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Today, I bring you the fifth chapter of my book, “Jew in Jail.”
It was time to go to big, bad Rikers Island, and see if I was ready to spend time with the toughest detainees New York City had to offer!
5. THE MOVE TO RIKERS ISLAND
Even though the next day was Saturday, I was taken on the first bus headed for Rikers Island in Queens. I remembered being there once before, about five years earlier, but only for a week until my parents posted bail. This time, however, I knew that I wasn’t going to get out that soon.
I was full of anxiety during the forty-minute ride, and wished that I had some Valium to calm my nerves.
“Boy, do I really need this program,” I mumbled to myself, since I still had trouble coping with stress without trying to medicate my feelings.
As the bus pulled up to the prison, the first thing I thought to myself was how big and intimidating the whole place was. There was building after building, for what seemed like miles, completely surrounded by razor-sharp barbed wire. The bus finally came to a halt at C-73, the George Motchon Detention Center (GMDC), and we all got off and were taken to another bullpen to be processed all over again.
Since it was 3:30 PM, which was right in the middle of count time, when the jail does a tally of all the inmates—a security measure conducted at least five times every single day to ensure that no one has escaped—I knew that it would be several hours until processing was completed and I was finally taken to my new housing area—or even longer, depending upon the mood of the C.O.s. So I found a good spot to sit down and rest, full of anxiety over how I would fit into my new surroundings.
After we were fed dinner and handed a used pillow, pillow case, blanket, and two sheets (a “set up”), the C.O.s started to call names. One by one, we approached the C.O.s’ station, but just to see if we wanted to change our private access telephone code, which enabled us to make our two free daily calls. We didn’t have to be photographed again, strip-searched, or anything like before, which was a huge relief. Our I.D. cards from the Tombs were also good at Rikers Island, so that saved time as well.
Finally, we were led out of the bullpen, and ordered to proceed in one straight line.
This place is more strict than the Tombs, I thought to myself, so I better just pay attention and follow instructions. It was obvious that—being white, and Jewish, no less—I stuck out like a sore thumb, so I didn’t want to bring any more attention to myself than was absolutely necessary, in order not to be herbed (ridiculed) by the C.O.s, as well as the other inmates.
Slowly, but surely, each man was dropped off at his new housing unit, and the line, which began at thirty-five or so, was now down to just me and two other guys.
I was really starting to get nervous now.
Is being brought last over to the new housing unit a good or bad thing? I wondered.
I didn’t remember too much about the week I spent there five years earlier, which wasn’t in the drug program part of the jail, so this felt like a brand-new experience. And I continued to keep to myself and maintain a low profile, rather than asking another one of my fellow detainees for any information.
Finally, it was just the C.O. and I, walking the halls of Rikers Island. He was a big black man in his thirties, and I needed to take two steps just to keep up with his one.
“Officer, do they have a law library here?” I asked, understanding full well that I had a lot of work yet to do on my case.
“Yeah, we have two of them here,” he responded in an authorative, deep baritone voice, more out of obligation than anything else.
“What about a place to get clothes?” I boldly inquired next, figuring it was the perfect time to hit him up with another question.
“You can go to the clothes box on Monday when it opens back up,” he said. “Just ask the officer in your housing unit to call for you.”
Then I asked him the obvious question, one that he must have heard a million times on the job.
“Can you tell me where I’m going?” I sheepishly said.
“Let’s see,” he answered, looking over my paperwork. “You’re going to Sprung 2, which is the orientation house for the S.A.I.D. (Substance Abuse Intervention Division) Drug Program.”
“Oh, okay,” I replied, as if I actually knew what that meant.
We were walking outside to get to my destination, and the C.O. offered me one more piece of information without my having asked.
“This is a self-help program,” he revealed. “There’s less restriction on you guys out here, and you have more flexibility to move around. If you do the right thing for yourself and participate, your counselor will do things for you and it can only help you with your case.”
“I will, I will,” I fired back, as if he were also the judge, rather than just a decent correction officer who took some time to offer me hope and encouragement. It was right then and there that I realized that most C.O.s aren’t too bad. I knew that, just like on the street, if you wanted respect from someone, you had to show them respect as well. I figured that the reason the C.O. treated me like a man was because I handled myself well the entire time we were together.
I was still nervous, but at the same time, was also looking forward to being in the S.A.I.D. program, feeling that it was one step closer to coming home.
Finally, we arrived at the sprungs. There were six of them, all looking like giant army tents or tennis court bubbles. I walked into Sprung 2, and the C.O. gave my paperwork to the officer on duty. It was 7:30 PM, Saturday, June 20, 1998, my seventh day of incarceration.
What I saw, in my eyes, at least, wasn’t jail.
There was bed after bed after bed, all lined up in a dormitory-style setting, indeed like an army barracks.
One half of the dorm was the area where the program meetings were held, complete with stereo, television, VCR, and chairs. There was one large shower area, ceiling fans everywhere, a small fence around the entire circumference of the dorm to hang clothes on, and signs on all the walls pertaining to drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
There was some sort of a meeting taking place at the time. But it wasn’t drug and alcohol related. It was recreational—“Saturday Night Live”—and I was about to take center stage!
After the inmate in charge of logging in new arrivals gave me a brief rundown of the S.A.I.D. program and its rules, all eyes were on me. I was called up to the “stage” by a guy named Mike, who was the night’s “host.”
Mike was a dead-ringer for Wesley Snipes, almost like a twin, and I felt at ease with him immediately.
“How ya doing? My name’s Mike and I’m the host of the show tonight,” he said. “Tell everybody your name, where you’re from, and what you’re here for.”
“My name’s Gary, I’m from Brooklyn, and I’m here for robbery,” I responded sheepishly to my forty-nine new roommates, many of whom were sporting doo rags of one color or another on their heads in an attempt to look like real gangsters.
“And what do you hope to get from this program?” Mike asked.
“To stop drinking and taking fucking drugs!” The audience quickly erupted into cheers and applause to show me their support.
I was starting to feel good.
“Gary, do you have a joke for us?” Mike asked. “After all, this is Saturday Night Live.”
“Yeah, I have a joke for everybody,” I shot back. “You see my head?” I bent over and exposed my ever-expanding bald spot. “This is a real joke, huh?”
With that, everybody exploded into laughter. I had become the star of the show, and felt warmly accepted into the group. I knew then that I had made the right decision by signing that paper to come over from the Tombs.
After that, I went over to the telephone, a no-no during program hours, but okay for new arrivals, and called my parents to let them know that I was more than alright where I now was. They were at my sister’s house on Long Island, so I was able to speak to my sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nephews as well, and for just a moment, had actually forgotten that I was still incarcerated. I spoke to my family as if I were calling from some nightclub in Manhattan. I was relatively happy for the first time in quite a while.
My parents and I decided to tell anybody who called for me at home that I was away working in Washington, D.C. I didn’t want my friends to know that I was actually in jail.
After taking a shower and making up my new bed, I introduced myself to the guy lying down next to me.
“I’m Willie Maisonette,” he responded to my greeting. “If you have any questions about anything, just ask me.”
Willie was an older Spanish gentleman from the Bronx, who looked like he had been in the “system” most of his life, which, in fact, I would later learn he was. I also found out that in all his years, he had never even gone to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium or any other live sporting event, for that matter.
His five-foot, eight-inch body was covered from head to toe with tattoos he had gotten from all of his time spent in prison. But he was kind, and I trusted him. No matter what somebody may have done in their past, when you have to cohabitate with that person for a while, you build up a certain relationship, and for Willie and me, things would be no different.
Willie informed me that linen change was every Wednesday at 5:30 AM, and taught me how to make up my bed the correct way each morning, which most inpatient drug treatment programs are very fussy about. He also showed me how to fold my blanket military style, which was a requirement in the program, and otherwise showed me the ropes and made me feel quite at ease.
Sprung 2 was very different than the Tombs.
To begin with, it was a huge dorm, rather than individualized cells. There was a larger shower area, a bigger day room, and, most importantly, four drug, alcohol, and lifestyle meetings each weekday, and two each on Saturdays and Sundays, for a total of twenty-four group sessions every week, which I knew that I needed.
Since Sprung 2 was the orientation house for the S.A.I.D. Drug Program, I was only allowed to stay there anywhere from seven to twenty-one days. Then, like everybody else, except the guys who were helping to run the program for the counselors, I would be moved to one of the other five sprungs, each alike in structure and composition.
There was also one more major advantage to being in the sprungs on Rikers Island, as opposed to the Tombs in lower Manhattan. The sprungs were outside, apart from the rest of the inmate population, who were inside in various buildings throughout the facility. Everyone who was in the sprungs had to first be cleared as low-classification, meaning that they were less of a security risk to try to escape or otherwise cause trouble. There were three separate hours of rec a day out in the yard, where there were basketball courts, a track, and another sprung full of weight machines, ping-pong tables, and other games to play. And chow was served in yet another sprung—the mess hall sprung—so that with eight total sprungs outside, the whole setup looked like a Mash unit for detainees.
Being that Rikers Island is literally right next door to LaGuardia Airport, the constant sights and sounds of airplanes taking off and landing took some getting used to. However, since I lived with the never-ending rumbling of subway trains in Brighton Beach for over thirty-five years, it really was no big deal for me. In fact, I kind of enjoyed going to the yard every morning at nine just to see the airplanes take off and soar by directly overhead, wishing that I could somehow leap up and grab onto the tail of a plane and be transported away from my incarceration.
The yard also offered a beautiful panoramic view of the New York City skyline. I could easily see the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, and just about the rest of Manhattan from beyond the East River, which was the only thing that separated me from my freedom. That, plus the charges of robbery and resisting arrest that I was still facing!