Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Jennifer Wynn, "Inside Riker's"

When I picked up Jennifer Wynn's "Inside Riker's", I was under the impression that I was getting a much different book than what I got. There were no stories of the hardscrabble prison life struggles that I expected. This book wasn't going to provide me with a historical framework with which to understand Riker's Island. No stories of daring escapes awaited me. Instead what I read was an examination of the sociological factors that contribute to multiple trips to jail... and a description of a program that attempts to mitigate those factors.

Do you know the difference between a "prison" and a "jail"? It's an important distinction that many are unaware of. "Jail" is where they house those who have been charged with a crime, and are awaiting trial. There are some convicts in jail... those that await transit to prison, and people convicted of misdemeanors... but the vast majority still fall under the quaint formulation of "innocent until proven guilty". That's right. These are primarily the people that cannot afford bail. And because these inmates have no definite prison terms, there are no clear repercussions for misbehavior. They will be incarcerated until their trial, regardless of how they act. This leads to a very unstable environment for guards and inmates both. It has traditionally been one of the toughest places to be incarcerated.

Riker's Island has a population with a racial composition that includes 92% non-white inmates. Is that a reflection of the proportion of non-whites that are arrested in NYC? No it is not. It is a reflection of income disparity and (maybe) bias inherent in the justice system. This is one topic Wynn presents in the book. How does she, as a white woman, begin to undertand how to deal with thess circumstances? She goes into the former inmates' neighborhoods and integrates herself in their lives. She sees firsthand the differences between white and minority neighborhoods, and she works with the realities of the situation. And any time she finds an employer willing to give someone a chance, she grabs it.

Far from being the ivory tower speculations of some distanced academician, this is an examination powered by direct experience with the subject matter. Wynn has earned her stories. She has worked as a Fresh Start writing instructor on Ryker's Island itself, and as a transition counselor for those released from jail. She knows firsthand the many difficulties these individuals face in the process of trying to become "straight" members of society... Obstacles to a socially acceptable lifestyle that may include (among others) lack of support, lack of finances, and health problems.

The vast majority of inmates are at Riker's as a result of their involvement with drugs. Despite the almost obsessive security of the island, there is a black market economy for virtually anything that one can get on the outside. That means that most addicts that enter Riker's come out as addicts. In addition, methadone dosages are provided for heroin-addicts every day of their sentence. Authorities justify this with their assertion that they don't "do detox" at Riker's. They leave it for the outside. Of course this means that addicts are extremely vulnerable to falling into their old habits, and re-establishing the patterns that landed them in jail to begin with.

As if life weren't hard enough at Riker's, every inmate is welcomed with a $150 surcharge when they enter jail. They are required to pay this before they can use the commisary for even the most basic of items. In fact, if they fail to pay this before they are released, then a warrant can be issued for their arrest. That means that some Riker's inmates are incarcerated for their failure to pay the surcharge of their previous term. This policy seems excessively harsh. It's certainly not liable to make up much of the approximately $68,000 spent on each inmate annually (just for comparison's sake, a year of inpatient drug treatment costs about $17,000).

When inmates leave Riker's they are dropped off at a bus stop in Queens at 4AM. They are given the clothes they were wearing when they were initially arrested, and a Metro card worth $4.50- so they can ride the bus to wherever they are spending their first day of freedom. Of course, most of them are returning to nothing. If they were renting, they probably lost their apartment. If they had a job, they most certainly lost it when they went to jail. Their friends and family (if they had any previously) may want to maintain a distance from them. At any rate, they are encouraged not to associate with other criminals... but their comunities were most likely saturated with criminality in the first place, and they are not likely to be accepted elsewhere. They will not receive public assistance for a few weeks, and they will have to survive the interim. If they do settle in, they won't be able to get governmental education grants or bank loans. Most employers will resist hiring them.

So it seems like most factors lead to recidivism. It's not merely a matter of "personal choices" and "accepting consequences". Certainly poor decisions have been made- but incarceration aggravates these consequences. That's what makes programs, such as Wynn writes about, so crucial in rehabilitation. Not only do they work to provide opportunities for ex-inmates... but they work to mimimize the amount of future inmates. You may not consider a success rate of 66% an unqualified success... but compare that to the 75% rate of total Riker's inmates that end up returning to jail. In a nation that incarcerates 2 million of its citizens, we should value any program that demonstrates this level of achievement.


Blogger Aser said...

Very interesting blog. I shall bookmark it for future viewing. And in complete serendipitousness, I'm originally from Pennsylvania, myself.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I appreciate the compliment. Welcome!!

2:39 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

I lived relatively close to Rikers Island, in Queens ( several miles )
and I think I want to read that book.

Hopefully, people will remember that most of the inmates there have not been convicted of any crime. I used to know a few people involved in NY's justice sysem and they showed me how the thing works to get people to confess and cut deals. If you are not really rich, the advice is always to cut a deal.

4:19 PM  
Blogger louis mole said...

Hi. I am a young english documentary film maker currently residing in New York. I plan to make a documentary about the relationship between homelessness and mental illness, with a particular emphasis on Riker's island. Any advice on the subject or useful contact's, (including yourself), would be greatly appreciated!I would really like to contact Jennifer aswell if possible. My cell is 917 843 5176 and my email is

10:27 AM  

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