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?


“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.