Andre's World

A kid needs imagination to survive high school and jail on Rikers Island

The Doughboy, minus neckerchief, resembles one of Andre's cartoon characters who meets a grisly end when sliced in half by Jason's nemesis, the Dark Lord, who has spikes for hands. It is an especially gruesome image when you consider the potential of art to imitate life in prison. But it's skillfully drawn and, in another context the "Artist" would be heading to art school, portfolio under his arm, and would be on first-name basis with the dudes who work at Forbidden Planet. Instead, Andre's seven siblings, father, mother, and step-mother (both women awkwardly with the same name) live in a three-room apartment next to a Staten Island scrap metal yard. And Andre set a car on fire for a reputed $300, which he may never have received. This, and a run of minor incidents resulting from Andre's reckless drug habits, landed him in Rikers Island.

When a teenager crosses that bridge from Queens he must have a strategy—even if it is only an extension of his street persona—firmly in place. Some count on brute strength ("diesel"), others enmesh themselves in gang politics, a few have "connects" to obtain the cigarettes or weed that makes them untouchable, yet others have enough commissary money to buy their protection with Soft-Batch cookies. But Andre's singular defense is his creativity. He used his drawing skills as both a bartering tool—the tough guys wouldn't hurt him (at least not as much) if he added cute cartoons to their letters home—but also as a bubble to withdraw into.

video: Escape into Andre's world
image: Showtime/'Rikers High'
"I have this little construction in my brain called 'Andre's world.' If I'm in the dorm and people are pissin' me off, I just lay down, close my eyes, and I go into this world that I can explore. I can do anything I want. It's crazy—I can fly and all that, run at top speeds. And it's a city, so there's a whole, big thing."
Life for Andre Blandon (lower left): Artist, Inmate, Student, Survivor
image: Showtime/'Rikers High'
Life for Andre Blandon (lower left): Artist, Inmate, Student, Survivor

The genesis of "Andre's world" is simple to trace. An old, half-strung guitar seems to mean more to the Blandon family than a decent pair of shoes. His father is a musician, like his grandfather, and creativity has a stranglehold over practical issues in the household. As Andre preps for his G.E.D. in jail, his mother preps for the same test outside. But she fails to show up for the predictors on two occasions.

Andre, whose attendance is not an issue, passes his G.E.D. The school rightly fetes him and 12 other inmates and presents them, in caps and gowns, with their degrees in a ceremony that marks the end and the highlight of the academic year.

Mr. Rodriguez: "The bottom line is that you're going to leave here with your G.E.D. But that's just the beginning. You need to find an art school, do something with this Marvel Comic, cartoon book thing."
Andre: "That's just a dream, man."
Mr. Rodriguez: "Have a little confidence in yourself."

Andre's talent is impressive enough to lead him to new opportunities but his perspective is limited enough to forgo the idea of student loans and long commutes to school. Andre doesn't even own a picture ID. And he couldn't afford the bus fare that would take him away from the metal yard. The only way to help him—and to stop him from spending years of his life in jail—would be to immerse him in a sustained positive environment, a creative "boot camp" that could actually build up his confidence and could support him over a period of time. But to suggest that a young man, convicted of arson, should go to such a place could never jibe with most politicians' stances on crime. In fact, “zero tolerence” policies are at the root of why the number of teenagers in Rikers has risen so dramatically. Despite their political censure, however, arguments for radical prison reform make economic sense. By estimate, over half of the teenagers in Rikers will spend at least 10 years of their lives behind bars. Translate that to a tax expenditure of a million dollars—for no return value—and you wonder why we let the doors keep revolving. We are continuing to build on our reputation as ambitious jailers—a full quarter of the world's prisoners are in the United States.

video: Back to reality with a call home
image: Showtime/'Rikers High'
When Island Academy closes down for the summer, I see Andre's state of mind falter. School had protected him from the realities of jail. His teachers' admiration gave him momentary refuge. Now, disconnected from them and from daily structure, he seems vulnerable. Things get worse when his dad explains how his "dumb-ass brother" has run away from home. Although Andre continues to draw, Jason's adventures become impossibly convoluted. His story becomes an asymptote, an arc that aims toward a finish line but with little intention of reaching it. I start to notice Andre walking around with his pantlegs pulled down over his feet. He's lost his pair of orange slippers (known in jail as "Air Patakis") that he customized with a "Slayer" illustration on one foot and a "Metallica" one on the other. Andre always moved to a beat different from everyone else's in the dorm.
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