This essay was originally published as part of Killing Rikers, a larger investigation on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s promise of closing Rikers Island, New York’s infamous jail, in late June 2018. It was published by New York City Lens and earned the 2017 EPPY Award for Best College/University Investigative Documentary Report.
On February 20, 2016, the coldest month of the year, Junior Rodriguez sat on a bus and looked out the window. He was skinny and tall, and barely had enough clothes on to keep him warm. But the cold was the least of his problems. Things had happened in a way that, at age 19, he was heading to a place that scares even the strongest adults.
Junior thought about how he could have done things differently, but there was no getting off the bus, no return ticket. He looked down: His hands were cuffed. His feet were shackled. All he had was a few nickels in his pocket. The destination was Rikers, the nation’s second-largest jail.
Despite reforms over time, young people of color continue to flow into New York City jails, and though this sad parade will diminish, it will continue even after the latest reform, the so-called Raise the Age law, which takes effect in 2018. Under Raise the Age, 16- and 17-year-olds accused of misdemeanors will be sent to Family Court, diverting them from criminal convictions. But felonies even at these ages will still start in adult Criminal Court, in a new section called the “Youth Part,” with judges trained in Family Court law.
Experts say the new law could prevent more than 17,000 teens, aged 16-17, from facing adult criminal punishment. But it leaves some 5,000 young men and women older than 17 but under 21 with a largely unchanged fate.
Even if the reform had passed before his troubles began, Junior would have been in that group. He would have ended up on the same bus with the same destination. The law would have changed nothing of what was about to happen.
Junior was around five when he moved to 170th Street in the Bronx. “I was raised by my mother. My father was never around,” he said. “My mom was a single mother, so I pushed to be the man of the house.” As soon as they got to the Bronx, he said, he began having street fights. “I was like six and my brother and I used to get jumped every day. I gained respect fighting every day.” The street where he grew up is studded with surveillance cameras, more than six in less than three blocks. The neighborhood has more than 160 daily arrests, according to city data. The South Bronx is the second-largest provider of prisoners for New York State.
Junior played basketball passionately, mostly in a small court near his house. He was good at the game, even by the high standards of the Bronx. “I actually could’ve gone somewhere,” he said. “But a lot of things went crashing.”
By age 11 he had been kicked out of school. Junior says the assistant principle at his school had taken that job right after working in Spofford, the juvenile prison in the Bronx that was shut down in 2011 after years of abuse allegations. According to Junior, the man brought with him some practices from the detention center. “Y’all are fucking my school up. I’ll fuck y’all up,” Junior remembers hearing. One day, Junior threw a chair at the man and got expelled. In the Child Behaviour Problem Index, he was categorized as Class E Antisocial, a designation for young kids who have trouble getting along with teachers. (Students who are suspended or expelled are three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system in the following year, according to a study by the ACLU. In 2016, there were 262 “child in crisis” incidents in which handcuffs were used. In 99 percent of those cases, the children involved were Black or Latino.)
At 13, Junior was smoking pot and coming home at four in the morning. “All the guys on my block were older than me. I was the youngest,” Junior said. He looked up to them. He liked their sneakers, their clothes, the money that they had, the girls they were with. So at 13, he was already affiliated with a gang.
“To this day, I don’t understand the logic of how I was living like that,” he said. Eventually he stopped going to school. “I was in junior year with freshman credits. It was that bad,” he said. “I got kicked out of school on a Tuesday. My mom kicked me out of my house on a Thursday. My mother is not the best mother.”
At 14, Junior was homeless.
He was in fights every week—with enemies, with enemies of friends. “I started to notice that something’s wrong,” Junior said. “Something is really, really wrong.”
He was living the fast life. “I didn’t have nobody. I needed money. I was living by the day,” he said. “One day, I started selling dope. My whole life changed.”
Soon he had saved enough to rent his own apartment. For a while, his life became what he had hoped it would: He spent his money on parties, girls, shoes, and any other thing a teenager would spend money on. Time slipped by.
One morning at 7 a.m., Junior’s phone started ringing. He was sleeping in his house and it rang again and again. By the time he woke up, he had dozens of missed calls, all from his mother. “I knew something was wrong,” he said.
— The cops came here looking for you. What the hell is going on? his mother asked.
— Ma, I’ll call you another day, Junior told her, and hung up.
Weeks before, a man had his phone stolen and, when he updated his iCloud to another device, pictures started loading. Junior was in some of them. The man identified Junior as one of the robbers. Junior heard about it. “I threw a smoke-fest and then I turned myself in,” he said.
He was charged with armed robbery, among other, less serious counts. The minimum sentence was five years. (Again, the Raise the Age law, would not have helped him, as it does not protect young adults accused of violent felonies such as this one, or 19-year-olds like Junior.)
He stood in front of the judge. He was nervous. He knew that his life was going to change in that moment. Bail was set at $7,500. “Nobody wanted to pay it, nobody,” he said. “My mother, my friends, nobody had money for me.” He hadn’t saved a dollar of what he made in the years before, so he couldn’t pay it either. (Nine in 10 people are unable to pay bail to avoid jail, according to the 2017 Lippman Report on the fate of Rikers Island, which includes proposals for bail and pre-trial detention reforms.)
On February 20, 2016, Junior was sent to the Vernon C. Bain Maritime Facility, better known as “The Boat”—a floating jail on the East River that houses up to 800 medium-to-maximum-security prisoners. Rikers Island, he quickly learned there, has a code of violence.
“They left me there,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about jail. It was my first time.”
- All clothes off, turn around, bend over and cough, an officer told Junior.
- I’m not doing that! he answered.
The officer laughed. It was Junior’s first experience getting strip searched.
New York has the third-largest juvenile population in the nation. The city currently jails more than 1,000 young adults, according to the Lippman Commission. The great majority of those are 18- to 20-year-old Black or Latino men—just like Junior. (Youth in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide, 50 percent more likely to face an armed attack from another incarcerated person, and twice as likely to face physical or sexual assault than those in juvenile detention facilities, according to a report from the Correctional Association of New York, an advocate for the Raise the Age law.)
But when he first came in, Junior wasn’t put with people his age. “I was with adults,” Junior said. “These people were 25- to 26-year-olds, grown men, looking at you like, ‘What’s up little man?” Junior was a fast learner. He watched how others lived, and he got close to people who had power within the jail. “That’s the key: Adapt. You have to adapt. If you think about the outside world, you’re going to die in there,” he said.
After some weeks, he was sent to the George Motchan Detention Center on Rikers Island. The building houses 18- to 21-year-olds. “When I got to the Island, everybody bailed on me. My mom, everybody,” Junior said. His only visitor was his girlfriend, Tasha. Most of Junior’s calls were for her too.
Survival, he said, became near impossible without affiliating with a gang. “If you’re neutral, you’re a nobody,” Junior said. “You have no say.” By the time he turned 20, he was affiliated. Within less than nine months, Junior says, he had gone as high as he could go in Rikers underworld. “I got so caught up in there that it came to a point where I had the building,” Junior said, “In jail, for you to be good and live comfortably, unfortunately, that’s what you gotta do… unfortunately.”
He didn’t know when or if he could get out of Rikers, which made the wait worse. “I had to stay there until they decided what they wanted to do with me—go upstate or go home,” Junior said. The possibility of not getting out made him push harder to prove that he could survive in a place where fear dictates above all.
“What’s that word?” he asked, trying to describe this period in his life. “There’s a certain word for losing yourself.”
Your men just got beat up! Junior was outside playing basketball when the fight broke out and people started screaming. He ran upstairs to check on his friends and, he said, as he walked back, 30 people from a rival gang jumped him. The beating lasted a while. “The guards didn’t do anything,” Junior said.
On another occasion, he says, he got stabbed in the right arm. (In a 2014 report, former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara denounced a “systematic culture of violence” against and within adolescents in Rikers.) “In Rikers there’s no rehabilitation, because you’re surrounded by gang affiliation, so you’re still if the hood,” Junior said. “It’s worse, though, way worse.”
Junior met all kinds of people in Rikers—people who were there fighting murder cases; people who were going to be behind bars for life; people who said they had done nothing to be there. “It was like a wakeup call,” Junior said. He was afraid of becoming someone—like many of those he met—who had lost the fear of staying in jail. He was scared of missing out on what was going on outside. And also of the feeling that he belonged in jail more than he belonged home.
The sun was not up yet on December 16, 2016. Junior took a shower and put on fresh clothes. The correctional officers handcuffed him and put him on a bus that would take him to court.
He sat in the holding cell, tapping his toes, impatient. He stared around, looked at the others all around him. He had been brought to court more than five times since his indictment but each time he had been sent back. Hours went by and nothing happened. “I’m in there talking to God —‘You think I deserve to go home or not?’” Junior thought, “Thats how real it is, you start talking to God, you talk to yourself.”
Finally, in the winter of 2016, the gates opened. “I can’t really explain to you how it feels,” Junior said. “I get goosebumps.” His friends were waiting for him. They were talking, laughing. Junior saw them but he walked away. “You see movies where they exaggerate, like they’re taking the greatest walk of their life?” Junior asked, “That’s how it felt. It was cold, really cold, but that didn’t bother me at all. I just walked. I took my time.”
As often happens, the district attorney in Junior’s case had negotiated a plea deal. The judge put Junior in the hands of the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES) and assigned him to an alternative-to-detention program. These programs aim to help young adults find jobs, complete their education, and build family engagement.
Gangs have a tradition of recruiting vulnerable youth from a young age and they have been doing precisely that in Brentwood High School. “Everyone there is in some gang. They gain money and respect,” Abel said, as he walked through the dark streets of Brentwood. “They’ve asked me to recruit, but I didn’t come all the way here to do that,” he added.
Junior went straight to his mother’s house. He knocked on the door, covering the peephole.
—Who is it? she asked
—The one and only, Junior said
—First of all, the ‘one and only’ is my son and he’s in jail. Second of all, your voice is too deep, she replied.
When she finally opened the door, his mother hugged him and cried. Even so, she didn’t let him stay in the house after that night. He thought, “Wait, but you’re my family. You’re just throwing me under the bus, knowing that I’m trying to change my life?”
In a couple of weeks he got used to being out of jail, got used to the old neighborhood. But the rules had changed. The program he had been assigned to had clear rules: No smoking, for one thing. For another, he had to go back to school and start an internship.
On his first court day after his reléase, Junior stood in front of the judge, thinking everything would be fine. It wasn’t. Since his release, he had smoked weed and skipped school, along most of the duties that came with the program. “I didn’t know how to act,” he said. Around 80 percent of juveniles released from adult facilities re-offend.
“When I saw the judge, he’s like, ‘You’re dirty and not going to the program? I’ll send you upstate right now. Blink wrong and I’ll send you upstate right now, in front of your loved ones. Next time you come to my courtroom and it’s not marvelous, you’re out of here,’” Junior recalled.
“Life is all about choices: you make a good one, you get good results. You make a bad one and you could get good results but, watch it now, you might get a bad one too,” Junior said.
He is still skinny, although not like he was before Rikers. He looks like a teen but speaks like an adult. And now, at 21, society expects him to act like one.
“I just got home. I’m only 21 yet I have no GED, no job record at all,” he said. Every year, the City of New York incarcerates approximately 200 adolescents and 1,100 young adults. All but one of Junior’s friends have been or still are in the prison system, with a similar situation.
But he at least has a toehold. Five Mualimm-Ak took Junior as an intern in the Incarcerated Nation Corp., a nonprofit that creates and manages a number of projects in New York State that benefit formerly incarcerated people. “In New York, kids lose their innocence,” Mualimm-Ak said. “Police start looking them as adults but they’re kids. They lose their childhood.”
Since that first court appearance, Junior has done everything in his power to stay free. “If I fuck up the program, I go back for five years. It has me scared, I don’t want to go back,” he said. So at his second court appearance, the judge was satisfied.
His biggest challenge now, he says, is getting stable. “It’s hard when you have no income. My bill just got cut off. Right now, I could go pick up dope, sell it, and get back,” Junior said. “But I’m not trying to do that. I’m trying to go the positive way.”
As tough as things have been for him, Junior prefers to focus on the bright side of his story: “I’m glad I got locked up,” he said. “I needed that experience to wake up. I needed some time out.”
Recently, as he walked around the streets that raised him, people came around. They hugged him. He smiled. How are you, Junior? Are you behaving good? Be good! they told him.
“Everything’s basically the same. I changed… I changed, that’s it,” Junior said. “Nothing changes in this world unless you make it change.”
Junior still owes money to the court and any misstep, including not paying those bills, will send him back to Rikers. He is on the line and will continue to be, at least for the next five years.
Junior didn’t know, when asked, what the Raise the Age law was. And in fact, if it had been in effect, it wouldn’t have changed anything for him. It wouldn’t have changed anything for Kalief Browder either, the former Rikers’ prisoner who killed himself at age 21 after long stretches in solitary, as documented in The New Yorker. The Lippman Report, which makes the case for shutting down Rikers, also makes the case for treating young offenders differently. “Youth charged with a crime should be treated as the young people they are,” reads the report. “We believe that many of these young defendants merit a second chance.”
Junior’s felony is always going to be on his record, making him inelegible for unemployment benefits, for example. There’s no chance of getting his record sealed, and a lifelong criminal record creates enormous barriers to employment, education, housing, and public benefits. From an early age, a barrier has been set so high that it diminishes Junior’s chances to turn his life around, even if he remains crime free. “He was a kid going in, and an adult going out,” Mualimm-ak said. “One mistake and he goes back to Rikers.”
“You need somebody’s support and I don’t have anybody’s support,” Junior said, “I have my girl but that could change any day. I could get a text right now saying, ‘Listen, I don’t want to be with you anymore,’ and that’s it. I’m back outside. It’s tough.”
Junior, though, is determined. “I feel like I’m starting from scratch… again,” he said. “But this time is harder because I’m going the positive way, and going the positive way is the long way.”