Long Sentences, Short Stories
It was not your average setting for a book launch party: the George R. Vierno Center (GRVC), one of 10 jails on Rikers Island.
Young men aged 18 to 21 shuffled into an empty basketball gym and filed into bleachers. Except for a pink tag clipped to each prisoner's sleeve, they were dressed in street wear. Spent locked up most of the time, the young men attend school for four hours during the day and the pink tags allow them to walk freely around GRVC.
"Most of these guys are looking at foot- ball numbers, double-digit numbers," says Freebbie Rivera, a teacher, referring to the lengths of their sentences.
Rivera organized the reading from two compilations, Killing the Sky and Aguas Con El Caballo, which consist of short stories by 18 GRVC inmates attending one of two Rikers schools, the Horizon Academy. "I want people to read these stories and say, 'These are real people, not gangsters like portrayed in the movies,' " Rivera says. "I want them to know there is a powerful voice in jail."
Erick Gordon, director of the Student Press Initiative at Columbia University's Teachers College, handed out copies of the paperbacks before stepping to the podium and thanking teachers who had helped out the program, now in its third year. Last September, Gordon and others chose inmates, recorded their oral stories, transcribed them and then worked with the prisoners to edit them down. The finished books will go to public school classrooms around the city.
Gordon says the process wasn't an easy one. "The association most of these guys have with interviewing is the DA," he says. "We have to develop a lot of trust." The logistics were also tough. His authors were often at court, talking with their attorneys, transferred to other facilities, put in solitary, and a few fortunate ones were released.
By the time of the book launch, only one of the 18 authors, 21-year-old Trevor Cole, was actually on hand to read what he'd written.
". . . I was cutting school and got a girl pregnant. That girl got rid of the baby. Whoa, that had me scared," he read from his published story at the podium. Further details emerged: that he was known as "Dee-One" on the street; that he was born in Jamaica and moved to the Bronx when he was four years old; that he started hustling for money to get by.
"I was doing something bad, but I felt excited. I never had a job before and I felt like I was a businessman at the time . . ."
Besides the lesson in writing, Rivera says the process is a valuable one for the opportunity it gives inmates to reflect on what got them locked up. "It gives them an opportunity to look at their lives on paper," he says. "Look at it and analyze it. When they're done, they can say, 'I can't believe I've been in this many problems, I can't believe I did that.' "
Cole neared the end of his excerpt. He read about his young daughter, Aleona, and how he wants to do better by her. ". . . When you're hustling, the law enforcement can take the food out of her mouth, that I'm providing, you know what I mean?" he recited. "So if I do something legit, I know that you can't take my daughter's food away, I'm legit."
Cole sat down to applause, smiling coyly. Other young men read the work of inmates who have already moved on. At the end, everyone retreated to another room to commemorate the day with a small feast. Big tin vats were placed on a long table, filled with food other than the frankfurters and bologna sandwiches the young men are used to on a normal day. There was fried chicken, empanadas, fruit salad, yogurt, and home-baked goods from one of the SPI volunteers.
Cole collected his food and expressed hopes that readers get something from his story. "I want them to know that I'm a good guy inside," he said. "Even though I'm locked up, I'm still a good guy." Cole took a seat behind a table and wielded a pen (which made him visibly happy; inmates are normally restricted to golf pencils) and signed copies of Killing the Sky.
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