“I’m tired of it,” Victor Alvarez says regarding Rikers Island, the 85-year-old jail complex that City Hall has slated for closure by 2027.
Such a sentiment is not surprising, given that by his own count, Alvarez has been sent to Rikers 102 times, mostly in the last fifteen years.
Vladimir Rene, the court-appointed attorney for Alvarez’s most recent case (for trespassing, resolved this past October), cannot recall the exact number of times Alvarez has been shuttled to Rikers, because he no longer has a copy of his rap sheet. But the number is vast, he says. And many of those stays have been for thirty days or more.
Among the throngs of clients sent his way, Rene says, Alvarez stands out. “He struck me as someone who is trying [to stay out of jail], but who just cannot catch a break.”
Almost 50, homeless, and Puerto Rican, Alvarez, who grew up in Brooklyn, represents several leading demographic groups that keep sending bodies to Rikers. According to the 2017 report of the Lippmann Commission (formed by the City Council to study the jail complex’s possible closure), 41 percent of the city’s jail population is age 36 or older, 34 percent is Latino, and 22 percent is from Brooklyn. Alvarez has also been subjected to a series of low-level misdemeanor charges that, according to the commission, end up clogging the courts with defendants “stuck in a cycle of arrests and short jail sentences.” The report also noted that many of these people are, like Alvarez, dealing with homelessness and substance abuse.
Alvarez’s preferred surroundings are Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill and Gowanus, where he collects cans and bottles to scrape by. He knows the terrain well, but cops in the area also know him as a drug user with a long record of petty misdemeanors, and the result is an endless game of cat and mouse, with Alvarez frequently getting pinched on his home turf.
Alvarez grew up in nearby Park Slope, at Bergen Street and Fifth Avenue, which in the Seventies and Eighties wasn’t home to boutiques and wealthy white people. Fifth Avenue then was a Puerto Rican strip, with migrants from the island living above bodegas and dime stores. Here’s how Jimmy Breslin described it in the summer of 1969:
Fifth Avenue was hot and ramshackle and dirty and crowded with Puerto Ricans who carried a can of beer and drank it while they walked. They are the first people since the Irish to drink beer this way, and I have to love them for it. But when they stand on their street corners, their beer held up like brown trumpets, and you look at them, the amusement turns to sadness because their visible surroundings seem so hopeless and the invisible walls they face each day are so much thicker and higher and permanent than anything the Irish, who were on these streets before them, were asked to overcome.
Drug dealing provided the easiest way for Alvarez to make money in the Eighties, and it was a path that led upstate. Two separate drug trafficking sentences meant he spent most of his life from ages 18 to 35 at prisons as storied as Sing Sing or as nondescript as Mid-State Correctional Facility.
Alvarez returned to Brooklyn in the early 2000s hoping to put the electrician skills he learned at Mid-State to work as a handyman or in building management. But his past convictions limited his options, and he has since survived on the margins, picking up scrap metal and recyclables or doing odd jobs for childhood friends who still live in the area.
By the early 2000s, Alvarez’s network of family and friends had been gentrified out of Park Slope, with many relocating to New York City Housing Authority buildings on the other side of Fourth Avenue. When Alvarez returned from prison at that time, he lived with family at NYCHA’s Wyckoff Gardens in Boerum Hill, and it was there that Alvarez’s regular trips to Rikers began.
The NYPD during the Bloomberg-Kelly era was obsessed with numbers, and people with drug convictions like Alvarez were easy targets. In 2004, soon after Alvarez had returned from prison, the NYPD launched Operation Safe Housing at NYCHA, which targeted drug dealers “by banning them from public housing grounds and arresting violators for trespass[ing].” Alvarez’s prior drug convictions and own substance abuse made him an immediate suspect.
Alvarez initially began to rack up arrests (and visits to Rikers) for low-level possession, but it was his proximity to a stash of drugs found in a Wyckoff Gardens hallway that proved most momentous. “The cops said the stuff was mine, but it wasn’t,” he insists. The Brooklyn D.A.’s office offered a plea deal whereby Alvarez would avoid a prison sentence if he agreed to a twenty-year ban from NYCHA grounds.
Given that prosecutors in Brooklyn and elsewhere typically respond to rejected plea offers with harsher sentences upon conviction, Alvarez reluctantly accepted the deal. But the ban meant that he was now homeless — and even worse, any visit to his family or friends at NYCHA would leave him vulnerable to trespassing charges and a trip back to Rikers.
All the cops in Boerum Hill and Gowanus know him, Alvarez says, and he recalls seeing his picture on the wall (identifying him as a NYCHA trespasser) at the 76th Precinct, which serves parts of Gowanus and its surrounding neighborhoods. Alvarez keeps his belongings in a shopping cart, and says that one day a cop told him, “If I see you without your cart, I’m gonna arrest you” — simply on the assumption that by enhancing his mobility, Alvarez intended to steal something.
The officers at criminal court in downtown Brooklyn know Alvarez by sight as well. “Man, you should have a pension by now,” he recalls one saying in an attempt to be friendly.
Each time Alvarez returns to Rikers, the corrections officers welcome him back, putting him to work in the mess hall or sanitation — a privilege not accorded to most of his peers. In Alvarez’s view, “90 percent of the guards are assholes,” but he survives by staying on good terms with the rest. “I don’t make trouble,” he says.
New York City comptroller Scott Stringer recently calculated that it costs nearly $750 per day to hold someone at Rikers, not including police and court costs. The enormous sums of public money spent on Alvarez have produced no visible results — other than keeping the criminal justice system afloat.
By day, Alvarez can be found at the office of VOCAL-NY, an advocacy organization that works with people who use substances, many of whom are also both formerly incarcerated and homeless. The storefront office is on Fourth Avenue, where Boerum Hill meets Park Slope — a block or so from where Alvarez grew up.
At night, his routine changes. Alvarez is small, able to sleep in the back of friends’ vans or sometimes on their couches. He has no desire to spend the night in the city’s homeless shelters, which even Alvarez, a seasoned vet of Rikers, considers to be too dangerous. “Even if it’s 5 degrees out, I ain’t going there [to a shelter],” he says.
Alvarez gets spending money by redeeming recyclables from one of the new condo buildings in the Gowanus area. Meanwhile, he’s also trying to evade the long arm of the law. In mid-August, he was nailed for trespassing at NYCHA. He insists that he was on the sidewalk outside of the Wyckoff Houses picking up a bottle, but cops claimed he was on the property. His lawyer, Vladimir Rene, says that the boundaries in such trespassing cases are “often vaguely defined.”
Alvarez pleaded not guilty — his preferred m.o. when he denies the charges — resulting in $1,000 bail from the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, a standard practice when someone has so many arrests. Devoid of resources, Alvarez spent two months back at Rikers while awaiting his day in court.
In mid-October, the case was resolved with an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, meaning that if Alvarez avoids getting hit with another infraction between now and mid-February, the trespassing charges will be tossed. Otherwise, it’s back to the mess hall at Rikers.
In terms of criminal justice reform, the new year has gotten off to a promising start, with Governor Andrew Cuomo vowing to end cash bail for misdemeanors and Mayor Bill de Blasio beginning to downsize Rikers. According to Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, what people like Alvarez need is expanded funding for supportive housing, which provides addiction services on-site.
The solutions to Alvarez’s problems are complex, and costly, but they are ultimately much less wasteful than sending him back to Rikers. “I just want to be able to go home, and go to work,” Alvarez says. Perhaps in 2018, he will finally catch a break.