The Pages of Life

It lies between a sewage disposal plant and La Guardia Airport. "It" is Riker's Island—a dreaded name to New Yorkers, synonymous with maximum security; isolation; bleak, barred buildings; 12-foot mesh fences topped with razor-edged curlicues of steel that can slice a hand to bits.

Riker's Island is the jail of New York City. It houses 10,000 prisoners. One out of four has been sentenced; three out of four await trial or some other disposition of their cases. Relatively few people know where the island lies or have ever seen it because access to it—a lone, long causeway—is heavily guarded.

I never go there without reflecting on its symbolic location: between a sewage disposal plant of a society that perceives the inmates of Riker's as the trash of the city, and the airport, scene of unceasing mobility, escape, freedom. I never go there without frustration at a system that makes it almost as hard for a volunteer to get in as for an inmate to get out. I never go there without realizing that, given any one of innumerable scenarios quite out of my control, I could be inside instead of outside.

I am sitting now in a room with 20 women inmates as Maureen McCormack conducts a journaling workshop. One woman weeps often. She is older than most, in her 40s, I'd say, and this is her first incarceration. It has interrupted a long-deferred course in nursing, and who knows whether she can ever pick it up again.

The woman to my right has those badly scarred, swollen hands which indicate a long history of drug use. One woman limps heavily, her right leg being several inches shorter than her left. Corrective surgery would have undoubtedly remedied this condition had she been born into other circumstances. Most of the women have been in and out of jails and prisons. All have hopes and dreams. All have people dear to them "on the outside."

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