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Breaking the chains: Learning to turn it up so you can turn it down

Jineea Butler | 7/28/2014, 12:17 p.m.
Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York is in the news again, this time allegedly for officers brutalizing inmates. I ...

(NNPA) – 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. No, 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 grew 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 me 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 that 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 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 Bloomberg 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 themselves 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 not until I went behind those walls did I see the world clearly. Countless amounts of Black and Latino men came through those revolving doors, sometimes two 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 Correction 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 design is a replica of the bottom of the ships where the slaves infamously 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 every day exposing my mind to this inhumane treatment whether delivering it or experiencing it.