By Malik Figaro and Aryanna Qusba
I handed my last 10 dollars to the ticket agent. The sign read in bold, “$1 per bus ticket.”
I needed these bus tickets to make it to a job agency. There, with a little luck, a good interview and an open position, I might have a shot at regaining some semblance of the life I had before going to jail.
“How many bus tickets would you like?” the man asked.
“Five please,” I said, handing him $10. If I spent $5 on bus tickets, I would still have enough left to buy a hot meal that evening, I calculated.
“Here you go,” the agent said with a sly smile. He handed me five red tickets. “Do you need anything else?”
“No, thank you. But I think you forgot my change.”
“No I didn’t. It’s $10 for five.”
I pointed to the sign. His expression didn’t change.
“You asked for five tickets and I gave you five tickets. Please exit or I will be forced to call security.”
Frustrated, I took a few deep breaths. I knew if I lost my temper and the police got involved, I would violate my probation.
I shoved the tickets into my pocket and glanced at my watch. I had to meet my probation officer uptown in 12 minutes. Slapping my hand down on the counter, I looked the man in the eye. “Alright man, keep the change.”
Increasing awareness about incarceration
This experience captures what it was like to participate in the “Reinventing ReEntry” simulation during our school’s Service Day in late April.
The interactive simulation was led by the Osborne Association, which supports former inmates. The exercise aimed to give Friends Seminary’s upper school students a taste of the challenges formerly incarcerated individuals face when trying to reintegrate into society.
Students were assigned profiles of former inmates. The profiles were fictitious but reflected realities that many former prisoners face.
Many lacked proper documentation to apply for government benefit programs. Some did not have proper housing to return to after leaving prison. Others lacked educational credentials needed to get a job.
The Osborne Association set up stations to mimic the types of government agencies that provide aid to former inmates. The agents, played by our teachers, were often unkind, judgmental and unfair.
Of course, nothing we experienced during the simulation could compare to the challenges that former prisoners face. But the exercise did shed light on the many barriers prisoners and their families face, both during and after time in prison.
The system’s “hidden victims”
Luis Hernandez is a young prison reform activist who focuses on improving the experiences and treatment of incarcerated youth.
When Hernandez was 16, his brother Pedro was wrongfully incarcerated and spent one year in Rikers Island Jail, which is located on an island between the New York boroughs of Queens and the Bronx.
Although Pedro, then a juvenile, was supposed to be housed in areas for youths, he spent his 12 months in the same facilities as men in their 30s, many of whom had violent criminal records.
Pedro’s incarceration had a huge impact on Hernandez and his family. “We feel the impact just as strong as the incarcerated,” he said. He refers to the families of inmates as the “hidden victims” of the criminal prosecution system.
Pedro’s arrest meant the loss of a brother, son, role model and caretaker. It meant visits to Rikers that were short but costly. And it entailed huge payments to lawyers.
Guards sprayed a toxic gas on inmates.
“We already grew up in the poorest district of our area,” Hernandez said. This system of youth incarceration “puts barriers in place to prevent families from seeing their loved ones.”
Not only is it expensive to travel to jail and prison facilities, but the inmates are often taken to prisons in remote areas of upstate New York that are far from their family homes.
Consequently, many families cannot make regular visits, leaving the incarcerated feeling isolated and abandoned.
What is more, inmates can be scarred by the violent conditions they experience in prisons. Many suffer mental health problems as a result.
After one fight broke out in Rikers during his brother’s detention, guards tried to quell the violence by spraying the prisoners with toxic gases that are used to sedate bears, Hernandez said. The remoteness of the prisons and the violent conditions can “hinder young people’s way out of the hood,” Hernandez said.
A healthier alternative
Hernandez has used his brother’s incarceration as a starting point for change.
He has become involved in New York’s Raise the Age campaign, which seeks to raise the age at which individuals are considered adults in the criminal justice system.
In 2018, the first phase of the Raise the Age law took effect. Now, New York state no longer automatically charges all 16-year-olds as adults. In October 2019, the law will apply to 17-year-olds.
These inmates are still teenagers.
Hernandez has also been pushing for the relocation of incarcerated teenagers from Rikers Island to the Horizons Juvenile Center in the Bronx.
Inmates at Horizons still serve time. There are security measures in place — such as a red and green light system to indicate when they are in or out of their cells — that restrict and control their movements.
But Horizons offers a healthier atmosphere than traditional prisons. Its cafeteria, for example, includes an expansive, colorful mural that covers an entire wall.
Those working at Horizons are keenly aware that the inmates are still teenagers, and they try to ensure these individuals will have future opportunities.
Hernandez was called to action by his brother’s arrest. “It hit me hard, which is why I was so upset and why I pushed for change because of my brother’s situation.”
“I shared a room with him,” he said. “So I felt the emptiness in my room when I got home every day from school and he wasn’t there. He was the person who woke me up, and so that … made me wake up every day and think, ‘Wow, my brother’s in jail. I can’t imagine what he’s going through right now.’”
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To read about New York’s Raise the Age campaign, click here.
To read New York’s roadmap for closing Rikers Island Prison, click here.
Malik Figaro is a student at Friends Seminary high school in New York. After learning about issues relating to mass incarceration this year, he began writing for News-Decoder to share stories of people affected by incarceration. Figaro is a painter and uses this medium as well as writing to increase awareness about social issues.
Aryanna Qusba is also a student at Friends Seminary. The new leader of the school’s service committee, Qusba is keen to help enrich the service program for students and the community. This year she has contributed to the development of the school service theme, mass incarceration, which served as the inspiration for her first News-Decoder article..