Reflection to the Book Inside Rikers
When I first picked up Inside Rikers by Jennifer Wynn, I could not help but notice a disturbing image of the book cover; it was an image of an inmate locked up in his cell; he had one hand holding the bar, while having the other hand out of the cell, with a cigarette in his hand. Then I read the Publisher Weekly’s description of the book in the cover page, which read, “a penetrating exploration of inmates’ lives in New York’s ‘vast penal colony’… unusually stirring.” Based on this image and Publisher Weekly’s description, I thought this book was going to talk about inmates’ involvement in criminal activities inside Rikers Island, i.e. fights between the prison gangs. Nevertheless, once I started reading, I came to realize my presumption was totally wrong. Prior to reading this book, I have been thinking that all criminals are just like any other “normal” persons in this world: they are smart people capable of making rational choices, and they, like “normal” people, have an equal opportunity to succeed, but they ended up being incarcerated because they made a “rational choice” to engage in criminal activities. Nevertheless, this book clearly and evidently proved to me how naive I had been. I did not take into account the factors, such as poor and devastated social environments in which criminals were born and raised, that leaves someone no other choice but to resort to criminal activities. Another thing I learned from this book is the importance of rehabilitation. In this reaction paper, I will discuss each of my reactions in depth.
Family and Opportunity
This book actually changed my perception about inmates and crimes. I came to realize how social factors (such as being raised under incapable and irresponsible guardians or having lack of opportunity) play a big factor when it comes to crime. Rico’s life, which left me heartbroken, clearly illustrated that to me. I thought it was devastating how he became alcoholic at the age of two due to his mother’s habit of mixing liquor in his baby bottles, supposedly to make him sleep or stop crying. He also started smoking weed by age eight, and his father did not stop him. As a matter of fact, his father’s idea of quality time with his son was “getting high on the weekends”. Moreover, his mother fled the country when he was thirteen. How can anyone be expected to live a successful, law-abiding life under these circumstances? (Wynn, pg. 115) As I was reading, I thought myself: if anyone, including myself, were raised in the environment in which Rico was raised, then no one probably would live a law-abiding life. Likewise, it left Rico no other choice but to enter the life of the criminals. I believe I had been really naïve to think that people like Rico chose to get involved in the criminal industry simply because they were lazy or did not seek legitimate opportunity like everyone else did Angel, like Rico, turned to criminal activities because of social factors. He simply lacked the opportunity to live a decent life. There was one thing he said that really moved my heart. He said he hated the fact that he was poor no matter how hard he worked; he could not even buy things that he wanted on TV, when others can buy it without any hesitation. As strain theorists would say, this frustration probably turned him to a conman (Wynn, pg. 8). If criminals like Rico and Angel had parents who sincerely took care of them, or who could actually provide the basic necessities for them, would they have ended up in Rikers Island? Probably not. Thus, I really felt bad for them and the circumstances under which they had to live.
The importance of Rehabilitation
To be honest, I did not believe in rehabilitation prior to reading this book. Instead, I was a big fan of crime control model; I believed that mass incarceration is the best form of punishment and deterrence. However, as L. Richards said, I came to realize that “one act of kindness will do more toward reforming a criminal than a thousand acts of cruelty and than all the punishment that you can inflict”. I believe rehabilitation programs such as Fresh Start are really great way to provide inmates with a true “fresh start”. For many inmates, it sparks a desire within them that led to a succession of accomplishments and I believe Carlos and Lenny are living proof that people can change and that good rehabilitation programs work (Wynn, pg.150) For Carlos, he not only mastered word processing but also learned Quark, which was sophisticated publishing software. His newly acquired skills led him to create massive database for the newsletter company and designed an award-winning website. He also trained other Fresh Start graduates to resolve their issues. Thus, it is evident that the rehabilitation program turned him from a drug dealer to a decent web-designer (Wynn, pg. 151). Likewise, Lenny received a job in a telemarketing company, which not only gave him the sense of accomplishment, but also made him realize that he can earn money by engaging in legal activities. I also liked how he became an inspiring figure to other inmates enrolled in the Fresh Start program, by telling them about how he has overcome his hardships after he was released from Rikers Island. Thus, these living proofs made me realize how important rehabilitation is. We, as a society, are busy blaming criminals for the crimes they commit, but we do not spend much time trying to help them live a straight, legitimate life (Wynn, pg.156). Nevertheless, there was one rehabilitation programs that I really oppose: it’s the Key Extended Entry Program (KEEP), which allows addicts to receive methadone throughout their period of incarceration, which averages forty-five days but an be up to a year or even eighteen months. As mentioned in Anthony’s article “Rikers Highland,” some inmates leave jails with a worse drug habit than they came in with (Wynn, pg.174).
Overall, this book changed my perception of inmates and the rehabilitation program. The inmate’s lives (especially the life of Rico) not only saddened me, it also made me feel that, based on their environment in which they were raised, they had no other choice but to become criminals, as if it were their destiny. I just hope more and more inmates take advantage of the rehabilitation program like “Fresh Start” to live a legitimate life after release.
Wynn, Jennifer. Inside Rikers: stories from the world's largest penal colony. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001. Print.