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.


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.


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?

Finally Got a Letter Back!

I was starting to get really worried! I thought maybe the letter I wrote back to Garry got lost in the mail and he thought was thinking I got freaked out by his confessional letter and didn’t want to be pen pals anymore. I’m glad I finally got a response back! I was already mentally rewriting the letter back, haha!

His letter was welcoming as always. He told me there was no need to thank him for revealing so much personal things to his letters, and that he considers us to be close friends. He is definitely appealing everything, he said, but is still at peace if the appeals are denied. I’m glad he’s at least fighting for his freedom, but at least if he doesn’t get paroled, he’s still okay where he’s at. It’s funny how he talks about the other prisoner’s on death row–he said “men here on death row…all act like kids!”

The best news he revealed in this short three page letter was that he fully supports me if I do decide to be a writer, and am free to use anything we talk about and anything from his case that will help me. Although it’s unlikely that I’ll have the time to write up anything and research everything that I would need to to write a book about him or his life, even if it’s just a fictional portrayal drawing from aspects from his life, it’s nice to know that there won’t be so many legal hoops to jump through since I literally have written proof of his permission to me.

He congratulated me on my college graduation and remarked briefly on the Boston Bombings and other current events. I’m excited to share with him the news of mine and Ryan’s engagement! He also said he’d love to read the book I wrote for my class, so in addition to a short letter I’ll be sending him my manuscript (my parent’s copy, I’ll have to reprint it soon!). I have to tell him how I’ll be gone living in New York City for eight weeks and how he may not get a response as quick as usual from me. I’m sure he’ll be fine with it.

I don’t know if I’ll be. I was getting so nervous that I hadn’t heard from him in so long this time, I bet I’ll be so anxious to get home and get my mail while I’m in NYC. Well, I’ll hopefully be so busy that it won’t be on my mind…maybe.

I haven’t written my response yet, but it’ll probably just be something short and sweet, there’s not much on my mind that I can even talk about, I’m so busy and going to get busier! I feel bad, I don’t want to deny him a friendship or put it on hold because what else does he have to do? I know he’ll understand though. It’s weird that I feel like I know him so well already and know how he’ll react. It’s a little uncomfortable, but if I didn’t want to get to know someone, then why would I have signed up for the program? That’s what I keep asking myself, at least.

Short and Sweet

THIS post will be short and sweet since I’m on my kindle…
It’s been weeks since I heard from Garry. I hope my letter wasn’t lost in the mail or anything. I’ve been running home to check the mail most days and have been consistently disappointed. I hope he writes back soon…

I couldn’t sleep last night so I turned the tv on. It was already on spike tv and the show Unsolved Mysteries was on. It was about San Quentin. I was instantly intrigued and ended up watching the whole episode. It was about this guy who successfully escaped in 1997. That would have been during the time Garry was there. I really wanted to find out right then and there if he had heard of it or if he knew the guy who escaped…if he ever thought about doing the same. It’d probably be impossible from death row. I mean that’s the point of being on death row. There’s a lock on your door 24/7 Garry told me. Still I wondered if he ever thought about what I’d be like to be free again…. hopefully he writes back soon or I may just send an extra letter in the meantime.