By Emily Alexander
On Friday, April 20, my Lang mural-painting class visited Rikers Island, New York’s largest jail facility, housing over 14,000 inmates. We met with a class of juvenile inmates attending Island Academy, a high school on Rikers (the others serve older GED candidates). The purpose of our visit was to meet students and discuss the artwork decorating the school and its meaning.
A few weeks before the trip, Ella Turenne, Lang’s Director of Special Programs, stopped by our class to give us some background information. In 20 minutes we attempted to learn the history of Rikers, some background on the students, security protocol, what not to wear and what not to say. Still, I had no idea what to expect.
My class, made up of seven students, mostly females, was told to wear loose-fitting clothes. We had originally intended to wear our college-issued bright orange Lang Mural Project t-shirts, but later received an emphatic email: “...DO NOT wear the orange Lang Outdoors t-shirts,” it read. “Some of the incarcerated men's uniforms are bright orange. Any other colors are fine.”
The day of the visit, we took the F train to Astoria then transferred to the Q101 bus—basically, the Rikers shuttle. Once at Rikers, we put all of our belongings except photo IDs into a locker. We entered the first holding room while Ella checked us in, then waited about 40 minutes. While waiting, I discussed with my friends in the class my own brushes with the law.
We cleared security and received blacklight stamps on our hands and waited for the Rikers shuttle bus. The bus brought us to Island Academy high school. The building looked exactly like all of the other prison buildings: big, grey with few windows and surrounded by barbed wire.
Mr. G., the school's outgoing assistant principal, greeted us. He led us inside where we walked through a second security checkpoint. He gave us a brief tour of the main hallway that was decorated with several childish paintings of smiling, bigheaded figures walking on a curvy sidewalk towards a giant diploma. There was a black line painted down the center of the hallway; we were told the prisoners were required to stay on the right side of the line, close to the wall.
Near the hallway's end we saw the mural we had come to Rikers to discuss, entitled “Choose Your Green.” The painting depicts a man kneeling beneath a razor-wire fence, trying to climb out. The figure is dissected in two; his left half is dressed in a traditional prison uniform and his right side, closer to the fence, is clad in military camouflage. A mask and night vision goggles conceal his face.
I was the first to enter the classroom, and was greeted by wide-eyed stares and a lot of murmured comments. It was a poetry and hip-hop class of about 20 young men between the ages of 16 and 18, all of color, and many about to be transferred to the adult section of Rikers. They represented all five boroughs of New York City. I was struck by the fact that most of them were only one year younger than me.
By Lang standards my class is very racially diverse. However, I perceived that as soon as we had all entered the classroom the students probably saw us all as exactly the same—just the way we are conditioned to see them.
Ella instructed us to play an "icebreaker." We introduced ourselves to one another, and asked each other questions like, “What do you do for fun?” What was I supposed to say? One of the guys asked me if I smoked pot and had sex, because that’s what he used to do for fun.
I answered “yes,” partly because I don’t think the purpose of visiting Island Academy was to pretend to be some sort of shining example for the students there. Instead, the idea was to meet people with different experiences and have some sort of artistic exchange, while learning something about the reality of U.S. prison systems.
After the icebreaker we broke into groups and talked about the “Choose Your Green” mural. We asked the students what they would like to be different if it were to be changed, and to draw pictures of what they’d like to see.
One student said that there was no way he would ever join the army. Some of us understood how it might be another way of being held captive by the U.S. government. We asked what the students’ plans after their release were. The answers varied from traveling, to working in construction, to attending Hunter College in the fall. Some didn’t know what they were going to do. This is something I think our correctional system should help prisoners, especially juveniles, figure out.
Since our visit I have been thinking a lot about America’s prison-industrial complex, and how our current correctional system focuses more on making money than lowering crime rates or rehabilitating criminals. Prisons provide the US with low-cost labor and mainly house members of society that are economically disadvantaged and therefore politically underrepresented. America holds over 2-million prisoners, more than any other country in the world. According to the US Department of Justice, 64% of prisoners belong to a racial or ethnic minority and an estimated 32% of black men will enter state or federal prison in their lifetime.
These young men will be labeled for the rest of their lives by something they did when they were teenagers. Like many young people, I did a lot of stupid shit when I was in high school and still do some stupid shit now. But I am a middle-class, white female and no one is looking to get me into trouble. If I ever do get caught, it’s unlikely I’d be punished in the same way.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
By Emily Alexander