Anyone who has anything to do with Rikers Island knows the building I’m in. It’s three stories tall, as wide as a Walmart, and occupies the former headquarters of the Bulova Watch Company in Jackson Heights, Queens. As I enter and as I leave this orientation session and fingerprinting, I notice massive plaster recreations: a Nereid from (I read on the label) the Neireid Monument at Xanthos in Lycia, and two caryatids from the Parthenon (these I recognize on my own). I’m betting it’s the Bulova folks who put these in.
The majority of the seminar unfolds in a neat conference room with blue carpeting and clean, see-through windows looking on a cublicled floor, maybe five hundred feet by a thousand across.
“I always have fun, whether I’m inside or out,” says a man in a tattered letterman jacket, sitting to my right and almost shouting even though the room, occupied by about twenty people, is silent. “I always try to have fun. When I’m in prison, I definitely have fun.”
A woman with a drooping disfigured face (the pockmarks are possibly congenital but look like acid burns to me) says without moving her head, “the devil tries to snap you,” as a response. I have my work notebook out. My work notebook is the thirty last blank pages in my massive hardcover sugarcane-cardboard notebook from my college senior project on Plutarch of Chaeronea. I flip through some lines, out of boredom. My handwriting, perhaps intensified by speed, was millimeter-thin in senior year, entirely written in sharp lines of blue ink: “ ‘visual shapes emanating from boys’ and women enter the body and produce seed.”
Ms. Sharif, Director of Volunteer Services for the New York City Department of Correction, has scheduled the orientation for Rikers Island volunteers at 9:00 am. On the day I attend, orientation doesn’t begin until 10. At noon, I plan to drive straight from New York City to Boulder, Colorado, with four friends who, as I wait in this conference room, wait for me to tell them that I’m out.
Here is an actual quote from the orientation, written on a projector screen and recited verbatim by Ms. Sharif:
“Safety is of the utmost importance, it helps keep the entire facility safe.”