It was another moist day in New York. I grabbed doughnuts for my class before heading to my office, which meant two buses, three trains and a shuttle later—I was finally arriving at Rikers that evening.
The driver of the shuttle, in mid-conversation with another passenger when I got on said, “These volunteers and advocates come in here being all nice to these pieces of garbage. But were they nice to their victims?”
“Hell no,” the passenger answered.
I know my place and purpose so I didn’t feel the need to speak up. It didn’t matter that some of my students have confessed to crimes which had no victim unless you count the law itself. But indeed, there are other students whose crimes resulted in victimization.
In the words of Jim St. Germain, a friend who’s also a former-delinquent-turned-activist: “In my community [of Crown Heights Brooklyn] I had two choices—become predator or become prey. As you can imagine, I chose to become predator.”
In his memoir (A Stone of Hope, Harper Collins) St. Germain writes about his experiences of surviving the streets, getting locked up and finding salvation through people who believed in him. He luckily made New York’s cut-off at age 15 and was sent to a juvenile facility where he received intervention services and before being released after two years, had asked the judge for a third. He saw the positive impact of having people in his corner and wasn’t ready to be back on his own. The judge agreed and the young man eventually passed his GED with top scores, graduated with a degree in poli-sci and was appointed by President Obama as Juvenile Justice Council.
My point is that while my students might have been older and therefore sentenced into adult institutions for their crimes—they’re still worthy of having people believe in their future as productive human beings.
From what I’ve gathered in class conversations, being treated like shit started way before some of my students’ incarceration. It should not be ironic that our jails and prisons are ran by the Department of Corrections. Treating inmates as trash will not make our communities safer upon their release—especially when we know that some of the most violent criminals have evolved from being dumped on over a lifetime.
To be clear, I don’t ask my students about their crimes (though many are forthcoming). In fact, I try to dissolve the walls of the institution so that our writers can focus on digging into their past so that they can hold it up to a light and come up with ways to recreate the narrative of their future. Bringing in music and snacks are some of the ways I’m able to achieve that.
The age group I teach are still malleable. In the series we’re doing right now, ‘Following the Bread Crumbs’ we take trips down memory lane where we follow the trail back to the beginning and figure out what led them to where they are now. What we’ve been discovering is that it has been less of crimes or incidents and more of lifestyle-choices (though choice seems somewhat like a misnomer) that have brought them to this point.
It’s no surprise that when I ask them to choose an emotion they identify with, anger is a top pick. And for a sound that anger makes—glt, glt—BOOM!—the sound of a gun is chosen by different students in different classrooms (meaning they are not copying, but really feeling this). I’ve gotten used to hearing stories that start with, “It was a day I left home without my box cutter and…(insert getting jumped or beaten up here).
How one sees themselves is often a reflection of how they think the world views them. If we are indeed to work towards rehabilitation, changing that view might rely on outside affirmations. Thanks to all the support of the community (you reading this) we’ve been able to tell our students how excited you’ve been to hear their stories and how you’ve come forward and donated funds for snacks and class materials (they enjoyed the doughnuts!). To know that not everyone thinks like the bus driver has been a powerful piece to their upward puzzle.
Thank you. Please enjoy this week’s bread crumb trail…
(currently-incarcerated students’ work has been taken down, pending department approval)
My anger tastes like
My anger is hard with
It’s a machine gun
My anger is lighting in a storm
It’s a lion
No, fuck that
It’s a gorilla
It’s a ripped-up shirt.
My confusion is a time machine
I keep going back
My boo is a sunset on a private island