Sitting at my computer this morning, scrolling around the news sites, drinking iced coffee, eating smoked salmon and heirloom tomatoes on a toasted pumpernickel bagel - suddenly the thought of the guys I'll be talking with tonight came to mind. I'll be doing volunteer service at The Tombs (The Manhattan Detention Complex) this evening. I'm contemplating what they eat for breakfast; what kind of morning they're having inside those cold, austere institutional walls, as the temperatures outside climb.
For a couple of hours tonight, two of my buddies and I will surrender our civilian rights to the NYC corrections system, and be let into the bowels of an ugly, windowless 1970s institutional building. We'll share our experience with the inmates who show up, and try to bring them a message of strength and hope. Attendance is voluntary, usually 5 to 10 guys will show up.
When I first started doing this, around 10 years ago, I was more than a little uncomfortable, a little scared, and felt very self-conscious (what should I wear? how should I talk? should I hide my orientation, or pretend to be something I'm not?). My impression is that most of the inmates we see are just guys down on their luck. Guys who were caught doing stupid things, things I might have done myself, but was saved from having any legal consequences because of dumb luck or white priviledge. The injustice and racial disparity of the judicial system is very plain when you're inside the belly of the beast. Of course, there are hardened criminals too, but the disproportionate amount of poor, disconsolate run-of-the-mill joes is a disturbing and grim reality. Glaringly evident is the lack of mental health services inside the system. A number of the inmates are simply mentally unstable and have wound up incarcerated as a result.
Those who show up are usually so grateful, it's almost heartbreaking. They know we've volunteered our time to come see them and talk to them, and they seem so happy anyone has gone out of their way to give them any attention. I can't begin to know what it must feel to be so isolated and apart; relegated to a community the majority of our culture wants treated as animals, a faction of which actually act as such, and the fear and stress of having to be forced to live among them in such awful conditions. I imagine they feel forgotten and hopeless. Ultimately, my experience has often been both sad and surprisingly rewarding.
Here is a 1905 photo of the Bridge of Sighs, the covered walking bridge that connects the NYC criminal courts building to the original Manhattan detention complex (the tombs), on Center Street downtown.