A Sense of Humor
Later that afternoon, I watched as 200 men marched single-file into a cavernous tent, their backs straight and their arms stiff by their sides. The inmates wore buzz cuts and army fatigues—the required attire for Rikers’ military-style boot camp, known as the High Impact Incarceration Program.
On this August afternoon, the men were getting a break from their rigid regimen and a chance to see an Off-Broadway show. They were not quite sure what to expect. Six weeks earlier, they had sat through a concert of classical music. In recent years, luckier inmates had seen concerts by dead prez, Fat Joe, and Wu-Tang Clan, courtesy of Stress, a hip-hop magazine based in Hollis, Queens.
Watching the parade of prisoners was Danny Hoch, a 28-year-old actor sporting Adidas running pants and a baseball hat facing backward. The inmates seemed not to recognize Hoch, though he had been making art out of their culture for the past three years, touring the country with his one-man show, Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, which had sold out for 14 weeks at P.S. 122 in the East Village.
Today marked Hoch’s first trip back to Rikers since 1994, when he’d finished a five-year stint teaching drama classes to inmates. A few months earlier, Hoch had filmed a scene for his new movie inside the prison barge floating off the South Bronx. As a thank-you to the agency, he offered to do a free show on Rikers. I asked Antenen, the jails’ spokesman, if I could join the audience, and though he’d never heard of Hoch, he agreed to let me watch.
The last men to enter found seats and the show began. Hoch delivered rapid-fire monologues in the voices of various characters—a stressed-out prison guard, a flirtatious teenager, a Cuban street peddler. The crowd laughed at Hoch’s skits, but none got them hollering as loudly as when he grabbed a broom and became “Andy,” an HIV-positive inmate who passed the hours of a long prison sentence by working as a porter.
As Andy pushed a broom around the floor, his speech grew faster, darting from topic to topic, from the aggravation of working at McDonald’s to the prison’s overcooked carrots. By the end of his 13-minute rant, Andy became completely unhinged. “I’m dying!” the inmate shouted, slamming down his broom. “I’M DYING IN THIS MOTHERFUCKER!”
Hoch-as-Andy paused, looking off to the side at an invisible guard. “Ay, everything’s all right over here,” he said, forcing himself to sound calm. “Don’t push the button, Hal. There’s no problem.” He picked up his broom and began sweeping again. “Hey, Hal, you don’t gotta push the button, see?” As if to prove he was still sane, Andy hummed as he swept. “Do-do-di-do.” Then Andy dropped to the floor, and the audience could almost see the guard looming over him. “Go ‘head,” Andy said. “Search me. You wanna search me? No problem. I told ya, there’s nothin’ wrong. No fightin’. Just got a little excited. See? You don’t gotta push the button.”
This was the grimmest moment in Hoch’s show, and when he spoke these lines to an East Village audience, everyone was silent. But here on Rikers, the men slapped their thighs and howled with laughter. In the back of the room, several guards wiped tears from their cheeks. They all knew what would happen if Hal did push the button, how the boom squad would arrive with their riot vests and stun shields and wooden batons, how the guards would remind Andy who was in charge.
They did not need to stretch their imaginations to understand why Andy was so frustrated and enraged, to understand how the powerlessness of prison had weakened his grip on sanity. Armed with only a broom and a monologue, the actor had peeled away the layers of spin and laid bare the island’s constant tension between not only prisoners and guards, but also control and terror. “That’s what happens to you [in here],” one inmate whispered to me later. “You start buggin’ out.”
Now, though, the prisoners watched Hoch and roared so hard they became a sea of open mouths, all gold caps and missing teeth. It was, for me, something of a mad dream—the inmates laughing at the depiction of their own degradation, courtesy of their jailers, while their jailers laughed too—and I left soon thereafter, having confirmed the wardens’ boasts that their mission was successful, that the incarceration of 14,600 souls was complete. Not long afterward, Kerik left too, armed with the lessons of Rikers Island as he stepped into the role of NYPD commissioner and into the national media spotlight. Meanwhile, from the window seats of commuter planes descending into LaGuardia, the view remains the same: refurbished school buses carrying shackled New Yorkers back and forth across the Rikers Island bridge.
This story was reported and photographed with support from the Center on Crime, Communities & Culture of the Open Society Institute.