By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
As a columnist whose work has no redeeming social value, which has no doubt contributed to the decline of the newspaper industry, I knew it was only a matter of time before my journalistic crimes landed me in jail. I just didn’t think I would end up on Rikers Island.
But New York City’s famous maximum-security prison is exactly where I found myself recently after I was asked by a teacher – not sentenced by a judge – to spend a day at the facility. The purpose of my visit was to address three writing classes at Horizon Academy, a school for detainees in their teens and 20s.
When I asked the teacher, Martin Flaster, how to get to Rikers Island, he said, "Rob a bank." Of course, a bank is the last place to go for money these days, but I knew I was in for a memorable time.
Mary Runyan, a secretary at Horizon Academy, picked me up at the guard post and drove me over the Francis R. Bruno Memorial Bridge (the word "memorial" made me nervous) to the 400-acre site, which sits in the East River near LaGuardia Airport.
"I feel safer here than I would at a regular high school," Runyan said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because," she replied calmly, "there are no guns here."
That made me feel better, and although Runyan didn’t mention knives, shivs, blades or other dangerous weapons, I was sure the inmates had more to fear from me, at least psychologically, than I did from them. I figured a day of listening to me talk about writing would have most of them begging for solitary confinement.
It was only when I was escorted in and heard a barred door lock behind me that I thought: "Uh-oh."
As it turned out, I could not have felt more welcome or comfortable. Gloria Ortiz, principal of Horizon Academy, and her entire staff, including Flaster and senior program specialist Cherie Braxton, were wonderful. So were the guards. The inmates I passed in the halls were respectful. Some even said, "Good morning." Others just ignored me. So, unfortunately, do most people on the outside.
I am not some bleeding heart (I hate the sight of my own blood), so I believe that if you do the crime, you should do the time. And the crimes here can be pretty serious. Let me put it this way: Nobody goes to Rikers Island for jaywalking.
But the young men in Horizon Academy, which has about 300 students in six buildings, haven’t been convicted of anything. True, they have been charged with various offenses and most of them are awaiting trial. And even though they are officially called detainees, they get locked up like all the other inmates. But they are in school, some to improve their literacy skills and others to get their general equivalency diplomas.
I met the first class at 11 a.m. in the school annex. The group was so large (36 students) that it had to be held in a hallway, where desks were lined up against both walls. This didn’t bother me because I’m off the wall, so instead of standing at one end, I walked among the students and talked about different kinds of writing. A student named Emerson asked if I could write a rap song.
"Well," I said, "my initials are J.Z., which makes me a rapper."
"Let’s hear one," said Urena, another student.
I happily obliged: "My name’s J.Z. and I love to rap. / Unfortunately, I sound like crap."
It was politely suggested that I shouldn’t quit my day job.
Then I read one of three columns I had sent to the school before my visit. It was a recent piece in the form of a letter to President Barack Obama, from one family man to another, giving the new commander-in-chief advice on moving into the White House and what to do when he gets his two young daughters the puppy he promised them.
The students applauded when I finished, and not because they were glad it was over. I felt good about the session, but the other two went more smoothly because they were smaller and were held in classrooms.
Teacher John Parada’s English class had eight students: Danny, Cary, Adam, Kenny, Donovan, Travis, Martinez and Anonymous. They were engaging, sharp and interested in writing. They also had good senses of humor.
"How do you know when to use a colon?" asked Travis, setting me up for a bathroom joke.
When I read my Obama column, which contained the story of the time I called the White House to see if then-President George W. Bush would declare my younger daughter’s room a federal disaster area, Adam asked, "Did you really call Bush?"
"Yes," I told him.
"Man," Adam said, smiling and shaking his head, "you’re crazy."
"Thank you," I replied. "I was dropped on my head as a child."
Cary said I was "cool," adding: "For your age."
When I said I’m 55, Kenny, also known as "Tornado," commented: "You don’t look that old."
The class was fun – we talked about humor, fiction, nonfiction, language and editing – and went by quickly. When it was over, Martinez, a poet, asked if he could send me some of his work. "Of course," I said. I hope he does.
After a late lunch in another building, I spoke to the third group, Martin Flaster’s English class, which consisted of Eduardo, Lil Haye, Strictly 50, Lorenzo, Fever, HOV, James, B.B., Naquan and Leon, who used to live in my hometown of Stamford. Teacher and site coordinator Leila Riley helped Flaster conduct the class.
These students also were sharp and engaging. And creative: Instead of listening to me read my column, Eduardo, also known as "A-Rod," suggested that each student read a paragraph out loud. Around the room went the column, provoking laughs, chuckles and smiles.
"Good job," Eduardo said to his classmates when they were finished.
Lorenzo said to me, "You did a good job, too." The class laughed. Then he read an essay he had written. It was a letter to a young woman that Lorenzo said "could be" autobiographical. It was eloquent and touching.
James and Leon talked about books that are made into movies, with Leon saying that the film adaptations usually aren’t as good as the books because "a lot of stuff has to be left out."
At one point, James politely criticized my word choice when, in explaining the differences between writing and other professions, I said that airplane pilots need degrees to fly. "That’s wrong," James noted. "They need certificates."
"I stand corrected," I said.
"You mean you sit corrected," Lorenzo remarked. More laughter.
At the end of the class, Eduardo said to me, "You were really good because you were honest with us."
Flaster said the students would write essays about the session and send them to me. Then he asked if I would keep in touch. "Yes," I promised.
As I told the guys in each of the three classes, "potential" is one of the most overused words in the English language, but it applies to them because they all have it. I said they should use it in a positive way so they can improve their lives, adding: "If an idiot like me can make it, there’s hope for you."
To the charge of enjoying my day in prison, I plead guilty. Since the staff of Horizon Academy didn’t consider me a bad influence on the students, and the students seemed to agree, I would definitely go back. And I wouldn’t even have to rob a bank.
Copyright 2009 by Jerry Zezima