by Anna Giannicchi –
In June of 2015, I was hired to pilot a project teaching English and Social Studies to young people incarcerated on Rikers Island. I’d never seen a correctional facility before. I’d researched Rikers the best I could beforehand, but research always pales in comparison to reality.
I stepped onto the island for the first time at nineteen years old, wearing a bright green I don’t belong here “TUTOR” shirt. The officers who let me in laughed at me before telling me where I was supposed to go. I got to my building, sat down next to a “DISCHARGE FIREARMS HERE” box, and waited for someone to call me.
I was sick with worry. Not about going to the facility, but because I was so sure the students wouldn’t like me or trust me. I wouldn’t like me, I thought, as I slid my bag through the metal detector and pulled off my shoes (Rikers will always make me take off my shoes). I wouldn’t trust me, either. Why would they? I was a novice in the criminal justice world, barely older than they were, and our experiences in life differed dramatically.
Two different officers brought me through a maze of doors, most of which were controlled by someone else who must have been watching us. I passed by a cell that I thought was holding people, and struggled to walk normally. I’d hoped not to see people in cages on my very first day. When I turned my head the slightest bit, all that was in the cell was a pile of equipment. After that day, I saw occupied spaces with quite a bit of frequency.
A man passed me with an officer on either side of him. He was decked out in orange, hands behind his back. Remember what happened to Clarice the first time she visited a facility?, my mind hissed at me. I couldn’t help it. I braced myself.
The officer escorting me looked up and smiled. The four of them talked with each other for a minute. The conversation was light and they mentioned how the man would be leaving Rikers soon. They laughed with each other – officers and incarcerated man. My brow furrowed. This wasn’t the Rikers I’d heard about. This was four people talking with each other.
My officer pulled a key away from her uniform – something iron and ancient. They moved me through yet another passage and I signed a book with my intentions before being led to the door of the classroom. The door clicked open. I stepped inside.
Seven teenage boys dressed in white shirts and black sweatpants looked me up and down. They smiled.
The teacher waved me in and continued with his lesson. A corrections officer was sitting in another corner, comfortably enough that it screamed of a regular occurrence. I sat at a desk and waited for someone to interact with me. Or for the clock to run out; after the initial once-over, the boys didn’t seem interested in what I was offering. I turned to look at the teacher and drank up as much of the classroom as I could. There were no windows, but there were cheerful posters pasted over the walls. The room was littered with textbooks. The boys were learning from a Smartboard and they scribbled notes with golf pencils.
“You’re the tutor.” Standing next to me was one of the boys.
I nodded. “I am.”
“Good,” he said, and immediately sat next to me. “I need help with introductions.”
The student and I sat and worked on writing introductions to his essays for two hours that morning – it was the most normal part of my first morning at Rikers. He was so dedicated and wrote out new paragraphs over and over until he’d gotten it right. He promised to work with me again the next week, and I said I’d see if I could bring him any of my old essays.
“Introductions are hard. I struggle with them myself. Everyone does. It’s just important that you have a hook and a thesis sentence. Then later when you wrap everything up, you can just summarize your introduction, and that’s your conclusion.” He’d nodded as I talked and his hand worked furiously over his paper.
At the end of the lesson, an officer came to take the boys out of the classroom. I made small talk with the teacher and glanced outside to see where the door had been cracked. All of the boys were lined up with their palms against the wall as the two officers patted them down.
“They think I gave them something,” I murmured, horrified.
The teacher rolled his eyes at me. “They do this every day.”
I left Rikers that morning with a renewed sense of purpose. I waited for the bus to take me back to the main entrance in the heat of June, my eyes adjusting to the sunlight, perching on the box of bullets that sat outside. A monarch butterfly flew past me lazily. I laughed – I couldn’t help myself. What is this place?
Anna Giannicchi is a graduate student studying Forensic Psychology at John Jay College.