the website less traveled

selected writing

From Ramallah to Rikers Island (Part 1)

A bumper sticker I bought on the first day I began to prepare the material for this series. I don't have a car.

The following series of journal entries were written while I was incarcerated in Rikers Island Correctional Facility from January to February 2007, and have seen minor edits for clarity and the addition of extensive, explanatory footnotes, but have otherwise been unaltered for publication. A Series Epilogue appears at the end, written at the time of publication.


My bedroom after my home was demolished in Ramallah, Palestine in May 1998. [Read More] (Photo: Nigel Parry)
10 February 2007 — I've never shirked from writing about the difficult aspects of my life as they have come up in the course of the process of writing although I will confess to not having spent as much time as I would have liked covering the hard places within.

Writing about Palestine was one thing, writing about Palestine within me and how it has played out through me is something I have increasingly begun to consider in depth. And it's about time.

An adoption, an abusive school environment, two divorces, four years in a war zone including surviving a home demolition—and something had to give. And give it did this last Christmas, in an overwhelming sense of dread that culminated in a post traumatic flashback/psychotic episode of sorts.

From the memorial service program of my former neighbor, Cecil Meed.

Trump he was not, but Cecil Meed... was wealthy in one respect: his tenants' admiration. The elderly man was that rare breed of New York landlord, by his tenants' accounts: he was known to lower rents when times were tough and never seemed to mind about money. [...] "We all have a lot of love for him," ['Amelia Niumeitolu, a student and filmmaker who lived on the second floor] said. "We're all poor... He was always cool with the rent if something comes up." [...] Ms. Niumeitolu said that Mr. Meed often encouraged the struggling creative types and working-class tenants he rented his units to with a saying, "Just as long as you're living your dreams, the money will come."

Source: "Tenants Praise Building Owner Who Died In Fire", by Michelle O'Donnell and Janon Fisher, New York Times, 6 January 2006.
In January 2006, a friend and neighbor burned to death in a house fire two doors down. Shortly after Christmas, almost a year later, while moving material from my van parked in front of the still-charred door, I became overwhelmed with the feeling that my apartment building was on fire and began breaking a neighbor's door down.

Her screams from inside the apartment told a different story and snapped me out of the episode instantly, as I hadn't been trying to hurt her but save her from an non-existent fire. Some dark e-mails around the same time to someone else, warning of impending doom, and you get the picture—a mess.

The following day, I left a letter of explanation and apology outside the neighbor's door, on top of a new multimedia system (it was Christmas!) and unintentionally violated an order of protection that had not been explained adequately to me.

She chose to press charges for both incidents.

I was taken to Bellevue Hospital on December 29th, where I was detained for almost a month before being brought to Rikers Island Correctional Facility at the end of January, from where I am writing this.

As much as I feel compelled to write about the story within, the story around me in this place also pulls my attention. For it is the same story.

To me, it often seems that in our world, we are all simultaneously victims and perpetrators, falling beneath and powering the wheels of a broken machine with a fundamentally anti-human agenda. Our 'solutions' are often stumbling blocks we leave for the next person to trip over, creating new problems while doing nothing to address any of the root ills in society.

And some of the most telling lenses to these truths, in the diaries I always return to from some corner of hell or another, are the stories of the people around us. From Palestine to Minnesota, from Ramallah to Rikers Island, the stories are waiting for us.

The only catch is that you have to look into the eyes of those who are telling them in order to hear them.

Girl Scouts, Hebron Redeployment, 18 January 1997. (Photo: Nigel Parry)

While many of the inmates in the main prison population that I exist in were not functioning too well outside, few were dangerous to society at large in any immediate way. I have been reflexively guilty of assuming that prisons basically were doing the job one hopes they do, namely keeping us safe from dangerous people. It sure was easy to be an armchair incarceration expert from outside the walls of Rikers Island. Yet the people around me don't fit that mold.

Kevin, nicknamed "Old Timer", is a 47-year-old African American who was arrested on Christmas Day on an old warrant for "steering". Steering is when an undercover cop comes up to you and asks you where people are selling drugs. Even a get-rid-of-you wave in the wrong direction can get you arrested.

Kevin, a former drug dealer and former drug user, works on the outside these days as a substance abuse counsellor. He broke down the three main kinds of prisoners[1] that surround us:

1. Predicate drug users
These are people who are going to get high no matter what. Their lives are a cycle of use, addiction, arrest, conviction, and release. While some of these users were arrested for committing other crimes, the crimes were petty and usually aimed at securing money for drugs. This accounted for perhaps 70% of the people around us.

2. Seasonal arrests
People who don't want to go through the shelter system during the cold Christmas holiday season, the mentally ill and the homeless. They get self arrested with 1-2 baggies of heroin looking, as Kevin put it, for "three hots and a cot." Perhaps 20% of the total.

3. Wrong place, wrong time
Not major dealers, but victims of police performance, seasonal, and election period quotas. Racial profiling of people who "don't fit" in the neighborhood they are visiting, and whole street sweeps are a speciality. Of course, none of these people are major drug dealers, otherwise they would be out on bail immediately. Real drug dealers have money and don't come into jail with newspaper in their shoes.

In other words, drug addicts, the homeless, and the mentally ill fill our jails and prisons.[1,2]

When I lived in Minnesota, I estimated that perhaps a third of the 18-35 age range smoked pot regularly in that cold state. But heroin? You just don't see it. It's a private drug for the most part.

Annotated Google Map of Rikers Island, zoomed in on C-95, the Anna M Kross Detention Center (AMKC) where I was being held. Did you even know that America still has island prisons, like some dark-ass Man in the Iron Mask story? Two Main is marked as "2M" on the satellite photo, D4 Upper as "D4U". The red rectange on the Rikers Island inset (bottom right) shows the location of C-95 on the island. (Annotated Google Map)

In the first dormitory I was placed in on Rikers Island, Two Main in C-95 (see image above), the inmates were all fresh intakes. Out of the 42 inmates, the announcement of "Detox" each night, resulted in just 11 of us left in a virtual ghost town, as the 31 needing a Methadone dose had the edge taken off their withdrawal at a downstairs dispensing station.

Obviously this was not going to be comparable to the general level of heroin use in wider society. In the second dormitory I was moved to about 10 days after intake, D4 Upper (see image above), I asked people who had sold heroin to put a figure on it.

From what I learned, I came to realize that the main obstacle to my thinking about heroin users in wider society was the stereotype of "the junkie"—the unkempt, hollow-eyed waif who appears on drug warning posters as a cautionary tale. This image is highly destructive as it obscures the reality that it is entirely possible to carry on a destructive drug habit completely under the radar.

2004 Poster Campaign from London's Metropolitan Police.

One of my new dealer friends estimated that perhaps 5% of the New York population were heroin users, and they are bank tellers, bus drivers, police officers, your child's teacher—anyone who can maintain a $10-a-day habit.[3] You'll only find yourself on the radar if your supply dries up unexpectedly. That's when you'll start looking and feeling like the posters.

Some of the inmates here showed me an article mentioning two Scots who were recently busted for selling crystal meth ingredients over the Internet to New Yorkers. One of the two busted in New York was 37-year-old Michael Knibb, Citycorp's Vice President of Information Technology, who had the meth lab "in the living room of his luxury apartment overlooking the United Nations." ("Couple in legal 'meth'", New York Post, 1 February 2007).

Five percent. I doubt that Knibb will see the inside of Rikers Island.

The article was a week old when it was brought to me with cries of "Scotland!"[4]. When I pointed this out, one inmate noted sardonically that "if you haven't read it, it's still news", in an environment where papers from December are still circulated with glee.

What the last two weeks have certainly been about—for me—is a walk through one of the traps set for America's poor, a trap which makes politicians look like they're doing something to keep us safe from crime while doing none of the sort.

On that last point, make no mistake. I didn't even know that those little disks in clothing stores contained dye. Now I know the process by which someone can clip one and cleanly dispose of its pesky alarm-triggering, dye-squirting self in a matter of seconds, all courtesy of the unparalleled vocational training offered by America's correctional facilities.

If most people arrived here at the thorny end of the path as the result of broken homes, a breakdown of community and opportunities, held down by poverty and myopic government policies and a ghetto wall that no one dares confront, then there is nothing in prison to remedy that lack of love.

Prison is about walls, rules, rejection, and negation. You are not the point. Only the system matters. Which was the problem to begin with. If you didn't arrive here with the tools to dig yourself out, don't expect to find them inside these walls.

In fact, don't expect to find a blanket for your first week.



Both Kevin's analysis and what I could see with my own eyes was later confirmed. According to statistics from 6 years ago (see Inside Rikers by Jennifer Wynn, listed in the epilogue), 65% of Rikers Island inmates are pre-trial detainees—"innocent before proven guilty"—yet conditions prisoners are kept in represent a blatant violation of their human rights.

Less than 25% of inmates on "The Rock" were arrested for any form of violent crime—rather mostly drug offenses—with 80% having a history of substance abuse; with 92% being black or Hispanic, even though these ethnic groups comprise less than 50% of the New York City population; with 25% having been treated for mental illness, making Rikers the U.S.'s largest "mental institution"; and 30% of whom come from the city's population of homeless.

Literally one-quarter of the approximately 15,000 resident inmates (the annual turnover is around 130,000 prisoners) face paupers' bails of $500 or less.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice itself, "At year end 2006 there were 3,042 black male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to 1,261 Hispanic male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic males and 487 white male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 white males." The more you start reading and doing the research, the more blatantly obvious it becomes that these statistics say nothing about the differing propensities of any race to commit crimes but say everything about the racism of the system that sentences them.

Rikers Island, as is true of all U.S. jails and prisons, is primarily an elections tool by which politicians wave the smoke & mirrors of incarceration to utterly falsely "make us feel safe" from people who are not dangerous and, in fact, need societal support, not societal exclusion. The tiny minority of pathological individuals who would cause people harm if free could be contained in a single institution. Instead, America has 1% of its entire population of 300 million imprisoned.

The continuation and the expansion of the prison system provides massive, well-paid, grateful-to-politicians employment to the many hundreds of thousands of people who staff the criminal justice system—the police, judges and court officials, state prosecutors and attorneys, corrections officers, and the corporations that both supply prisons with their products and benefit from cheap prison labor unencumbered by any meaningful oversight into work conditions.

As with every other system in America, the criminal justice system is utterly corrupt.

The reality of prison is that our society has created a traumatizing, racial hatred-inciting, dumping ground for the brown-colored, nonviolent ghetto poor, homeless, drug addicts, and the mentally ill, that will one day blow back in all of our faces as surely as what happened to Rodney King set Los Angeles on fire. The people living in ghettos are under no illusions as to what prison is.

Rikers Island costs taxpayers $860 million a year—twice as much, per inmate, as as would a residential care facility.

Anyone who is in any way responsible for contributing to or perpetuating Rikers Island's—or any other modern dungeon's work—or anyone who is responsible at any level for sending people to jail, is a participant in an ongoing crime against humanity and offense to the God in whose image we humans were made. [
Back to where you left off]

2. "If you think health care in America is bad, you should look at mental health care," says Steve Leifman, who works as a special advisor on criminal justice and mental health for the Florida Supreme Court. More Americans receive mental health treatment in prisons and jails than hospitals or treatment centers. In fact, the country's largest psychiatric facility isn't even a hospital, it's a prison — New York City's Rikers Island, which holds an estimated 3,000 mentally ill inmates at any given time. Fifty years ago, the U.S. had nearly 600,000 state hospital beds for people suffering from mental illness. Today, because of federal and state funding cuts, that number has dwindled to 40,000. When the government began closing state-run hospitals in the 1980s, people suffering from mental illness had nowhere to go. Without proper treatment and care, many ended up in the last place anyone wants to be. "The one institution that can never say no to anybody is jail," Leifman says. "And what's worse, now we've given [the mentally ill] a criminal record." (Source: "De-Criminalizing Mental Illness", M.J. Stephey, TIME, 8 August 2007) [Back to where you left off]

3. The press release from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, announcing the arrest of Knibb and 10 others in "Operation Red Fusion", confirmed what I had learned about the cross-section of society using highly addictive drugs: "The locations of the drug laboratories included a penthouse apartment overlooking the United Nations, a garage bay at a Manhattan automobile dealership, a pickup truck, and a single family residence and apartments located on Long Island. The defendants are not members of a single organization, but rather acted independently, producing personal use quantities of methamphetamine. They include a corporate executive, an automobile mechanic, and a university teaching assistant." (Source: "Meth In The City: 9 Meth Labs Found, 10 Charged In New York City And Long Island", U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency News Release, 30 November 2006)

Despite the fact that the press release acknowledges that all the defendants were producing methamphetamine for personal use, many of those named face 10 or 20 years in prison. While a valid argument could and should be made for their endangering public safety (as Meth labs are known to explode) why should society have to pay $50,000 a year to incarcerate people who are primarily harming themselves in an institution that can only harm them and break them more, ultimately releasing people who will have even greater reason to self-medicate and even less respect for a law applied with a heavy hand? Court-mandated treatment would be far more beneficial to both the individuals and society as a whole, and the money saved could be spent better securing a postal mail system that merrily shipped illegal chemicals into the U.S. from Scotland. Did we miss the whole 9/11 thing? [Back to where you left off]

4. One of the nicknames given to me in jail, a shout out to my country of birth. For a variety of reasons, ranging from fear of retaliation for gang membership, to boredom-boosting creativity, to a desire for relative anonymity in a situation with zero privacy where many have unresolved legal issues, everyone goes by pseudonyms. [Back to where you left off]