Hola mi gente…
The following is based on true events…
Cruelty and fear shake hands together.
— Honoré de Blazac
Upriver from NYC’s borough of Manhattan lies Rikers Island — the largest penal colony in the world. A fortress of the lost, vault of the doomed, the island of the dead. It is in actuality a warehouse of human bodies, like so much meat. Rikers Island is also one of the largest mental health facilities in the world — though its essential purpose has very little to do with norms of behavior. The only way to enter is through a short narrow bridge. I call it the Bridge of Lost Souls.
The woman’s facility, officially the Rose M. Singer Center, is known as Rosie’s or Lesbian Island by those who live or work there. Many of the women, just arrested, are coming off drugs or crying about their children. Those going through withdrawals vomit from time to time, others sit rocking back and forth, sweating, weeping, chewing their bottom lips or fingernails.
Move your gaze across the grass being mowed by a handful of women in uniforms and toward a compound of brick buildings, all of them in poor repair — paint peeling, bricks needing repointing, sidewalks cracked. Walk past the women pushing laundry carts into Rose M. Singer proper where women in green state prison uniforms, either delusional or depressed, sit watching daytime television, rocking ceaselessly as a side effect of their medications, and continue forward, past women staring at you from behind bars, towards a section that awaits the most contradictory of populations.
There is a spotless nursery for women who have come to Rosie’s pregnant, or, less frequently (but not unheard of), those who have been impregnated by the too numerous sexual liaisons that occur between male guards and the women. The purpose of which, for the women, include the procurement of food, drugs, cosmetics, feminine hygiene products, and, lest there be any confusion about affection, a welcome contrast to the flesh of another. Finally, you come to where women have been bedded with their newborns (some having given birth while being shackled), where they have learned to nurse and feed and wipe and whisper their babies to sleep.
The hallway is dark and gloomy but the floor is spotless, gleaming from the daily buffing it receives. It is here where I sit waiting during one unbearably hot and humid New York City summer day. Paying attention, I observe a ritual that takes place each time a woman comes to live in the prison nursery with her newborn, a ritual so utterly contrary to human nature, yet unremarkable in this place for its regularity and its bureaucratic numbness.
They are taking away another baby from its mother. I don’t want to see this, I think to myself, my gut clenching. But I continue watching, just close enough to see a baby boy being held by his mother one last time. The mother, Shannelle, can’t be more than nineteen, and her face literally glows with maternal love, a facial expression too advanced for such a young face I think to myself. The maternity ward administrator, a kindly looking elderly woman, watches too, as does the child welfare worker who is there to take the child. How long, I wonder, will they allow her to hold her baby?
Now Shannelle collapses in grief around her baby, who, unknowing, pats at a yellow barrette in her hair. Shannelle had come to Rosie’s pregnant, after she and her sister had gone out one night to buy candy and two men had come up and asked them where so-and-so lived. The girls, streetwise and nobody’s fools, expected an incentive for their trouble, and after a brief negotiation, walked the men over to the house in question, a distance of a mere block, and when they knocked on the door, the police were inside, having just arrested the inhabitants for cooking and selling crack. The two girls got different public defenders, one a realist, the other a fool. Shannelle was assigned the fool, a recent law graduate from Harvard. Her sister agreed to a plea, avoided a trial, and got a year. Shannelle’s lawyer convinced her that she was innocent and that he would mount an impassioned defense on her behalf, if she allowed him to take her case to trial.
It was the first time a white, college-educated male had shown an interest in her, and so though she felt some trepidation, she agreed to his proposition. The jury took forty minutes to find her guilty and the judge reluctantly sentenced her according to the harsh edicts of the Rockefeller mandatory minimum drug laws, which meant Shannelle received three years to life.
Now the nursing administrator signals the child welfare worker that it was time for the removal. Shannelle crushes her son against herself, then looks up, eyes full. “I will just die,” she cries. “I can’t, I can’t” But her baby is gently taken from her and placed in the arms of the waiting child welfare worker.
Don’t look anymore, I tell myself. And I am reminded I am in the House of the Dead, the years killing the women here as surely and painfully as unchecked cancer…
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…