One of the books that most marked my adolescence was In the Belly of the Beast. I read it in the eighties, when I was eighteen, aware of its controversy. The author, Jack Henry Abbott, had been put in reform school at the age of twelve, and with the exception of a few breaks, had remained behind bars for the rest of his life. In 1981, in connection with the publication of his book, he was released on bail. A few weeks into his freedom, he got into a fight with a young waiter who wouldn’t allow him to use a restaurant bathroom and stabbed the waiter to death. As recently as this had occurred, Abbott’s words didn’t feel contemporary. They felt timeless, or at least datable to anytime after the Industrial Revolution. His voice was clear and intelligent, brutalized and brutal. It left me with the lasting belief that the institutional and personal cruelties of reform schools and prison have the effect of deforming rather than reforming those caught up within them, whether they are the incarcerated or the incarcerators.
I suppose prisons horrified me even before reading Jack Henry Abbott. When I was sixteen, living as an exchange student in France, there was a prison a block away from my school. You couldn’t see the building, just the thick grey wall that surrounded it. I would walk beside this wall, feeling its weight on my skin, knowing that there were people on the other side. I would pray in my heathenish way for them, and marvel at how crude and oafish adults were, that they could they lock people away, depriving them of sun and water and the people they loved. And now I am an adult, sweeping the floor without anyone telling me to, bossing my kids around. There are still prisons and it is my world now.
After the birth of my son Felix, whose brain was damaged in utero, I began to understand imprisonment in a broader way. At first, it was just that having a child with disabilities made me feel like being on parole. People from a daunting number of agencies and acronyms were forever knocking on our door with clipboards and questions and requests for further meetings in dreary offices where Felix and I would wait for hours to be questioned by officials whose purpose was unclear, but who had to be obeyed, and whose forms had to be filled out, even though I had filled out dozens of such forms before. Privacy became a thing of the past, our home a parade of visiting therapists, aides, assessors, social workers, occasionally policemen, checking up on our kitchen and Felix’s crib, measuring his vocabulary, noting his bowel movements, feeding the data generated into various bureaucratic systems that would need to be re-fed in a few months time.
I grumbled about this, then caught myself when I realized that if I’d been born in the projects, I likely would have had to put up with these sorts of intrusions from the get go. As it was, I’d lived with an enormous amount of freedom for over thirty years. Parole might be a drag, but it wasn’t that bad. It was like being a wild animal who is grabbed by a scientist and tagged with an ankle clip or computer chip, then released. A disruption, yes, but far better than being put in a zoo.
When Felix grew older, I began researching the history of disability in the United States and found that for a great many people the link between imprisonment and disability went far deeper than the feeling of parole. In the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, doctors routinely recommended that children and adults deemed “feebleminded,” “deformed,” or “insane” be sent away from their homes and confined in institutions. These institutions were not called jails. They were called schools or asylums, and some of them were truly restorative, humane places where people could come and go, and where learning, therapy, and decency were practiced. But many of them operated like warehouses. Children and adults who did not fit an ideal type were stashed away in buildings the size of city blocks or “farms” in rural areas. Once in, they stayed in. Out of sight, out of mind. Visiting was discouraged. Parents were told to forget their children; children were not given home leave. Children grew to adults in such places, and remained there when they were old. Those who did manage to get out reported overcrowded cells and dormitories, lack of basic necessities such as toothbrushes, an abundance of filth, medical experimentation and regular abuse.
In the 1960s and 70’s, activists within the disability movement shone a light on what was going on and called for the deinstitutionalization of the disabled. Their work led to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now IDEA) in 1975, and the broader civil rights legislation of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. In the new scheme of things, children with disabilities were to be integrated “into the community” and whenever possible attend their local public schools. Families and schools were to be given the resources to make this possible. In most histories, the story ends here. The ADA is passed. Abusive state schools and psychiatric hospitals are shut down. People with disabilities are deinstitutionalized and progress is made.
But children and adults with disabilities still end up in institutions. Families and local schools do not always have the funds, experience or staff to properly help them. My son is a case in point. Even with our family’s considerable resources, we couldn’t get Felix the sort of 24-hour attention that he needed at home, and he was going crazy with frustration and rage. In spite of our enormous love for him, the sleeplessness and violence in our house came close to breaking me and endangering everyone in the family.
When he was ten, looking for a place that could take better care of him, we visited Crotched Mountain School, a non profit in New Hampshire that is funded primarily through Medicaid, federal and state government agencies, and local school districts. It’s located on a mountaintop flanked with pines and oak trees and populated by deer and hawks and the occasional bear (Alerts go out when one is sighted and the kids and their aides have to go inside). It includes a lakefront, wheelchair accessible trails, ten bungalows where 60 residential students live, and a school for ninety students with multiple disabilities from ages 7-21. As we made our way to the school building, I noticed a gangly and furious teenager punching the ground by the roots of a tree while an aide watched from a safe distance, a walky talky in hand. In the lobby of the school, a girl ululated and bit her hand in joy. In a classroom, a boy in a wheelchair listed the state capitals on his communication device while his classmate spun around in circles. Some might have found the atmosphere strange, but I was in heaven. Felix wasn’t weird here. He fit right in.
I detailed how Felix blossomed at Crotched Mountain in my memoir, Strange Beauty. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to champion open and flexible residential schools and advocate for more of them. For they are rare. In their absence, children with disabilities routinely end up in institutions that are drearily reminiscent of the institutions of old, although now they are not called schools and asylums. They are called juvenile detention, jail and prison.
According to the National Council on Disability, about 85% of incarcerated youth have a disability. Their disabilities are generally invisible i.e., mental illnesses (often triggered by trauma), autism spectrum disorders, and untreated learning disabilities like dyslexia and ADHD. As anyone familiar with mass incarceration knows, those being punished are disproportionately poor and colored. The richer and whiter you are, the more likely you will be able to post bail. The more likely, also, that your disability will be acknowledged, respected, and accommodated. But as recent news stories demonstrate, even white ASD kids, nine- and ten-year old, are being dragged from school in handcuffs, and charged for offenses like hitting an aide and pulling hair.
We need more flexible and understanding special needs schools. We also need to reach kids with disabilities who are locked up. For a while now, I’ve been wondering what Extreme Kids & Crew can do in this regard. I founded Extreme Kids & Crew when Felix was seven, in order to create a space where people of all abilities could connect through the arts, movement, play, or simply by being there. We have grown over the years, and have gotten good at what we do, and have attracted thousands of children and their families from all over New York City. But we can’t reach kids that are institutionalized. So how do we set up an Extreme Kids & Crew arts program for “justice-involved” youth? How can we connect with their families? What would such a program look like?
As I’m no longer in charge of Extreme Kids, I went to the director and the board, and we decided that I would spend a year researching arts programs in the justice system, finding allies, and locating a good New York City site for a pilot program. I’ve decided to write about the process here, as I don’t want to get lonely in my scheming, and it seemed like a good way to get feedback. (If any of you have advice or leads, please contact me).
I’ve taken it as an auspicious sign that right after dedicating 2018 to this project, I was invited to a book launch at Rosie’s, the woman’s jail in Rikers Island. The invitation came from the NY Writers Coalition, a non profit that runs dozens of free creative writing workshops around the city, with a focus on writers whose voices often go unheard. For the past seven years, they have run a workshop in Rosie’s, and were publishing their third collection of poems from women incarcerated there. The event was to take place at 12:30 on January 23rd, but I was warned that I should take the day off, as it takes a long time to get to Rikers, and conditions there are unpredictable, with the possibility that a lockdown could delay or cancel the reading or temporarily prohibit us from leaving. I was also told not to bring a cell phone or a purse, and that all personal items were to be carried in a clear plastic bag or left behind.
The morning of the launch was drizzly and gray. I wandered over to the NY Writers Coalition office, where the attendees were gathering. There I met Aaron Zimmerman, who founded the organization fifteen years ago, his staff, all young and gorgeous and hip, the actress and poet Ashley August, who would be performing at the event, and various board members and donors, including my friend and neighbor Barbara who I was delighted to see, as we rarely get a chance to hang out. We took the G train to the end of the line at Queens, then the Q100 bus to Rikers Island’s outermost parking lot, which is on the mainland, alongside the ramp to the Memorial Bridge.
The bridge is the only way to get to the island and is patrolled by two guard houses with flashing red lights mounted to their roofs. There were a couple rusty trailers where visitors signed in. We waited in a line and handed over our IDs and received badges with numbers on them. Then we waited some more for the bus that would take us across the bridge. My fellow attendees grumbled, but I’ve gotten used to long waits from my time at disability agencies and hospitals. As we bounced about to keep warm, Barbara and I noticed a guard whose hair was immaculately blow dried and in place, even in the rain. He sauntered over to one of the guard houses with the flashing red lights and proceeded to wave in Mercedes and junkers, SUV’s and supply trucks. Ever more vehicles came and went, their steady circulation hinting at the enormity of the operation.
Eventually a white corrections bus pulled into the parking lot and we filed inside. Our guide had a saucy voice and enormous paste-on eyelashes and seemed to enjoy welcoming us to jail. As the bus trundled over the bridge, she spoke about what we would be seeing when we got to Rosie’s, whose official name is the Rose M. Singer Center. She warned us about the testiness of the metal detector, and explained that the “the ladies” had different color uniforms, each color signifying a different status: detainees, inmates, adolescents, adults. I can’t remember which colors signified what as I was focused on the window. There was La Guardia Airport. Right there, directly across the river. There was the American Airlines logo. There was a plane taxiing down the runway. I have been to that airport many times and had no idea, landing and taking off, how close I was to this place.
The bus trundled through parking lots, a sprawl of low squat buildings, trailers that housed various offices and hazardous wastes, empty lots surrounded by multiple loops of barbed wire. Rikers is made up of ten jails and can hold up to 15,000 people, though it more often holds about 10,000, the great majority of whom are detainees who are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. Another 10,500 people work here. Together they make up what has been called the world’s largest penal colony. Reformers of many stripes have long targeted its abuses and corruption. Last year, Mayor de Blasio issued a ten year plan to close it down. But for now, the place is still going strong, and its immensity and dreariness are chilling.
The bus stopped. We followed our guide into Rosies, took off our shoes and jewelry, and lined up to go through the cranky metal detector. After much beeping and readjusting, we arrived at the other side, our shoes on, our names recorded in the guard’s clipboard, our hands stamped with invisible ink that would glow purple under light sources at more checkpoints down the way. Past a sliding, barred door, we came to the Programs Corridor. A crudely painted mural was painted on one side, two posters taped to the other. One, in lurid greens, blues and blacks said something like: IF YOU HIT ANYONE, STAB ANYONE, STRANGLE ANYONE, YOU WILL BE ARRESTED. The other, in warmer hues, featured a hand, palm up, holding some kind of heart or seed or pod. Women in beige and dark green uniforms walked by. A skinny girl, slightly pimpled and frizzy haired, slumped on a bench outside the room where the launch was to be held.
The room was about the size of a classroom, windowless with white walls. Folding chairs were arranged in rows with an aisle down the middle. At the back were tables where chattering people in civilian clothes presided over clear plastic boxes of supermarket muffins and aluminum trays of Caesar Salad. Maybe a dozen women in beige uniforms, participants in the writing program, milled about or sat together in a clump near the front of the room. I wanted to talk with them, but felt too awkward. I contented myself with sitting on their side of the aisle, instead of the other, where most of the people from the New York Writers Coalition were gathered. My friend Barbara sat next to me. We muttered about the girl slumping on the bench out in the hallway. She looked to be around the age of Barbara’s oldest son. She was smaller than Felix.
Deborah Clearpool, who leads the workshop, welcomed us and explained how it works. Anyone can come; some just come for one session; others are there for months, even years. She never asks people why they are at Rikers, she just gives them a regulation three inch golf pencil (regular size pencils are deemed threats and not allowed) and paper and tells them to write anything that comes to mind, a list, a rant, mumbo jumbo, anything. After ten minutes, they take a break. If anyone wants to share what they’ve written, they can. Their fellow writers listen and respond by telling them what they liked, leaving off negative feedback as it’s too early in the writing process to be useful. Then Deborah will give them a prompt and they go back to writing. They can write based on the prompt or pursue other paths, whatever they want. And so the workshop continues, writing for ten or fifteen minutes, reading, listening, responding, then writing again. Deborah has led this workshop for six years. Over a thousand women have written alongside her.
First up was Ashley August. I had thought she would be reading the women’s work. Instead she closed her eyes then ripped into her own passionate, sassy, devastatingly articulate poems. Her performance was riveting and left us wondering how anyone could possibly follow her. Yet the unadorned voices of the women in their beige uniforms carried their own weight: There were rhyming couplets about enacting bloody revenge for rape and incest; a rueful poem about Christmas in jail being not so bad, as it kept the writer from getting high; a stirring poem called 20 Years, read by a woman whose name was vaguely familiar. Later, I googled her. To my astonishment, I realized that I had read about the crime she had been accused of. It had been a scandal in the nonprofit world, involving a weird sex toy operation embedded in an organization that brought music therapy to the sick and disabled, embezzlement, and an executive director who was brutally attacked, her face sprayed with acid.
After the reading, everyone ate salad and mini muffins together. Those of us in the audience congratulated the writers and got our chapbooks signed. Then the writers were led away and we were led away. I am left with a small treasure, the chapbook Can You Feel the Free In Me. Deborah Clearman is named as its editor, but she said that she didn’t do much editing, other than correct a spelling error or two. She simply asked her writers if they had anything that they would like published, and arranged what they gave her. Here is one of my favorites:
The Love of Water
by Chivona H.
Water is the best thing God created.
You can wash with it, clean with it, cook
with it. What a miserable world it would be if
we didn’t have water or water didn’t exist. I
love water; I consider myself and my children
water babies. Well let me give you an example
how water can brighten up your life. Summer
scalding hot temperatures, beaches, pools, and
water parks and water ice trays, popsicles,
and slushies, cooling off with a popped fire
hydrant, playing water games with the ghetto
children–so much fun. In the winter time a
long hot bath or a kettle filled with water
to supply all your needs like making
hot beverages and a nice bowl of cheesy
grits, something to keep you nice and
warm to go out and conquer the day on a fully
happy stomach and warm soul and spirit. Water
water, I love you, need you, miss you, and
long for you water, water, water, I love you.
You can purchase a copy of Can You Feel the Free in Me on Amazon or you can contact New York Writers Coalition’s Program Coordinator, Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org. By contacting them directly, all proceeds will go towards funding their free creative writing workshops throughout New York City.
As mentioned in the post, the majority of people held at Rikers are awaiting trial, many for non violent misdemeanors. Were they middle class, they would not be in jail, as their families would be able to afford bail. According to a 2014 court report, 85% of NYC defendants given a bail of $1000 or less could not come up with the funds. One small way to cut down on the number of people separated from their families, jobs, and responsibilities while awaiting trial is give to community bail funds. The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, for instance, covers bail for non-violent offenders, ensures its clients get to their court dates, and connects them with jobs and housing programs.