Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Journalist Ends Up at Rikers Island!

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Journalist Ends Up at Rikers Island!

Article excerpt

As a columnist whose work has no redeeming social value, which has no doubt contributed to the decline of the newspaper industry, I knew it was only a matter of time before my journalistic crimes landed me in jail. I just didn't think I would end up on Rikers Island.

But New York City's famous maximum-security prison is exactly where I found myself recently after I was asked by a teacher -- not sentenced by a judge -- to spend a day at the facility. The purpose of my visit was to address three writing classes at Horizon Academy, a school for detainees in their teens and 20s.

When I asked the teacher, Martin Flaster, how to get to Rikers Island, he said, "Rob a bank." Of course, a bank is the last place to go for money these days, but I knew I was in for a memorable time.

Mary Runyan, a secretary at Horizon Academy, picked me up at the guard post and drove me over the Francis R. Bruno Memorial Bridge (the word "memorial" made me nervous) to the 400-acre site, which sits in the East River near LaGuardia Airport.

"I feel safer here than I would at a regular high school," Runyan said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because," she replied calmly, "there are no guns here."

That made me feel better, and although Runyan didn't mention knives, shivs, blades or other dangerous weapons, I was sure the inmates had more to fear from me, at least psychologically, than I did from them. I figured a day of listening to me talk about writing would have most of them begging for solitary confinement.

It was only when I was escorted in and heard a barred door lock behind me that I thought: "Uh-oh."

As it turned out, I could not have felt more welcome or comfortable. Gloria Ortiz, principal of Horizon Academy, and her entire staff, including Flaster and senior program specialist Cherie Braxton, were wonderful. So were the guards. The inmates I passed in the halls were respectful. Some even said, "Good morning." Others just ignored me. So, unfortunately, do most people on the outside.

I am not some bleeding heart (I hate the sight of my own blood), so I believe that if you do the crime, you should do the time. And the crimes here can be pretty serious. Let me put it this way: Nobody goes to Rikers Island for jaywalking.

But the young men in Horizon Academy, which has about 300 students in six buildings, haven't been convicted of anything. True, they have been charged with various offenses and most of them are awaiting trial. And even though they are officially called detainees, they get locked up like all the other inmates. But they are in school, some to improve their literacy skills and others to get their general equivalency diplomas.

I met the first class at 11 a.m. in the school annex. The group was so large (36 students) that it had to be held in a hallway, where desks were lined up against both walls. This didn't bother me because I'm off the wall, so instead of standing at one end, I walked among the students and talked about different kinds of writing. A student named Emerson asked if I could write a rap song.

"Well," I said, "my initials are J.Z., which makes me a rapper."

"Let's hear one," said Urena, another student.

I happily obliged: "My name's J.Z. and I love to rap. / Unfortunately, I sound like crap."

It was politely suggested that I shouldn't quit my day job. …

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