In the adolescent girls’ class, we watched a mini-doc on the origins of Halloween and learned about how it was celebrated (or not) in other countries. Showing mini-docs has been a great opener for our class and previous clips about climate change and social justice have sparked an interest for students to learn more. We connect each doc with prompts and what better on Halloween than to talk about our experience with the other side. We had story starters like, “They said the house was haunted, but I went anyways.” Then we moved on to draw our own monsters and in the meantime, went over prompt questions like, “What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you?” I was surprised that, not only the students but also the officers chimed in with multiple tales of hauntings they’ve witnessed right there in the women’s facility. Stories of keys jingling, inmates glowing on camera in empty cells, and voices talking when no one’s around.
Rikers has no doubt had its share of horror stories. One we know well is that of Kalief Browder who was detained there for years on charges he was innocent of. Over the years, there have been suicides, murders, and guards dying unexpectedly of heart attacks. One officer said she kept overcounting because she saw the apparition of a boy who’d taken his own life after a bad phone call the night before. Bad phone calls, by the way, are somewhat a norm and often dictate the mood of the class. (Break-ups, absent lawyers, and family members not accepting phone calls are high on the list.)
Then there’s the most gruesome history of the island, named after Mr. Abraham Riker himself. The Dutchman bought the land in the 17th century and passed it down to his descendant, Richard Riker. Old Richie was the island’s first real monster, known to kidnap free blacks before selling them to the south. There’s something strikingly eerie when you compare what transpired then to what transpires now. As mentioned before, the clear majority of inmates are of African descent.
But back to the prompts. The following day I met with the young adult males. The dynamic of this class is different from the girls’, but with it being Halloween, we stuck to the prompts. I first asked what their best Halloween was but was cut short after a few students said they were at Rikers last year, and in juvenile detention the one before—and before that, they couldn’t recall. I moved on to the next question, “What was the scariest thing that ever happened to you?” Again, I was surprised. Unanimously, the 11 students present said being shot or being shot at was the scariest thing. Only one student trumped this notion with his tale of being run down by a rival gang member, wielding a machete. Several of the young men showed scars where the bullets entered, grazed or where they were sewn up after surgery.
“How do you guys manage to protect yourself with all this danger?” I asked.
The poll? “We stay strapped.”
One student said, “Carrying heat is the only thing that’ll keep people from fucking with me, so it’s inevitable that I’ll keep coming back here.”
I leave you with the scariest story of all:
Thousands of kids are behind bars because of a hunger to stay alive.