Rikers Island Diary: Rat Poison, Criminal Insanity and Spectacular Sunsets

Rikers Island Diary: Rat Poison, Criminal Insanity and Spectacular Sunsets

An aerial view of the Rikers Island prison as seen September 24, 2010 in the Bronx borough of New York City

SourceDebra L Rothenberg/Getty

Why you should care

Because everyone on the outside wonders about life on the inside … and tends to get it wrong.

Altura Ewers is a veteran of the U.S. Army and a serial entrepreneur who has cofounded several high-tech start-ups in Silicon Valley and Germany.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

5 a.m. Feeding: damn nutrition-less Rice Krispies. Waited for the cloudscape to give way to the accustomed sunrise. What a great Lonely Planet addition I thought: “Rikers Island, sandwiched between the Bronx and Queens in the East River, boasts the world’s most spectacular sunrises and sunsets.” Disappointed, I drifted in and out of sleep under the muggy island air, blended by the rusty standing fan’s giant propellerlike blades. Seagulls screamed like broken glass as if they, too, smelled the aroma of baking bread. I had devised a method of speeding time by watching daily sunrises and sunsets, believing it triggered a subconscious mechanism. But with no way to measure or prove its existence, I simply enjoyed the illusion of perpetual twilight. Rikers Island sun sightings were extremely colorful, the sun’s palettes ranging in pinks, reds, oranges to coppers, mauves to deep purples, more magnificent than I’d seen anywhere in the world. I prided myself in the connoisseurship of sun sightings, having photographed from a glass-walled penthouse in Prenzlauer Berg, East Berlin, every sunrise and sunset of an astronomical year.

I looked at the Veterans of Foreign Wars calendar with North American songbirds and thought to myself, “We’ve more than passed the solstice, July half over, August will be fast, then summer is done.” I was certain my one-year minimum would expire without ever going to trial. The calendar, gifted by crazy Yakuza Kid, a uniquely puzzling specimen who always wore a black “Compton” T-shirt and proudly told anyone in broken English that he “bought it in Compton.” Yakuza Kid mysteriously identified the cerulean warbler in the calendar as the same bird integrated into his body tattoo on his right forearm. The photograph was unspectacular, but the tattoo was breathtaking. True to the warbler’s name, the tattoo artist captured the hues ranging in blue — cyan to azure to sky — whereas the calendar image was plain blue. I started feeling nostalgia again, which I used to fuel the impression that time was running out. The cerulean warbler had awoken my ears, and I listened to the morning songbirds like the world was new.

11 a.m. Greeted by a scorching yard, I skipped barbells due to soreness, so ran the track, flanked by the MO (mental observation) ward. With a discarded phobia of mentally insane criminals, I embraced them for the benefit of my curiosity. Among all manner of repulsives — child molesters, elder abusers, rapists and murderers — MOs were a particular treat. The way they would howl like werewolves, a combination of yelling, screaming and crying into the night. One had to wonder what made them scream: the “Turtles” (guards in riot gear) bludgeoning away or the psychiatric meds fuming their way out the body? Scary meds like Wellbutrin, Effexor, Lamictal, Buspar and Zyprexa. As I ran the track, I heard the same crazy unseen from yesterday, howling away a cappella: “NIGGERS SUCK MY DICK.” The loudness streamed in-out, choruslike, in a full crescendo of lunacy. As revolting as the words were, he was safe on Rikers Island, safe behind bars and insanity.

4 p.m. Feeding: Hot dogs instantly gave me diarrhea. The Black gladiator prisoner, whom I’d nicknamed Maximus Africanus, smuggled a bucket of ice into the dorm. We’re supposed to get ice after a certain temperature, but it never materialized. Within minutes, spotted by a Black female guard, it was immediately confiscated. No ice and hot as hell, drearily reminded me what I imagined a North Vietnamese prison camp would be like. Delroy, the crazy Jamaican child molester, went around asking “What’s the purpose of a jellyfish?” I had interviewed him at length, and one of the conversations echoed creepily in my ear: “I like to follow little girls and watch them.”

Guard Captain St. Remy, a petite light-skinned Haitian, teased Vince, the lanky Black Haitian-Nigerian witch-doctor-looking prisoner and dreadlocked Guayana Buckwheat about the MO prisoner the guards forcibly removed. “One was too skinny and one too fat, but both scared of MO,” she laughed in a creole accent. Vince, in revolutionary beard, paper thin from not eating mess hall food because he felt the workers were poisoning the food, stared into nothingness. Eerily it was revealed to be true when a prisoner saved food samples and smuggled them out to be analyzed; they contained rat poison.

The MO, Hispanic Shrek, Dominican, six-foot-two, bald, with the roundest potbelly I’d ever seen, as if impregnated by a combination of crazy meds and disgusting food, would stack mess trays, anything discarded, and spoon away like a pig at a trough. His head top was smallish; his mouth and jawbone protruded. His teeth, same-sized and chipped, filled his mouth, rodentlike. He had the “craziness in the eyes” look; a piece of ear was missing as if lost in a fight with a wild beast or with a crazier MO. He wore green corduroys ripped at the crotch, exposing his genitals. He yelled, threatened everyone and answered “Ay, Papi.” It had been too much, after days of warning the guards. Violence was the only thing DOC respected. They had to “kill Shrek.” They finally removed him after he got jumped by a gang of prisoners.

9 p.m. No sunset, but I sensed it traversing the horizon even as it rained violently with bright lightning strikes accompanied by loud thunderclaps. I laid back and enjoyed the Rikers Island stormy night symphony.

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