Hip Hop Corner
Breaking the chains
By Jineea Butler NNPA Columnist
Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York is in the news again, this time allegedly for officers brutalizing inmates. I did time at Rikers Island. Not, not as an inmate, thank God, but as an employee. It’s another world behind those bars, where only the strong survive.
I remember my first day on the job when my director told me, “Never let them see you sweat.” I thought what have I got myself into. The irony is when I was about 12, my mom and dad asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. I said, ‘I want to work in a jail!” Both of them had a Fred Sanford ‘Elizabeth, I’m coming’ moment.
They couldn’t fathom how they were raising their children in an upper middle-class neighborhood to keep my brother and I away from crime and criminals and I wanted to pursue a career in criminal justice.
My job was counselor of addiction treatment and my assignment was to create a mock therapeutic atmosphere for clients who were possibly eligible for an alternative to incarceration with a 12-24 month drug program. We had to organize groups daily for a house of 50 inmates, four times a day. The catch was even known every inmate voluntarily signed up to be in the program, though not many wanted to participate.
The word was that the Substance Abuse Intervention Division program (SAID) was more comfortable than general population and if you didn’t have an arson, murder or robbery charge, you could request to be in designated units. Former Mayor Bloom-berg has since eliminated the program, but it was definitely effective.
I’ve probably come in direct contact with more than 5,000 individuals who found them-selves on the island for one reason or another. I met Hip Hop Artists Chi Ali, Tony Yayo, and worked extensively with Flavor Flav, mapping out his return to the public eye. One thing is certain, once you have been touched by the system; you will never be the same.
I can proudly say I graduated from Rikers University because it wasn’t until I went behind those walls did I see the world clearly. Countless a-mounts of Black and Latino men came through those revolving doors, sometimes twice and even three times.
In many cases, the time represented a rite of passage for the younger guys and most of the older ones were caught up because of the sins of their youth. If a Caucasian or Asian got caught in the system, it was mostly because they were disconnected from their families. Some people need to be locked up no doubt, but the Correction in the Department of Corrections needs to happen, but in most cases it does not.
So many things hinder an inmate’s development that I began to wonder what it is all about. Population control at its finest; the practice of artificially altering the rate of growth of a human population.
The first thing I noticed was the dorm living quarters were set up like slave ships. You can immediately determine the de-sign is a replica of the bottom of the ships where the slaves in-famously laid side by side throughout the Trans Atlantic African Slave Trade.
The Bronx even has a ship on water that operates as one of the 10 jails. I realized two populations were locked up- the staff, which included me and the inmates or the overseers and the slaves. The inmates will tell you quick that you can go home, which was very true. The epiphany came when I realized that door locked behind me just like it does them and I was volunteering to be locked up everyday exposing my mind to this inhumane treatment whether delivering it or experiencing it.
The correction officers who easily could have been their cellmates are the ones who are affected the most. Some inmates were dangerous. The more time they had on the job, the more ruthless they would become.
I had officers who would try to circumvent my authority by disrupting my groups, instigating gang beef. I was a civilian, I didn’t have a gun or bullet proof vest on or sit in the ‘Bubble.’ Make no mistake the culture is corrupt.
The Stanford Experiment showed us back in 1971 the serious detriment and psychological torment that takes place between the prisoners and the guards.
Gary Heyward, an officer who worked with me during that time ended up doing two years in prison and wrote an excellent tell all book appropriately titled Corruption Officer which is being redistributed by a division of Simon and Schuster March 2015.
The only way of avoiding the experience is convincing our brothers and sisters to throw in the towel on the street game. Most are willing, as we see evidenced with Hip Hop artists who are no longer selling drugs for a living, but we have to present a viable alternative for those who feel the only way to survive is risking their lives on a daily basis for death or incarceration. And those of you who want another opportunity to be successful, present yourself in a manner that is acceptable to the audience you are presenting to. If you can learn how to turn it up, you can definitely turn it down.