On a “Surge” in Violence and Mental Illness at Rikers

I recently read a NY Times article about violence and mental illness at Rikers Island prison in New York City.

With shows like Oz, Prison Break, Law and Order, TV-jails are always portrayed as something very scary, very dangerous, with riots and stabbings and things like that. Orange is the New Black is not lacking in violence, but it does look cozier than the other TV-jails. Regardless, I always though the jails on TV were just that: for TV, and not reflective of actual jails. As I read my letters from Garry I always picture him being locked up on the death row portrayed in The Green Mile, but deep down I knew that wasn’t actually true.

The article discusses how some reports of abuse by prisoners are not taken seriously, especially in the case of the prisoner they are quoting, who they are quick to mention “takes medication for aggression and paranoia.” While mental illness is surely prevalent in jails, it should not be used as a cop-out to neglect reports of abuse.

It’s still an uncomfortable thought-should I feel bad about the living conditions of convicted criminals? What if they are murderers? Why should I care if a CO beats a murderer? Didn’t he do worse to his victim? Nonetheless, when I read about bad living conditions and abuse of power, I can’t help but lean toward the side of the prisoner. That makes me feel sick, I don’t think I should feel that way.

The article goes on to discuss how newly appointed mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged the need for changes surrounding reported abuses in the Police Department, but has yet to speak on jails in particular.

The article is calling what is going on at Rikers as an “epidemic of violence,” but I have to wonder, is this really an epidemic, or has it been happening since jails became a thing? I doubt suddenly, in 2014, the COs decided it was time to start abusing the inmates, and inmates to start abusing each other.

The NY Times says the number of prisoners diagnosed with a mental illness has from from 20% to 40%-that’s double. At first, this was a really alarming statistic. However, according to the CDC, ADHD diagnoses are also increasing at an alarming rate. Not to say that mental illness and ADHD are the same, but it is very telling to where we are now as a society versus where older generations were. When my father was growing up, they never heard of ADHD. It wasn’t a thing people had, there was no medications or tests, it was just assumed that children had a ton of energy and needed to burn it off. Once ADHD became recognized and diagnosable, suddenly everyone had it.

Similarly, there was mental illness awareness years ago of course, but there was not as much publicity and advocacy as there is now, so it’s easier to claim mental illness for someone’s weird behavior than to accept that people are just different. This is not to say mental illness is not a thing, it obviously is. It’s just understandable that as more and more research, studies, and education is done on the many, many different kinds of mental illness, it is easy to find trends in those who 20 years ago would just be “different,” not crazy. I’m sure it’s easier to say inmates are mentally ill than admitting that the jail system isn’t working and is perhaps causing the inmates to become mentally ill.

 

In other news:

It took me like 2 months to send a 1/2 page letter to Garry. We are slowly running out of things to talk about, and I’m beginning to feel awkward making “small talk.” Does anyone have any good ideas for things to ask  him or talk about?

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Siempre Your Friend

I finally found his last letter, the one I lost. I knew I would the second my response letter was sent in the mail. It’s from September 16th. That seems like a billion years ago.

He told me he was supposed to be seen in front of the ICC Committee. I have no idea what that is, but at least it will give me something to ask about in my upcoming letter. He had an appointment for 9/11, but it was pushed to the 18th. I never asked how it went. He explained how he is on grade-B status and hopes to be moved to grade-A, that way he gets privileges. Right now, he says he is “ass out”. I wonder what privileges he’ll get…

Well, I know for sure he’d get phone privileges. He told me how much he wants to hear his mother’s voice. The last time they spoke was on the phone in 2007 because his brother had passed away. I couldn’t imagine not being able to pick up my phone and speak to anyone I wanted to. It’s something I take for granted. It’s easier for me to just text a quick message or send a message on facebook than pick up the phone and call. I should get better at that.

Garry told me a lot of men on death row with him are innocent. I have no idea if I actually believe that or not… He’s still claiming the evidence against him was fabricated. And I have no reason to not believe him, but it all seems a little weird, right? The Supreme Court vacated one of the special circumstances in his case, and his lawyer refiled with the idea that if they’ve vacated one, they can vacate them all. I have no idea what that means, either. After I finish writing this I’ll have to google all these legal terms. But from his context, I’m assuming it’s something good and one step closer to him getting out. That would be scary. Would he expect to meet face to face if he was released? Would I be able to? It’s a little nerve-racking.

He told me a lot of the other prisoners on death row get letters from their pen pals, and they even fly out to visit and get married. Those girls are crazy. I’ve seen shows about that and people I know joke around that I’m going to end up going down the same path, but that’s ridiculous.

 

UPDATE: 1/23/2014:

I started writing this post a really long time ago, I think even before Christmas! For some reason I hit “save” rather than “publish.” Great. I have since received a Christmas card, again, from Garry wishing me all the best as always. I sucked it up and printed a recent picture of myself and sent it to him in a Happy New Year card. I have yet to hear anything back. I don’t know if that was a great idea or not…but he has been asking for a photo for awhile now. I guess it’s fair, I’d feel weird if I didn’t know what the person I was talking to looked like.

“You’d lose your head if it wasn’t attached to your neck” said everyone ever to me.

I lost the last letter Garry sent me. I had it in my bag for weeks to and from work with every intention of finding time during the day, at lunch, on the train, to pull it out and write back. But I never did. And one day I told myself enough is enough and went to pull it out and it was gone.

It was pretty long, and I did read it before throwing it in my bag in the first place, but I guess I was feeling pretty ashamed of losing it that I didn’t even want to write him back and have to admit it. He has so little possessions, he probably doesn’t lose track of a thing, and here I go losing an important envelope where he wrote to a friend in privacy and trust. Someone probably kicked it out of their way on the train, or the janitor swept it up with the dust bunnies under my desk, not even thinking twice.

But I finally got over it. I know I’ve said that phrase a lot “I got over it.” There are tons of things I need to get over I guess. Whatever.

I received two emails last week about the Death Row Pen Pal program, and just starred them and wouldn’t answer. I told myself “I’ll get to it,” and I didn’t until today. Well, that’s 1/2 true. I saw the starred message on top of my email everyday, and consciously ignored it. It wasn’t until I decided to start getting back into Twitter (which I’ve tried to do like 3 times already and never stick with it) when the same woman who emailed me about the program also tweeted at me, saying she had an interesting opportunity that she emailed me about.

So obviously I was curious.

I read her email. She works for a national publication in the UK. She saw this blog and wants to ask me questions about my experience for their publication….uhh..what?! I was really honored that 1. someone read this, and 2. someone wanted to interview ME. It’s usually the other way around (thanks to my internships and undergrad degree).

I figured, hey, I’m on a roll. I might as well open the other message. It was from the woman in charge of the program. It was her annual check in. It’s been a year since I was paired with Garry. It seems like a lot longer than that. The things we’ve talked about is not what I’d typically talk about with a stranger, yet I always felt like I knew him forever, so it didn’t matter.

I told my coworker today about Garry. I thought I had mentioned it before, but I guess I didn’t. I really wanted to talk about the UK reporter, but had to backtrack and tell her the whole story. I sent her his full (real) name, and she googled him–something I still have yet to do. She just kept saying “OMG” and “He’s so brutal” and things like that and I got really nervous. I don’t want anyone to change how I see him, but I know as soon as I read the articles and see how the media portrays him, my image will forever be corrupted. For now, I’m just reading what he has to say, and taking that as truth. Why would he lie?

Okay so the point of this post: I wrote my letter back to Garry today. I admitted I lost his letter and apologized. (It’s still awkward to apologize to a murderer.) I told him about the job I finally got, told him about some things going on, and I told him about the reporter wanting to talk to me. I assured him I wouldn’t talk about anything personal, not even his name, but if he wanted me to mention anything to her, I would be sure to. Who knows how effective the interview will go without all the “juicy” stuff, but I guess it’ll be up to her whether or not she wants to run the piece after she hears what I have to say.

I also “gave him permission” (I can’t even bare to type that without the quotes. as if i could give a murderer permission to do something) to feel free (ha, free) to send me letters in between my responses if he wanted to. He doesn’t have to wait for me to answer before reaching out again. I know that’s how a typical conversation goes, everyone gets their turn, but there’s is nothing typical about this ongoing conversation. I always say I’ll get better and more punctual, but I never am. I don’t know what it is.

Ready.

So it’s been a few weeks since my last post, at which time it was already a month since I got Garry’s last letter. I finally grew up and wrote him back today. And it felt weird and unnatural. I don’t know what’s going on with me. Whatever.

photoSo in his last letter he talked about my memoir and how he enjoyed reading it. There was a chapter about an abusive ex boyfriend of mine that he reacted poorly to, but everyone who read that chapter reacted the same way, so it wasn’t alarming or anything. He was quick to move on, which I was grateful for. He was undying support for me and my future, which seems really weird. He doesn’t even know me! We’ve never met. We don’t have a “deep” connection-we’re just two people who write letters to each other once a month. But in an odd way it’s comforting. I have support from my friends and family, sure, but for a more-or-less stranger to believe in me makes me feel like maybe I’m actually worth something. He said in his letter that he had been praying for me to get a job and have the future I deserve. I guess his prayers paid off! I was just given a job offer yesterday!

He also told me about different privileged groups they have in San Quentin: A and B. He’s in B, the shitty one. He’s on death row…. was he expecting to be given many privileges? He has pretty broken English, but I’m used to it by now, especially working where I work part time for so long (50% of the customers hardly speak english). But looking passed the broken english, I was still pretty lost in his explanation. Prisons have such interesting internal, unspoken systems. It’s fascinating to read about. I’m glad he openly tells me about it, as if I’d ever understand what he was going through.

From there, he told me about his work history. He did a lot of physical labor, including being a welder with his father. He said he “was a Baptist, driving his company truck.” I’m not sure if Baptist has another meaning apart from the religion? I always assumed he was Catholic because he is Hispanic and very deeply religious, which i have only ever encountered by devout Catholics. But I guess I was just being stereotypical and unfair. I  know he was telling me about his jobs because I had mentioned I was starting to look for one, but I was glad he was open enough to let me into his past even more so.

So I finally wrote him back.

And I didn’t have much to say–which is why I suck as a pen pal. I explained that I had a really busy summer, which I know he will understand without a bad thought, but he shouldn’t. It’s been over a month since he sent his letter and there’s no excuse for being so tardy. It was my own effed up brain getting the best of me after my dad, brother, and fiance mocked me. I guess I was embarrassed and thought I was doing something wrong. Thank god I got over that! I told him I finally got a job and that I’d be a lot more available now to write, but who knows if that will actually be true. I thanked him for his kind wishes and his compliments on my writing, and I told him about this blog-emphasizing, of course, that none of his personal details have been revealed and that anonymity and personal life were kept out. I hope he doesn’t have a bad reaction to it, or think I am exploiting him or anything.

In between my last post and this one, a reader reached out to me from Tumblr to talk about how she and her mom are interested in the program and may want to look into writing to a death row prisoner. I was really excited to hear from her! Even if I only inspire one person in the almost year that I’ve been doing this, It’s pretty cool! if anyone else is interested you can always message/email me to chat and get more info. There’s a lot more that I feel about the experience that I just never put into words, and it’s easier to talk directly with people who are as passionate about something as you are. I honestly don’t even know if/how many people read this. It’s just something I do on the off chance that a person will Google “death row pen pals” and stumble across what it means to me to have one. I know I Googled it before I signed up for the program, so hopefully it gives you a chance to experience what it will be like, what to expect, etc. As corny and cliche as it sounds, it has changed the way I think of things and has been an enormous part of my past year. It’s even been a proven conversation starter! Yay!

Okay-I promise it won’t be another month before my next correspondence both to Garry and to this blog. I’ll try and be a better/worthier pen pal.

I Have No Idea What’s Going On

Shortest post ever:

I got my last letter from Garry so long ago. (Okay, only a few weeks). When it came in the mail, my dad and brother mocked me to the point where I got pretty upset and have been to ashamed to even look at the letter let alone respond to it. I didn’t even want to write this blog! My dad’s whole argument is that he doesn’t want a prisoner to know his address…he knows he’s on death row and in California-the literal other side of the country. It’s impossible that he’d break out and show up on our doorstep. He’s just being unrealistic. Then he went on to say that because Garry draws me pictures that he’s “obsessed” and “in love with me.” Yeah right. He’s locked in a room 24 hours a day with a pen and paper-what else is he supposed to do? Hell, when I’m bored I draw too (of course not NEARLY as good!) I know I shouldn’t let him get to me, but then again, I have yet to respond to his letter or even take it out of the envelope more than the initial reading. Am i subconsciously agreeing with my dad? I hope not. I forced myself to sit down and write this post, so I will force myself to reread my letter and write him back. I’m being ridiculous-I have no idea what’s going on with me.

 

Home Sweet (Almost) Home

One more week until I’m back home in New Jersey! As exciting as it is, I’m going to miss being in the city; I’m sure it’ll only take a few hours until I’m so bored and craving Shake Shack! (PS: They’re opening a location in Paramus, yes!) The only good thing is that I’ll actually be able to get my mail in a normal amount of time–and that means faster and more lImageetters between Garry and me.

When I was home over the weekend, I got another letter from him. He said, as I expected he would think, that he didn’t think he’d hear from me again. It made me so upset, even if I anticipated it. I thought I was clear in my previous letter that I was honestly nonstop busy and hadn’t had the chance to write, which he did mention he understood, but I would never purposely not write to him.

When I started my new letter to him, I made sure to make it really clear that nothing he could tell me would make me not want to write to him. It’s crazy, but I have grown pretty close to him and have learned not to judge anyone. Everyone has a unique life, people may judge me and my path, but I couldn’t judge anyone. The only person who knows what it was like to grow up in Garry’s shoes is Garry himself. I made sure to tell him that he could trust me with anything he wanted to get off his chest, and that I would keep his privacy. He knows about the blog, and he has given me permission to write about his story however I want, but I still wouldn’t exploit his life in any way.

I also decided to give him my manuscript. It wasn’t fair that I mentioned I wrote something and asked if he wanted to read it, and then said “just kidding, I’m scared.” I’m still a little scared–I might be really really dumb giving him my memoir, but it’s most likely fine. He’s a million miles away in a maximum security prison. Who cares if he knows what my high school boyfriend’s name was? I only thought he may think it’s juvenile and ridiculous. I’m sure his childhood was anything but typical, and he might resent that I had such a “normal” life with a great family and friends in rural New Jersey, rather than running around with gangs in Cali.

It’s also pretty long, so I told him it was fine and to take his time. I’m not looking for anything or any comments/criticism from him- I just thought it would be a good way to spend some of his day behind bars. He mentioned in previous letters that he wasn’t a big reader, so rather than offering to send him a book, which I was considering, I figured he can start off reading mine, and also get to know me a little better.

He has been so open about his past and his current “situation,” it’s only fair that I begin to open myself up about my past. It’s obviously not as crazy as his, though. (PS- if anyone wants to read my memoir, just let me know).

Garry said something that confused me a little. He told me he appreciates my honesty and does not “want your boyfriend getting angry with you by him finding out you’ve been writing to me…as good friends.” I wonder why he thought I was keeping our friendship from Ryan and my family? Maybe he thinks I would be ashamed to be writing to a death row inmate, but I’m not. I’ve been very open with Ryan, my friends, and my family. It actually worked as a successful conversation starter at NYU. A classmate read my blog prior to the program, and she remembered me and we became really great friends since. I guess it is a really interesting thing to talk about, but even if it was a private thing between Garry and me, I would still enjoy our correspondence just as much. I told Garry that Ryan and my family knew about him, but that I have been keeping his privacy and never tell them about what he writes or confides in me, just that we write back and forth, and whatever they read from this blog.

I also told Garry about my engagement, and he had nothing but wonderful things to say. It’s crazy- he was just as excited as my closest friends! He told me he was engaged before, but never married. He also gave me a lot of advice, which I thought was sweet (and a little old-fashioned). He told me a husband depends on a wife, and that a wife is the most precious thing a man will ever have. It’s so gushy and romantic, it caught me a little off guard when I remembered he was an (alleged) murderer.

Is it weird that I want to hear more details about the alleged crime he committed to be locked up? I don’t know how to bring it up though. I keep hinting and telling him he can open up and tell me anything he wants, but nothing more has been said.

Why I’m the Worst Pen Pal Ever

I still haven’t responded to Garry’s letter…shit. He sent it like three weeks ago. I was intending on writing him a quick message to explain I’d pretty much be off the face of the planet for the 8 week I’m in New York…and then forgot. I got engaged, graduated from college, and got too caught up in seeing everyone before leaving to remember to sit down and write a letter.

Even now I could be writing him, but instead I’m writing this post. I don’t know what to say. Do I need to apologize for being so inaccessible? Or is it understood that we’re pen pals and there are things going on that make me unable to respond right away? When I get a second to breathe and remember that I have to write my letter, I get such a guilty feeling in my gut picturing him waiting day after day for a letter.

This is why I’m the worst pen pal ever.

As soon as I close this post I’ll force myself to sit down and write. He wants a copy of my capstone project, which I offered up to him, and I have to get from home when I’m there this weekend. I think I’m regretting that offer. My story is nonfiction and has a lot of personal anecdotes/emotions/family stuff in it. I know I don’t need to be on guard around him because….he’s in Cali, in a maximum security prison, where one guy successfully escaped and disappeared years ago. There’s no way he could find me or tell the people I know what I wrote about in my story.

But still. Is it dangerous? I talk a lot about the neighborhood I grew up in, mention the street name, the town, he knows I’m from Jersey.

But duh. My address is on the return label when I send him my letters, and, duh, he mails me letters. He knows where I live. Where my family is. If he cared enough to do something about it (and what would he possibly do?) it’d happen already.

Where is this paranoia coming from?! I’ve been in NYC for almost two weeks. I guess my guards just up. I’ve also been under a lot of stress with the program, it’s very intense and I got put in a position I know nothing about (I’m a words girl, obviously, I know nothing about numbers), and now I’m the publisher/ad sales director for a fake launch magazine brand. Um, yeah, just the title is enough to make my head throb. Maybe if I explain to him how intense my life is right now he’d forgive me for being late on my letter.

Do I need forgiveness from a prisoner?