I met Andre Blandon in April 2004, as he began his “bullet.” That’s jail slang for a year-long sentence, commonly reduced to eight months good time. Andre was hunched over a light table, sketching Jason, the principal character of a comic book he was creating. Other teenagers hovered around him and, like commuters around a kid who plays paint buckets as Clyde Stubblefield plays drums, they gazed at Andre with blank curiosity. Andre was pending his bid in Rikers Island jail, the largest city correctional facility in North America, drawing cartoons. His jail moniker was simply “Artist.”
video: Andre’s notebook: A sketch of Jason
For over three years, I’d pursued the opportunity to make a documentary (“Rikers High,” in rotation on Showtime this fall) about Austin MacCormick Island Academy. That’s the school on the wrong side of the barbed-wire fences and swirling currents of the East River that separate Rikers Island jail from the rest of our city. Divided into three sections, including one for girls, the school takes in the 2,000 inmates, 18-years-old or under, who are locked up in Rikers. Attendance is mandatory, enforced by correction officers, who shuttle the kids through the adult sections of the jail and to the school. For many teens in Rikers, Island Academy is their first experience of formal education for years.
To teach students of vastly different abilities and educational backgrounds—many of whom have woeful, often violent, disciplinary records—can seem a Sisyphean task. A teacher can make considerable progress with a student only to arrive one morning to find him transferred, released, or sent to the “Bing” (or, worse, the infirmary) after a fight. Still, the Island Academy keeps functioning. And over a hundred teenage inmates receive their G.E.D.s there every year. Like a truck stop on the edge of the desert, the facilities the school provides seem essential.
Many of these kids, however, don’t understand the scope of that desert and, as a result, spend most of their lives caught up in the prison system. This reality hits hard when you see a line of teenage inmates, dressed in tan uniforms, shuttle past adult prisoners, who wear green. The adults’ faces are weathered, cheeks drawn in, teeth knocked out by fights or drugs. Comparing the adults to the restless, bright-eyed teenage population seems a gruesome before/after slideshow—and is enough to make the system appear vast and inexorable. Gus Rodriguez, who has been a special education teacher at Island Academy for five years, stresses that there is a way out. His first ambition for an incoming teenager is to shift his perspective away from the streets:
“They’ve no idea where they are in the scheme of things. So we start literally. With geography . . . maps. We look at continents, at countries, at states. You’re sitting on a chair in Rikers Island. But where is that exactly? I try to teach them that there is great deal more to life than the one square block they live on.”
Mr. Rodriguez’s students have accelerated past all previous stop signs: group homes, special programs, foster care, detention centers, even, as in Andre’s case, drug programs. Many have alienated themselves from their families and instead clutch onto tenuous support systems, such as gang allegiances. Their psychology is entrenched in the world of survival, whether that means through drug-dealing, guns, or robbery:
“What breaks my heart is that there’s a lot of guys who already think their life is over. They’re eighteen and they think they’re done. How do you convince a kid like that to take an interest in education?”
Mr. Rodriguez’s plaint stayed in my mind as I shot my documentary.
video: Gus Rodriguez talks about the death of his father
image: Showtime/’Rikers High’
It is hard to overstate the degree to which television has already mythologized jail. And it is hard not to resent this when you come face to face with how petty life at Rikers can (and, many would argue, should) be. As John Hopson, a correction officer for 32 years, told me:
“RIkers has changed over the years. Now it’s more like a shelter. A place you go when you’re out of options. Most of these kids are out of options.”
Rikers does not reform these teenagers and they return with virtual certainty: Eight out of 10 are re-arrested within a year of their release. The New York Times estimated that it costs $100,000 to house an inmate at Rikers. Teachers at Island Academy point out that a year’s specialized education outside of jail costs a tenth of that figure.
video: In jail, food is money
image: Showtime/’Rikers High’
While mindful of jail’s many hazards—who can forget that prison is hell?—it is easy to dismiss many teenage inmates as thugs. But often the toughest guys are those most wrapped up in their surroundings and who have the least perspective on the absurdity of their situation. A kid from the Bronx, the Sonny Corleone of “5 Main” dormitory, held aloft several bags of Soft-Batch Cookies and informed me that he had “taxed” (beaten up) an inmate to get them. Food, even cookies, he explained, equates to money and, once you have money, then, well, you have power. I nodded my head benignly as I imagined the Pillsbury Doughboy and Tony Montana in an alleyway, a small mountain of castor sugar about to change hands.
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
“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.”
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
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.
video: Andre enters the adult dorm
On his 19th birthday, Andre is transferred to the adult section of the jail. He trades in his graffiti-covered tan uniform for a green one that is harder to customize. He brings his folder of cartoons and travels through the jail to “East Mod.” The adult dorm is an entirely different vibe: The tough guys are “dieseled” to the max, the guy in the bunk next to Andre is midway through a sex-change, and a lecherous dude skulks a few feet away from him. Andre makes his new bed and then immediately gets out his pencil and pad. He starts sketching. Jason, who has the power to regenerate himself via a magic crystal, remains locked in an eternal fight against the Dark Lord and his spiked hands.
Victor Buhler is a screenwriter and documentary filmmaker. His film “Rikers High” won the ‘New York Loves Film’ award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival.