Tuesday, June 2
Every morning at five o’clock another officer came on duty and started to count. For five months it had been the same. One of them would drive in from someplace nice like Long Island, while another went home. The one coming on would start down the row of beds, counting before he could go back to sleep for another hour or two in the bubble.
They can’t take the count by looking. Just like in the movies, a kid could roll his clothes up under a blanket and be on the loose. So they count by touching you, and feeling for a warm body.
There’s nothing worse than waking up when a C.O. touches you. For a second, you might not remember where you are. You might even think you’re home. Then it all comes back to you: You’re on Rikers Island. To fall asleep again is like spending another night in jail.
“36...37...38,” the C.O. whispered.
The new jack in the next bed had spent the night before fighting off the wolves for his good kicks. He didn’t know the routine and wasn’t ready for anyone to touch him while he was still asleep.
“What’s that?” he screamed, jumping up from his bed.
“Yo, 39!” the C.O. shot back and pinned his shoulders to the mattress. “I’m just takin’ the count, kid. Now grab a-fuckin’ hold of yourself!"
Half of the house was awake for a second until they saw it was nothing.
“Forty, court!” the officer hollered and shook me with one hand.
I was going this morning. I got my clothes from the bucket under my bed and got dressed in the dark.
I didn’t tell anyone I expected to go home. Some inmates will start trouble with you because they’re jealous, or think you won’t fight back and chance getting a new charge. The ones you owe from juggling commissary will want to settle right away, and anyone that owes you will put it off, hoping you don’t come back from court. The sneak-thieves will be looking for your blanket and what’s left of your commissary and clothes before your bed even gets cold.
I walked up to the bubble and got in line with the other courts. The C.O. pulled my card from the box and threw it on top of the pile. It read “Martin Stokes -Adolescent Reception and Detention Center, Mod- 3, North Side #40.” I had been answering to “Forty” for so long, it was almost like that was really my name. I would only hear “Martin” when I called home or my mother came on a visit.
The picture stapled to the corner of the card was taken my first day on the Island. I thought I’d be here for a hot minute then. It was such a bubble gum charge. I thought my mother could make bail, or I’d get a program and probation when I got to court. Then my case got put off twice for bullshit.
First, my lawyer had to tell the judge that we weren’t ready. Then the judge got held up on another case. It had been five months since I was out in the world. And I was hungry to see it again without peeping through a chain-link fence.
A woman C.O. picked us up at the door and we eyeballed her up and down. She was all right, but women don’t have to look too good in jail to get a lot of attention. Most times, inmates are just happy to be near one. But I was thinking more about my mother, and getting a chance to see my baby sisters and grandma again.
We deuced it up in the hall with inmates from other houses and were already mixing with the adults. Then she marched us down the main corridor. It’s almost peaceful in the jail that early in the morning, when the only movement through the halls are the courts.
We got to the yard and I was shackled to another inmate by my foot and wrist. They loaded us onto a big, blue and white bus with the words “Department of Corrections” painted on the side. Like people on the streets wouldn’t figure it out from the metal bars and plates on the windows. Then the bus started up, and we passed through the big gates and over the bridge that separates Rikers Island from the world.
There were fourteen pairs of inmates shackled together, and two officers along for the ride. One C.O. stays with the inmates, and the driver sits on the other side of the bars so no one can get control of the bus. There’s even a cage on the bus that the C.O. can lock you up in if you start trouble or need protection. The mood on the way to court is usually pretty good. But the ride back can be long and hard if enough dudes get smacked down by the judge.
We crossed the bridge and were on the streets of East Elmhurst. It felt good to see people walking in any direction they wanted without a C.O. to stop them. And I wanted to be that way again too.
I saw a man standing on a corner and thought about my first trip to the Island. Maybe I was ten years old then. My mother took me on a visit with her to see my pop on Rikers. But we got off the city bus and couldn’t find the jail.
She stopped a man in the street and asked, “How do you get to Rikers Island?” The man just laughed and said, “Rob a bank, lady. Rob a bank!”
I know where the Island is now. I know the bus route from the jail to the Queens Court House, and back. I took that ride so many times on this one case, I could close my eyes and tell you where the bus is from the bumps and turns. From the streets to the Grand Central Parkway, through the exit ramp and the turn onto Queens Boulevard, I could feel it in my bones.
We went through the system at the court house and were put into the pens. You pick up a lot of skills in jail, and in the pens you need them all. The pens are big cells where everybody waits until their case gets called. There’s an open toilet, a sink and benches bolted to the floor so nobody throws them. The C.O.’s in charge aren’t interested in what you do because they don’t have to live with you for long. They don’t really want to come inside and stop anything either. So it’s up to you to take care of yourself. As long as you come out in one piece to see the judge, they did their job.
Adolescents are mixed with adults in the pens, and guys that fly the same colors stay together and act tight. By eleven o’clock, the C.O.’s serve you a slice of bologna between two pieces of bread for lunch. Inmates call them “cop-out sandwiches” because you’d be willing to confess to anything just not to eat that crap. After a while, the floor of the pen gets covered with bologna and stale bread.
I tried to look hard. I was as worried about the next few hours as I was about my case. Some guys had a kid over in the corner doing the Pogo. He was jumping up and down in the toilet on one foot in his shoes and socks. It’s mostly the adolescents that want to show other kids how tough they are. The only time an adult will step to an adolescent is if the kid is acting real stupid, or if they’re in the same gang and the adult pulls rank. When adults fight, it’s for real. They’ll pull burners quick and try to kill each other.
The dude standing next to me was practicing hand signs, and I thought he was down with one of the gangs. He saw me watching him and said, “This is what’s gonna help me beat my case.”
Then he ran down the whole show for me.
“All the judges are Masons,” he said. “If they see you throwing up the right signs, they won’t find you guilty. That’s why you don’t see white people going through the system. Most of them are Masons, and they know the signs. But there are black Masons too, even a white judge knows that,” he demanded.
I just nodded. You never want to argue with a dude when he has his hopes riding on something crazy like that. Not while he’s waiting to see the judge, and is all uptight.
There were two kids starting to jaw in the corner of the pen. They were fighting over what outfit ran their neighborhood back in the days, and it was starting to get heavy. They both had on their best ice-grills, and one of them had backup.
“You’re talkin’ to me like I’m some sort of punk, mother fucker!” said the one standing alone.
He put his hands up, and back to the bars so no one could come up from behind and yoke him. But the other kid and his crew were all around him now, and other inmates in that part of the pen started to move away.
It was about to be high drama when an officer came up to the bars where those kids had squared off and shouted, “All right boys and girls, listen up! Fuller, Douglas, Stokes, Wallace...”
My name was on the list of the ones he called.