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.