KAI: Hey everybody, so this will be the THIRD and final installment in the special three part series we’ve been presenting over the past few weeks -- and so what you’re about to hear will make a ton more sense if you first, go back and listen to the previous two parts in your feed. They’re just the immediate past two episodes. This series is excerpted from a podcast that we made a couple years ago, called Caught. It’s about the ways in which young people who need help, instead get trapped inside courts and jails and prisons. There are clearly a lot more people thinking about the ways that policing and criminal justice function in our communities today, so we decided to revisit one of the stories we told in Caught. It’s the story of one young man, and his journey through the system.
[THEME MUSIC STARTS]
KAI: Where we left off in the previous episode, he had just gotten out of Rikers, out on parole, and he was about to make a really classically teenage-brained mistake, but hugely consequential one. We pick up the story from there. I’m Kai Wright. This is The United States of Anxiety in a special presentation of Caught.
Z: Everyday I wake up, everytime I go to sleep I think about being locked up. I be having dreams.
J: And what happens in the dreams?
Z: I just picture myself being remanded. They putting those tight handcuffs on me and bringing me to the back room locking me in the cell, and I’m doing time.
KAI: And then he did get arrested. He says it was the stupidest thing he’d ever done.
JARED: When Z got re-arrested, he’d been out for 7 months. Things were a bit bumpy at first. But since then, he stopped smoking weed, he landed a summer internship at a law firm, and he had a big rap competition coming up.
Z: [rapping].... That’s all I got.
JARED: That’s all you got? What you mean?
Z: I just started writing yesterday. I thought of this like 2 in the morning. I was tired.
JARED: Z felt vindicated. To him, these improvements showed that it wasn’t him who was the issue… it was his environment.
Z: When I was locked up, I was going through a lot of stuff. They thought I was just some crazy person turning up for no reason, but I was just so stressed out from not being able to go home, from the food you eat. That I was like really turning up.
JARED: And you got that corrected now?
Z: Yeah, I got that corrected. I'm out in society now. You don’t see me committing any more crimes.
JARED: Finally, he could move on with his life. He was hanging out with his friends and talking to girls. Z calls himself a ladies man, so naturally when he met a girl on facebook, he wanted to meet up with her. Z was at home with his mom that night.
KIA: Little girl started calling him. She decided she's going to jump in a cab, from, she lives in the Bronx, and take the cab to my house.
JARED: They live deep in Queens, so that’s not cheap…at the very least, 50 bucks...but like a lot of teenagers, they didn't plan very well.
KIA: She had called him downstairs; and he came back upstairs and told me that “Mommy, she don't have any money. She was trying to hop out and the cab driver locked her in.” And I just looked at him because I didn't have any money to pay for a cab. I guess he thought he was going to get the girl out the cab. That was his focus. And he got downstairs. And gave the cab driver the little bit of money that he had left from what I gave him the night before. And it wasn't enough. So the cab driver took his money and kept the girl and tried to pull off.
JARED: So without thinking twice, he put his hand inside his sweatshirt and pretended he had a gun. The girl got out of the car and the driver left.
KIA: He's paying the consequences of that now. Because even though he didn't have a gun from just that little thing that he did him acting like he had a gun, now he's doing one and a third to four.
JARED: And it seemed like he thought he was doing the right thing at the moment.
KIIA: Yeah, he was trying to save the girl. Like any problem that we ever had is him not being aware of what can happen after.
JARED: The cab driver reported the incident. Two weeks later, the police showed up at Z’s apartment and arrested him. They searched his place and didn’t find a gun. Before this incident took place, he was this close to getting his felony record sealed. Z had what’s called ‘youthful offender status’. This means your criminal record can be erased if you demonstrate good behavior. So all he had to do was stay out of trouble for a couple more weeks and he would have been in the clear. But now he’s got another armed robbery charge tagged on top of that. The fact that Z says he didn’t actually have a gun doesn’t matter. Simply pretending is enough. Now Z’s locked up on Rikers Island again-- where his identity is nothing more than an inmate ID number.
JARED: so i’m gonna visit him at Rikers Island. He’s been in now for the past two or three weeks.
JARED: I’d never been to Rikers before.
JARED: The bus is full. People are trying to see their family...
JARED: As the bus drives us over the bridge onto the island, all you can see is a massive parking lot filled with cars. Rikers isn’t just one jail -- it’s like a separate city full of prisoners.
[Corrections Officers Yelling Directions: ‘All DOC employees, uniform and non-uniform staff, step off with your IDs displayed!”]
JARED: Corrections officers boarded the bus. It felt like at that moment, we all became inmates.
After going through several checkpoints, a giant “Corrections” school bus pulled up to drive us to the different jails. The officer driving the bus, the only white guy, was blasting some country song about breaking all the rules.
[Kenny Chesney song playing on radio: “Break every rule we ever learned, Kick back and watch the big wheels turn”]
JARED: I finally made it to Z’s jail: the juvenile unit. We were placed in a small room with thick glass walls, so the guards could watch us. Z was wearing a green jumpsuit that signified he was in the isolation unit. He had a smile on his face, which was nice to see...considering his situation. After the warm greeting it was just like, “This is where we are now…and the last time I saw you, we were in the park, talking about your new school.” He regretted how things played out. “I was this close,” he said. “That was the stupidest thing I ever did.” When the guards came back for Z, I gave them a piece of paper with my phone number on it, so he could call me. They told me they’d give it to him… They never did.
JARED: Just left and well... he got emotional. And it was very difficult to see him in such a vulnerable state of mind. I tried to stay as positive as I can and give him advice on how to deal with it but, ultimately I’ve never been to jail before. I’ve never worn handcuffs. I don’t know, I was like claustrophobic. Like it was... I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but guess what -- he’s still in there. And it’s not looking like he’s getting out anytime soon.
JARED: Another month passes before I see Z again. This time in court.
[COURT PROCEEDINGS IN BACKGROUND]
JARED: His lawyer got him a deal: for pleading guilty and serving a minimum of 20 months, he’ll be eligible for ‘youthful offender status’ again. So it’s still possible he could leave with a clean record. I wrote him a letter hoping that would work to get him my phone number...then one day he called.
[RIKERS PHONE CALL]
JARED: Hello? Say that again?
Z: I said, I’ve been better. What you doing?
JARED: Just working. What you mean ‘you been better’? Tell me what’s going on?
Z: I got into an argument with my moms earlier. She told me that commissary is a reward.
JARED: In jail, commissary is everything. It’s like an account where inmates can get money sent to them. Then they can buy things they need like snacks, deodorant, toothpaste...or things to pass the time like a radio. But when you get in trouble, like Z has been, they can fine you, and that money comes out of your account.
Z: She told me that “You shouldn't get rewarded. You should be getting punished for doing something bad.” And that just blew my whole day up. I hung up on her and said I ain’t ever talking to her again.
JARED: You’re never talking to her again?
Z: Yeah, for the rest of my bid.
JARED: Come on, man.
JARED: Kia couldn’t afford to keep re-upping his account every time he got in trouble.
JARED: I know you frustrated. I know you are, man. I know you not happy in there, man. I just want you to, you know, keep your head up and try to stay positive. I know it’s tough, I know the food there is bad.
Z: It's starting to get me a little bit tight. I'm about to start getting back in trouble and stuff because there’s no reason to fake be good in here, like...
JARED: Why would you start getting in trouble again? I don’t understand.
Z: Just to go back to isolation again. Cause like, when i’m in GP, general population, I’m not getting the stuff I need. Like commissary and all that type of stuff. Everybody got their stuff and I’m just like, “Damn. Like where the fuck my shit at?”
JARED: Things have once again closed in for Z. Now at 17, going on 18, his ambitions of being a normal teenager, rapper and high school grad, are now reduced to commissary. Z decides that if he isn’t gonna have it, he doesn’t want to be around other people that do. So he chooses to get in trouble so he’ll be sent to isolation. At Rikers, that’s a separate unit where juveniles don’t get access to commissary.
JARED: How is … how is isolation better?
Z: It’s not, but I'm just gonna be by myself. I don’t got temptations and stuff.
JARED: What like less people mess with you in isolation?
Z: No, I don't got temptations, like where they eat and shit to [unclear]. I ain’t got nothing. It’s bad enough I’m in here. Shit. I need something to make my time go by like... I don’t know, this is crazy. Like people don’t know what really go on in here.
JARED: Z is scheduled to be transferred to prison - on his 18th birthday.
JARED: Alright, well, do you know where you’re going?
Z: Upstate in a couple of days. And I can’t call nobody when I get there, unless that one free call. That’s it.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
JARED: I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry to hear that, man. That’s unfortunate. Alright man.
JARED: Take care
Z: Alright, see you bro.
[Z hangs up the phone]
JARED: He seemed different on this call -- he wasn’t that kid trying to be good, joking around… He’s transitioned back into what he was trying to get out of. And now he’s just figuring out how to survive.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
JARED: I went upstate with his mom to go visit him. She told me about why he got sent there.
KIA: I sent him a package, with a whole bunch of things that he like.
JARED: His mom isn’t always able to give, so when she does, it means a lot because Z doesn’t know when he’ll be able to get again.
KIA: I wanted him to be normal and feel like, you know, he was home and he can eat and drink and stuff, so I went and racked up on everything that he loves and put in a box and sent it. And I guess some inmate was trying to take stuff out of his box. And that turned into an argument. They ended up fighting and then the COs came...
JARED: Z lost control.
KIA: He ended up fighting the COs and then that was all that she wrote.
JARED: She says it was serious enough to get him sent to a maximum security prison. He turned 18 in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement -- and then spent the next three months there. How’s that for a happy birthday?
KIA: Z is in Coxsackie Correctional Facility and he’s just coming out of SHU.
JARED: That’s the solitary confinement unit.
KIA: He’s been out of SHU for about maybe three days. So now he's in general population and just waiting to see how that's gonna be. I believe he has no idea where he is, how far he is... away from home.
JARED: Yes, so we are in the middle of nowhere. We're very far from New York City.
KIA: I just don't know what to expect like when I get there... All I can do is just wait and see. He should be coming out all smiles.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
JARED: This is it. This is it.
KIA: I want to take a picture. Looks like a, maybe, campground.
JARED: Until you see the barbwire fence. And you remember you’re at a correctional facility. Maximum security, right?
KIA: Yes. It actually looks just like on TV.
JARED: I'm literally afraid to get out of this car right now, I’m not going to lie to you. I'm gonna check my pockets and make sure I don’t have any contraband because I would like to go home tonight. Ok, Jared Marcelle signing out.
[car door shuts]
JARED: We wanted to record the visit.
STAFF: Come on up.
JARED: But they wouldn’t let us. Surprise, surprise.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
JARED: About an hour later…
JARED: Alright, let’s talk through this smoke break.
JARED: We started our three hour journey back home.
JARED: How did that go?
KIA: it was intense. I was afraid that my son is going to get in trouble.
JARED: The visiting room was in a cafeteria, lined with vending machines. Z came out with a green jumpsuit on, like when he was at Rikers, except he was heavier and his hair was grown out. Z got right to business. After being in solitary for so long, he was eager to have access to commissary. He had called his mom and made specific requests. She was able to meet some of them. She brought soap, toothpaste and sneakers.
JARED: Describe the energy when he came into the room.
KIA: He was anxious because he wanted to know if I got everything he said. And I'm just, you know, like all people I'm going through it, so it’s a little hard for me at this time. But I did the best I can. I mean, I came with sneakers.
JARED: When he got out of isolation, he borrowed things from other inmates … and now, he owed some people.
KIA: I think he was promising people stuff that he didn't know whether he was going to get. And that could cause problems.
JARED: Z had asked his mom to bring some Black and Mild cigars, but that’s where she drew the line. When Kia told him that, Z became stone cold. He explained that he needed to repay what he borrowed -- or there’d be consequences. This was the second week in a row he was supposed to pay up… and he didn’t have it. He made it clear that as soon as he left us and went back to population, somebody was going to try to hurt him. And he said he wasn’t going to let that happen.
KIA: OK, I actually felt like his disability was there today. Like I can see when he start talking, you know, a little crazy. Talking about turning up.
JARED: And Kia doesn’t know if he has the ability to hold himself back. She brought some cash to put in his account, but there was no way the money would clear in time.
KIA: I can’t explain what it is, but I can feel things any time he's in a situation. Any time he's in trouble, I can feel him. I actually think the worst right now, and that's why I'm trying to get him to pay back these people.
JARED: So what was supposed to be a warm visit between mother and son, became a tense moment over his safety. I had an idea… that Z give up his new sneakers as payment. Kia had spent the little that she has to get him those shoes -- and they were the only thing he really has to call his own there. So it was a tough decision.
KIA: That was a good idea, giving up the sneakers. II don't know if he's gonna go through with it.
JARED: He didn’t want to, but ultimately agreed that was the best course of action.
JARED: I hope he does.
JARED: After getting that out of the way, we got him a double bacon cheeseburger from the vending machine and stuck it in the microwave. Immediately after finishing it, Z wanted another one. It was like a luxury to him. He washed it down with an orange soda and a honey bun for good measure.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
JARED: I remember you telling me you used to give him money when he was a kid and he was always entrepreneurial and he would sell the candy and stuff. In an ironic way, it seems like he's trying to continue that kind of thing here.
KIA: He learned, like he's stuck with everything I've taught him and he's using it, to survive. He's trying to find a way to hustle... in there, to get what he want. But I think there's other things along with it too. I mean, if he start doing that, he's going to be known. I don't want him to be out there like that. That's when more problems come.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
KAI: So, Jared, that was about two years ago, I guess, that you and Kia there are talking and leaving the prison. And so do you know what happened? Did he use- did he give away the shoes?
JARED: That I'm not sure of. I can’t tell you. You know, he was- those shoes meant a lot to him. And knowing Z, one of those kids that would, you know, be as resourceful as he can to not give up his, you know, his cool, his fly stuff.
KAI: Well, so you've kept in touch with him over these two years. Where's he at now?
JARED: Z is still in prison. Right now. He got caught up in a couple of situations with other inmates, correctional officers. And unfortunately, he was forced to do his full bid.
KAI: Meaning he would have been released, earlier, but he got in trouble. And so, the full sentence that they gave him, he's got to serve that whole thing out.
JARED: Absolutely. About three and a half years. He has to serve out in its entirety.
JARED: And he's been moved around, according to his mom, over five or six different times.
KAI: To five or six different prisons?
KAI: Why is that?
JARED: I think that the sneaker incident was probably one of many where he got involved in the whole bartering thing. And the rules are a little bit different on the inside. He said that, you know, a lot of people disliked him. He got into fights and people would start with him. And the thing about prison, there's no there's no innocent or guilty. Like if someone attacks you, and you defend yourself, there's no self-defense. You know, they're- y’all are both going to get in trouble.
KAI: Like, if there's a fight, then everybody involved in the fight--
JARED: Yeah. That's how he describes it.
KAI: I mean, do you get a sense that it's related to I mean, he talked so much about this turn-up thing. You know, you guys had so many conversations about how, you know, while inside, he would act out and get angry and didn't, you know, in his language, turn-up. Do you think it's part of that, too?
JARED: For sure. It's familiar for him. He went in as a kid and he- that's not necessarily the environment for someone to grow.
KAI: What's it like when you call him? So you've been talking to him on the phone, I gather. What's that like?
JARED: So I lost contact with him for over a year. You know. One day, his mom just reached out to me and, you know, she actually, you know, got, you know, put my name on his list and allowed him to call me. And in many ways, he's the same person. He's exactly the same. He's the same kid I met when he was 16 years old. He's the same exact kid. And he still cares about the same things. He still wants me to update him on the latest fashion and the latest music. You know, he was asking me about the rap of Pop Smoke. You know, as you know, Z is, you know, wants to be a rapper, so... it's weird talking to him in that environment when he’s still childlike in many ways, you know. Still. Still green.
KAI: Do you get a sense of his spirits? How's he feeling?
JARED: He's... he's up and down. It depends. You know, these phone calls mean a lot to him. It mean a whole lot to him, like these phone calls are his connection to the outside world. So sometimes if he'll call, you know, me or his mom or one of his friends and they're unable to answer it, it'll frustrate him. There will be times when he calls me and I'm unable to answer. I'll see the call. And, you know, he'll call me later and you could just tell he was frustrated or he just needed someone to talk to. Or needed a pep talk or some advice. He's been reading a lot of books, you know, self-help books, about business. He has a lot of questions, you know, and a couple weeks ago, he asked me what college was like.
KAI: Oh, wow.
JARED: And, you know, he wants to try to go to college and he said, “Is it fun? Are there other fun things to do?” I took him to my old college one time, just to let him meet younger adults and, you know, I took him to the radio station. We used the recording equipment and stuff and that left an impact on him. It's something- it gives him something to look forward to when he gets out.
KAI: When’s he get out?
JARED: As of now, Z's scheduled to get out… I want to say, mid 2021. So he has about a year left on his sentence, unless something comes up. The last time we spoke, from then to now, he got involved in another incident with an inmate and they sentenced him to 180 days of isolation.
KAI: So he's in isolation right now?
JARED: I don't want to call it solitary or isolate, like I'm not- I know that there's a difference I think. But I’m pretty sure like… he describes it as he's in a box and he has to spend his bid there.
KAI: Does he receive any kind of care or treatment? In earlier parts of the story, we, you know, we hear about him in conversation when he was in the facility in Queens with mental health workers and that that was helping him. Does he receive anything like that in prison now?
JARED: Z doesn't receive any type of assistance of any kind. He's just one of the people. His mother tells me they reject his medical history and his health records like they don't acknowledge it.
KAI: When you first introduced me to Z, you know, I said that it was really hard for me to picture him as a, quote, criminal. Certainly somebody- a violent one. He was just such a kid. And we've now all followed his story with you, for all these years now. You met him when he was 16 and he's about to be--
KAI: About to be 21. Um...I just wonder what-- you know, and you started it as a reporter. You know, you're obviously friends with him now. What do you- what do you take from all this? What do you take from his story? That here he is, you know, he was this 16-year-old kid and here he is, he's sitting in adult prison now as a 21-year-old. Four years later?
JARED: I feel like I've said this before, but it's like so important. When I think about some of the things that I've done, at his age, I could easily have ended up just like him and I wouldn't be where I am today. One hundred percent. Some of the things that I've done, based- I mean, at least compared to the mistakes that he's made as a juvenile. And I could have easily served a couple of years and who knows how that would have impacted my trajectory. I know that oftentimes, you know, people battle with- battle internally with who they are and who society perceives them to be. And oftentimes it’s a lot easier to be who people see you as. And I often tells Z, I say, “Hey, man, listen, you're 20 years old. You're 21 years old.” You know, I relate to him. I say, “Hey, Z, I dropped out of high school at 14. I tried to go back later and eventually got my GED, and you know, like I've seen a lot of the things he's seen, you know? And it just really makes you wonder, like how- how we punish mistakes. You know, there's like some people get to get over their mistakes and some people don't. I'm not trying to defend the mistakes that he's made, you know, saying that he didn't deserve something. But we're talking about someone who went into prison at 17 years old and they're going to get out when they're 21. They haven't had any, you know, help in terms of like mental help and helping him get over some of the problems that he's having. And he's going to go out there. He's still scared. He said, he says to me, he says like he's legitimately scared... about what's going to happen next. Will he be able to, you know, make the right decisions?
KAI: How's it work when you call him?
JARED: So I don't actually call him. He calls me through a tablet. And sometimes, I don't know if it's because the COs are, they like him or they want to do me a little favor, but he gets to keep the tablet a little bit longer than he's supposed to sometimes. I remember one time he was like, “Oh, man, I still have it. I’m gonna trying to keep it overnight.” I said, ‘Come on, Z. You know you can't do that.” He’s like, “Yeah, you're right. You're right. I'm just playing.”
[MUSIC FADES IN]
JARED: I mean, he's still a kid, right? That's- That's something that a kid would do, that a child would do. And it makes me feel really icky inside, knowing that somebody who thinks like that is with, you know… (PAUSE) grown, hardened criminals. Some who have like killed people or… (PAUSE) yeah.
JARED: Hey Z, so I’m recording now, okay?
Z: Alright, yeah.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
JARED: What do you want people to know about you? For the people out there that are listening?
[MUSIC FADES IN]
Z: Well, I’m just a person that’s trying to get by. I’m humble, I smile, I laugh. I’m not bitter. I’m caring, kind. And I’m not what the system portrays me to be. I’m not a monster.
JARED: Alright Z, thank you boss.
Z: No problem.
JARED: Call me again at 6 if you want. Alright?
Z: Alright, alright, no problem.
JARED: Alright-- I’ll talk to you later.
AUTOMATED PHONE VOICE: The caller has hung up.
Z was just one young person we chronicled in Caught. You can hear all of the stories we told by going to Caughtpodcast.org. It was a project that we did in partnership with the Radio Rookies program here at WNYC. And you should check out all of their ongoing work as well.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
KAI: All of the young people - and the stories we told - shared their stories with us at a time when they were truly, terribly vulnerable and we thank them and their families for that. And having heard their stories, all I can conclude, even now, is that we owe them A LOT more than this -- that we have just got to start thinking in far more radical terms about how to stop punishing and start helping people who do harm, to others and to themselves. So, in the absence of any tidy conclusion to this ‘cause we are many, many, many years from a tidy conclusion, we asked Dwayne Betts to end for us - on a poem. Here’s what he chose to read.
DWAYNE: Alright. So “For a Bail Denied,” this poem really comes out of my experience working as a public defender in Connecticut at least. When a kid goes to court, to adult court, the circuit court, his mother has to stand up and appear before him. So the poem is written from that perspective.
For a Bail Denied.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
I won't tell you how it ended,
& his mother won’t, either, but
beside me she stood & some things
neither of us could know. & now,
all is lost; lost is all in the ruins
of what happened after.
The kid, & we should call him kid,
call him a fucking child, his face
smooth & lacking history of a razor,
without promise of a mustache,
he walked into court a ghost &
let’s just call it a cauldron, admit
his nappy head made him blacker
than whatever pistol he held,
whatever casket awaited; the
prosecutor’s bald head was black,
or brown but when has brown not
been akin to black here? To abyss
& does it matter (black lives)
if all the prosecutor said of black boys
was that they kill? The child beside
his mother & his mother beside me &
I am no one’s father, just a public
defender, fiddle-footed here, where
the state turns men, women and children
into numbers, searching for a phoenix’s
embers, for angels born in the shadows
of this breaking. This boy beside me’s
wings withering, fool on the brink of life
& broken & it’s all possible, because
one day or night or morning this woman
& a man the boy does not call daddy
fucked in what would be called passion
anywhere else; anywhere else called love.
& the judge spoke & the kid kept confessing:
I did it. I mean, I did it. I mean — Jesus.
& everyone in the room wanted a flask.
The boy’s mother said: This is not
justice. You will not throw my son into
that fucking ocean. She meant prison.
& we was too powerless to stop it.
& we was too damn tired to be beautiful.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
[CREDIT MUSIC BEGINS]
KAI: Caught is a production of WNYC Studios and the Narrative Unit of WNYC News.
This episode was reported by Jared Marcelle and Courtney Stein. We partnered with Taylor Eldridge and Kirsten Danis from the Marshall Project. David Jeans and Sophia Paliza-Carre contributed to the solitary investigation.
A couple of special thanks are in order for this whole podcast. Melinda Siriwardana has been our project manager and Dwayne Betts is our consultant. You should really read his book -- A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison. And illustrator Louisa Bertman animated one of his poems. It’s really cool. You should check it out at Caught podcast-dot-org.
Cayce Means is our technical director. Hannis Brown is our composer. And students Taja Parker-Graves, Alberto Lugo and Sean Gary from Building Beats provided additional music. Rebecca Carroll and Jessica Miller were our producers on the podcast. Kaari Pitkin is our senior producer. Karen Frillmann is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is vice president of news for WNYC. And I’m Kai Wright. Thanks for listening.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.