Sunday, May 25, 2008


People are thrown in jail because they are believed to be a menace to society. Many experts believe jail hardens an already hardened criminal and makes non-violent offenders aggressive and even more of a bad ass. Jose spent eight months in the big house for violating his probation. I know the kid from my neighborhood. He's 22, a latin guy with tattoos, but not very threatening looking. He called me a few times from Rikers Island. Jose never asked for anything. He always wanted to talk.

Most of the time he spent his days alone with no cellmates. He liked it that way. Jose told me he started reading a lot to pass the time. There was plenty of time to kill. He spent 23 hours each day in that dank cell in the middle of America's most populated penal institution. If you're lucky enough to get a window, you have great views of the skyline across the East River.

Jose never committed a violent crime. He decided to skip out on his probation officer for an earlier crime of distributing drugs, a felony. That landed him eight months at Rikers. I asked him if he met any killers. Jose says he met a cop killer, a baby killer and a gangster who killed for his criminal posse. "Did they keep those guys somewhere else?," I asked. Nope. "We're all neighbors," he said.

Rarely, he says, were there any problems. He says unlike the old days, guards ran a tight ship and kept everyone under control. Jose says there were days were he was scared and felt threatened and wanted to get out of his section of jail. The guards refused to move him. He knew the only way to get out was to fight his way out. He got into a fist fight, which landed him in another section of the prison. Unless you pull out a knife, he tells me, they generally don't add any more time to your sentence.

You'd think this kind of a day-to-day life would turn someone bad or make a bad apple even worse. Granted, Jose has only been out of jail for five days now, but he seems like a changed man. Jose was never a religious person, yet as a Colombian his family was Catholic and very devout. In his search for a soul, he turned not to the Bible, but to the Koran, the Muslim holy book. I asked him if he converted to Islam and he really hadn't. He just liked the lessons learned from the Koran. Because of stereotypes, I wondered what he thought of terrorists and specifically Muslim extremists. He told me the Koran doesn't endorse what they're doing and he thinks what they did to America on September 11th was not only a crime, but downright evil.

Now, five days out of Rikers and Jose already has a cellphone. He's applied for government assistance and is trying to reclaim thousands of dollars he believes the government owes him. He's also actively looking for a job and swears off drugs and even alcohol. Unlike, many graduates of the school of hard knocks, Jose appears to be heading down the right path and for him incarceration at one of America's toughest prisons may have actually done the trick. Jose tells me, "I'm not going back."

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