Prison Palette

Prison Palette

Prison Palette
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

An impressionist portrait of a worship service with men on Rikers Island


Athletic vitality invites gym walls of vivid colors, players spilling onto courts with crimson tones fitting coming contests yet pale walls circumscribe this setting, matching well-worn olive sweatshirts, khaki pants and lemon tees as men of subdued spirit shuffle in beneath torn net strands, symbols of their fall.


A distant desk is haven for chitchat guards whose walkie-talkie crackle reminds us where we are as if  skyward razor wire along sides of narrow lanes had not lodged in prescient minds. Shy hands shake. Wan smiles spread. Humility pervades sorrow clouds. “What March Madness team you like?!” is one’s unfocused call.


By rote they greet, then gather a closet’s brittle chairs of fiberglass that add one more indignity to jail. Don’t such irritations smother men in spirit whom we might otherwise reform? “The man who has a conscience suffers while acknowledging his sin,” which was punishment enough, to Dostoevsky.


Our nine of Rikers’ six thousand comprise hard and soft men. A professed “businessman, rapper and entrepreneur who played pro basketball in Italy and pays workers fair wages” casts parting pleas like fishing lines. “I did violent hate crimes against homosexuals and dykes” an orange-capped man mutters.


The Chaplain Rabbi who rushed through Hebrew prayers merely went through motions as if he didn’t care – although one among us rose, declared she had a teaching as she looked each man in the eye. Her voice was clear and calm, the lesson was concise. At times we see the face of God that as well can be concealed as if a star in sky.


That star however small can shine inside the heart whose beat endures through trying times, an engine to sustain you on the path past your mistake. Mentor one another. Help yourselves mature. In this space you’ve raised your self-esteem. Now invite into your life the One who is Supreme.


Contentious men close ears outside that once within attune with empathy and interest to tales that tell of patterned conflicts and mistakes. Patient grace around the circle gifts each inside man his listened due in what becomes more therapy than worship, the clearly greater need.


As half an hour flows through fingers, what may these men preserve? They shuffle out as they came in, no services await. Mayor Adams cut out trade skill training, cognitive behavioral therapy, drug relapse prevention and anger management, the Fortune Society reveals. Rikers as a modern medieval jail assaults and overcrowds. Men defend themselves from guards or languish in the Bing. No tolling bells nor unfurled flags for thirty dead before their day in court.


Did dictionaries delete rehabilitation, redemption or reentry? Society condemns these men. Where lies our moral core? We with blinders on pursue our daily chores, aflutter from the gossip of our politics with its egos, greed and lies. Preoccupied with soaps or scores, we fail to hear the cries of those whose freedoms’ forfeit with their rights each day denied.


I’ve testified at hearings. I’ve rallied through the scalding sun, cascading snow or pelting rain. I’ve networked with survivors, internalizing pain. The Case Review Team law will safely set insiders free Council Member Restler told me in our synagogue last year – with nothing done, Comptroller Lander last month made the New York Jewish Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform aware. “We’ve done all we can on Rikers,” Council Member Hanif declared when I approached her in the street, but the intransigence of political bureaucracy will not prompt defeat.

Rikers Island, in New York City’s East River, is at 413 acres among the world’s largest prison facilities. Six thousand pretrial detainees – half with mental health diagnoses – endure an average three years in decrepit dangerous settings at yearly per person public costs of $556,000 (as per the Comptroller’s August 2023 finding). Mayor Eric Adams rejects the borough-based jails construction plan that the Council passed into law to facilitate Rikers Island’s closure.

Its population grows.

About the Author

Michael McQuillan

Michael McQuillan is a former US Senate aide, Peace Corps Volunteer, and history teacher for 19 years. He also chaired the NYPD Training Advisory Council’s Race Subcommittee in the aftermath of the killing of Eric Garner. The Write Launch has published Mike’s poetry and Creative Nonfiction.