Elmhurst is a very nice community of garden apartments and single family homes. On each holiday the decorations are attractive and abundant. Halloween, Christmas and even smaller events are celebrated to please the children and the neighborhood residents. The cars parked in front of the homes are late models . The lawns are neat and the flowers are brightly colored. The whole area has mature trees that spread a leafy canopy above many street. The neighborhood has a great deal of pride for good reasons. There is a neighborhood school, a drug store, a bank, a bakery, a luncheonette, a small market. All these places are clean and attractive. Just past the softball field that serves the Little League team is large sign that says, "New York Correctional Facility, Rikers Island, Home of New York's Boldest Correction Officers." I turn right at the light.

There is a bus stop that brings officers and civilian workers to and from work. It also brings families and those who love people who are incarcerated on Rikers Island. Visiting hours begin at 7 AM in some of those buildings and relatives are waiting to get on the Island. Those visitors will need two forms of identification. The officers have their badges and civilian employees have permanent passes. I have a Gate One pass and I can drive over the bridge. The bridge is always under repair. Fixing the bridge seems to be a career choice. As I drive across the bridge, I can see planes on the runway ready to take off. On the left side there is a waste treatment center. It smells. It seems as if a person could swim from Rikers and escape but no one ever does.

The bridge has the best views of Rikers. There are 10 jails on Rikers. Each one has its own name, warden, correctional officers, medical and mental health services and all other necessary staff. They used on have their own kitchens but that has become centralized. The officers have the initials of the jail on their collar. Each jail has its own visit house and chapel. Sometimes couples get married in the chapel. It is usually because the inmate is going to go up state and they want to have conjugal visits when he/she is locked up. No one comes to Rikers to visit unless they know where they are going.

On the Rikers' side of the bridge, I pass through another gate. The officers recognizes my car. It is a red drop top Camero. My license plate is Rikesyc. We wave, say hi and I drive in.

Immediate after the gate is a wide boulevard with grass in the middle. There are no trees but the grass is always cut. The Canadian geese use the center and when they make their rounds in the spring with the babies, all traffic stops for them. We all wait for the parade. On both sides of the boulevard there are young trees lining the fence that surrounds each jail. The fences ate 12 feet high and topped with heavy gauge razor wire. There is parking on the outside of the fence. Parking is at a premium and tough to come by. All the grounds are very clean. Labor is very cheap. Residents are willing to work because they are so bored. They are happy to get on any work detail. Although there is very little pay it's better than sitting around, playing cards, watching TV, sleeping or reading.

Work details wear bright orange jump suits. All other residents wear their own clothes because they are all presumed innocent since they have yet to come to trial. There are clothes boxes in every jail for people who truly have nothing to wear. Some of the clothes are new. tee shirts, socks, underwear, some are donated by, some are purchased by the city, some are left by residents who went to court and were released and didn't come back for their clothing.

In 1989, I was the assistant mental health chief. I worked in AMKC (C-95). It was the largest jail on the island. It is a three story brick building, built is the 1940's. There are no bars on the windows. The windows are narrow vertical panes with heavy metal strips holding them in place. Most of the windows opened at one time but now they are welded shut. There is no central air-conditioning. The building sort of grew. There are temporary extensions built to house the growing population. The additions are functional, not designed for beauty. It housed over 1000 men, mostly in 50 bed dormitories. I go through the gate and show my badge to the Correction Officers. After I park my car, I walk to the building. As I approach, I see the officers leaving from the 11 PM to 7AM tour. They are dressed in street clothes. They load their guns at the sandbox and leave. I bang on the door and the officers buzzes me in. I exchange my institutional badge for the AMKC badge. I place my purse on the conveyor belt. My lunch is in a clear plastic badge. All the contents are viewed . I will go through the metal detector. If the alarm goes off, the officer will pass a wand around me. We goes though this every time I come in the building. We are friends but he has his job to do and I know what I am supposed to do.I can leave the island for lunch but is usually too much trouble and takes too long.

Female Correction Officers are beautifully groomed. Their hair, nails, and makeup are a clear indication of their femininity despite the responsibility of their jobs. They wear dark blue well pressed shirts and slacks. When they leave at the end of their tour, they are dressed like any other fashionable professional woman. Their one accessory is a gun the put into their handbag when they leave the building.

No guns are allowed in the jail. The guns are checked in and stored in individual lockers. There is the fear that a resident could grab a gun and use it against an officer, a civilian, or another resident.

The officer will buzz me through the next set of doors. The corridor has offices for the warden, the assistant warden, for the programs officer, security, and other jail functions.The riot gear is also stored here. Plexiglas shields, helmets, body armour, and batons are hung up in the corridor. The gear will be used during a routine search, to escort a resident designated as a centrally monitored command. That means that the resident is a high profile case, or an escape risk.

When I pass through this gate, I am actually in the jail area. The gates are slammed behind me. I pass the law library, the commissary, the meal hall (residents don't eat together in a large dining room. They eat on their dorm. Carts bring meals to them), and the pharmacy.

This is a receiving building. Men come here right from the precincts where they were arrested. Each person has to be housed within 24 hours and there is a lot a pressure to see that they are housed because otherwise they can sue Corrections are tried to get paid for the time they were not housed in appropriate housing. The Department of Corrections is very aware of this problem and there is a great deal of anxiety to see that the men have their medical screening and some psychiatric evaluation. Some men are sick because a lot of homeless men come to jail. Some men are drug abusers and are in withdrawal. Some have psychiatric problem and statistics show that jails are becoming the largest mental health centers in the country. Rikers is the second largest jail in the country. It has about 16,000 residents at any time and may pass about 150,000 residents through each year.

I know that I am a guest of the Department of Corrections. Their responsibility is control, custody, and care. I am a civilian and will conduct myself with courtesy at all times, remembering that I am in their house. It will make my life more pleasant and my job possible. Correction Officers are very nice people. They are warm, intelligent, kind, funny, and very sweet. Although their job is tough, they are the greatest people to work with. It is difficult to overstate my pleasure to work with them. Forget the movies and television shows. Correction Officers may be the boldest but they are also the nicest people I have ever met.

Correction Officers are polite to residents and rarely abusive unless there is a reason to show force. Perhaps because it is a New York jail and most of the Officers are from the city, there is more understanding and less animosity. Some residents know the officers from the street. Some officers are related to the residents. Forget the stereotypes, on both sides.

After I get to the second set of gates and wait to be allowed to passed through, I pass a very long corridor. On one side is the intake area. This is where they hold men waiting to be housed. They are holding pens and men are very unhappy to be there. Sometimes I have to go into the holding pen to evaluate a man who may have a severe psychiatric disorder. The holding pens are ugly and usually very noisy. The men are very angry to be there and vent their frustration to everyone. Mostly the officers ignore it because there isn't anything they can do to get them housed any faster. If I come in, they scream for attention as if I was able to change their situation. I can't. I know the anger is not directed at me personally and I keep going.

Toward the other end of the passage is a chapel. It is quite lovely and can be used for religious ceremonies including marriage. The altar can be rotated and change to reflect Catholic, Protestant, or non-denominational services. I have seen several weddings. The brides are often dressed in traditional white gowns. with veils and flowers. They have to come across the bridge on the bus. They bring their families and children to the ceremony. The bridegroom may be dressed in a suit that the family brought for him. After the pastor officiates and the bride and groom kiss, the families congratulates the couple, the officer takes him back to his dorm and the bride goes home. Some families support the marriage because they hope it will stabilize both of them especially if there are children involved.

At the very end of the corridor, there are three tiers of dorms. The are called "the projects" and are generally acknowledged to be the place where anything can be gotten and anything goes. It is also a very ugly. The stairs are concrete. The glass is laced with wire. The hand rails are metal. There is no grace, warmth or style. It is functional and strictly to imprison. This not housing for a first time resident. Each floor is locked individually. Each dorm, there are four on each level opens separately and locks down separately. Every door I come to is locked. Every time I go in an officers unlocks it for me and locks it behind me. I don't think about it because this is jail and this is the way it is.

Ladies of the Morning

My first job each morning was to retrieve mental health charts from the infirmary and bring them to the mental health clinic. I bang on the infirmary door and an officer lets me in. The residents are sitting on benches behind Plexiglas. When I first started working in this building there was no Plexiglas. Unfortunately, a few officers and civilians were attacked, spit upon, and were generally abused by the residents. Now there is Plexiglas.

At 7 AM, the officers bring the residents from homosexual housing to the clinic for sick call. Homosexual housing was voluntary. It was open to all but it was not as popular with residents who view homosexuality as an alternative life style. Those men usually prefer to stay in the population. They live their own life quietly.

Homosexual housing usually attracts men who are really out there. They are the rad...the flamboyant...the Queens. Homosexual housing is voluntary but the time for sick time is not. Officers would rather bring these residents to the infirmary when the corridors are quiet and there is less opportunity for catcall and responses.

At 7:30 AM, I face an audience far more formidable than the Vogue Fashion Board. The residents at sick call comment with approval or disapproval at each article of my clothing. They know the designer, the price, and the store for each item. It became a challenge to meet their approval and I felt depressed for some times they were not sufficiently pleased. It was a routine that I both dreaded and anticipated.

Sick call is a pleasant break in the jail routine and is very well attended. It is a social hour and a change from dorm housing. It is also a chance for dorm residents to check out other male residents and the Correction officers. Nobody was missed and no one missed being rated and no evaluation went unchallenged. The principles were simple. It was new meat. Not unlike a housewife, the samples were carefully examined and weighed. The comments were similar to describing fresh vegestables. Particular tastes were expressed. Special features were noted. Hidden qualities were debated. It was a very critical group. They were frequently cruel and almost always very funny. The language was arcane but the gestures were universal.

Given the group is Madam Lafarge's fashion committee, is it any wonder that their opinions were important. If they were pleased, it was often a jury decision and given ratings were like judges at an event. Of course there were some favorites. Leather was good and usually appreciated. Boots were good. Particularly reptile, snakeskin, 'gator. Strong designers were good. Preppy is boring. Cheap is out. Last year was old. Classics were as OK if is occasional Tres Chic. As they became more friendly, a few offer to boost for me because they felt that knew my well enough. This was not Saks had in mind as shoppers. There was no doubt they I could trust their judgement. These people were connoisseurs. There was no keener fashion sense. They were cutting edge and could forecast the fashion that will be featured in next year's magazines. They were much more critical than mid-town and their praise was much more rewarding. They might not have been the best shoplifter (this time) because that were in jail but no one could deny their great good taste. If you want to dish, they were the There is no me.

Champagne showed me a picture of herself as a super model. She looked gorgeous in a black satin, one-shoulder sheath. Her earring sparkled and if they not real diamonds they looked good. She wore the highest heels with slender straps that were flecked with stones to bring the entire outfit elegance, style, and exact replication of the Elle ad that featured the same number. Crystal said that she had a suit very similar to the one I was wearing. My skirt was black leather with a matching vest. I wore a white silk and she said that she preferred another blouse because of her skin tones but of course it was all a matter of personal taste. She said she had been in several fashion shows and that cross dressers were very much in demand. She said that she was in great demand to attend fashion shows and that most A-list affairs always invited many ladies for the evening. Suzy said it was true Page Six said it too but I heard it first here.

Once in awhile, if I had time, we would trade opinions about some of the doctors and officers. Jonny was tiny but tended to have a weight problem. She tended to like tall men with tight butts but Jilly who was very tall, very slim, liked hairy men who were soft and cuddly. Billy, fat and sassy, was usually mean and sarcastic with her assessments but very, very funny and accurate.

I learned at lot about makeup from them. Mavis was very self-conscious because her teeth were missing. She told me that her plate was in the sheets and during a shakedown the officer would not give her time to get them.

A shake down or search is an unpleasant event. Officers, usually assigned to another jail come the bed and lockers. All contents are thrown on the floor. The officers are looking for contraband; shanks, homemade weapons, drugs, food, and any other that are considered illegal. In the process, many things are lost or destroyed.

Mavis' teeth disappeared. She often complained that my makeup was too subtle and she suggested a bit more defination but only earth color accents. The advice they gave me was always right. Flavia's fashion predictions were always supported by Elle...six months later. Flavia's own style was impeccable. Her hair was long and curly. She brushed it until each wave was perfect. She carried herself with the poise and carriage of a runway model.

I came to rely on this group of fashion consultants more than any other source of advice, They were my guides to next year's look, They never had any trouble getting into clubs. I was asked to join Champagne in one and a to three years. Leslie is 6'2 1/2 and weighs more than 300 pounds. Any man would be a fool to pick a fight with Leslie but in her great big, sweet heart there is a feminine, warm woman. She has a child and when she gets revoke and restore of her parole, she will go back to being every bit as involved as any soccer mom. She invited me to meet her at her art class at Wigstock a major gay even on Labor Day weekend. I really missed them when I was transferred to another building. Fortunately there is always someone in every building who will let me know when I was "on the jump" and when I was "merely".

I wear good jewelry to jail. No place is safer. I didn't realize that my emerald tennis bracelet had fallen off until on resident returned it to me. He said that he has seen it on me and knew I would be upset if I lost it. I thanked him very much. That is how friends take care of friends.