In eighteen years as a criminal defense lawyer in the Courts of NYC, I represented hundreds of clients like my fictional 'Enrique'. The character is made up but the dilemma is real. Rikers Island is our Penal Colony, right out of Kafka.
I’m driving over the Francis R. Buono Memorial Bridge for the nine hundredth time (figuring once a week, four times a month, times twelve months, times eighteen years). The bridge connects the Queens mainland to Rikers Island, which is floating in the East River and a mere hundred yards off the runways of LaGuardia Airport. Rikers Island is the main New York City jail, housing 12,000 or more inmates at any given time, depending on how tough on crime the NYPD chooses to be. Rikers Island is America’s largest penal colony, a city of rolling razor wire far as the eye can see. I’m en route there because I’m a lawyer assigned by the Criminal Courts to defend a fellow who claims to be “indigent” (no dough to hire a lawyer), so he gets me, whom the inmates call “an 18-B” (short for the section of the County Law), as distinguished from “a real, paid lawyer,” whom they’d hire if they could. I pay no mind; I’ve heard it all before.
I get to drive onto the Island in my own car with a lawyer’s pass from the guard booth. Civilians have to bus it onto the Island after taking trains from every corner of the City to catch the Q100 at Queensboro Plaza, last stop “the Rock” (as the inmates call home). I get my visitor pass at the reception center, go through electronic surveillance, and head for the bus depot outside. Ancient yellow school buses queue up in their stalls: five separate lines go to ten jails spaced out over 415 acres of mostly landfill. As I wait to board my bus, this Kirk Douglas western, The Big Sky, is playing in my head—green movie valleys filled with fat cattle versus my electrified fences topped with barbed wire near and far.
Bus #3 delivers me to my destination, the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, where my client is housed. Funny thing about the jails, they’re all named after people: the Rose M. Singer Center (women’s jail); the George R. Vierno Center; the Anna M. Kross Center; the George Motchan Detention Center. You get the picture? All dead. I can’t help wondering if Otis Bantum would approve of ‘the Bing’—solitary for the incorrigibly violent—being housed in his jail. Nobody will admit knowing how the Bing got its name; I suspect it’s onomatopoeia for the sound a nightstick makes when banging off the head of an inmate.
Today I’ll see my new client, Enrique. He resided in Washington Heights among a legion of illegal Dominicans, of which he is one. He was arrested a week ago for selling a couple of “20s” of cocaine to an undercover cop. I interviewed him in the feeder pens behind Manhattan Night Court, but it did not go well. Enrique doesn’t know English. Unfortunately, the court interpreter was a Cuban who abbreviated Enrique’s fulsome responses to my questions into either “yeses” or “nos.” (You had to watch the Spanish interpreters: they had fierce prejudices against defendants from countries other than their own.)
Yesterday, by phone, Enrique informed me through his English-speaking jailhouse buddy that he won’t take a plea—he wants a trial. This pernicious idea is endemic to the Rock. Inmates always phrase it as “wanting their day in court.” It is the product of the Rikers Island Bar, a hardcore cadre of inmates who, during long stretches in Upstate prisons, have honed jailhouse lawyering to an art. Daily they counsel innocents on their cases, bad-mouthing the advice of 18-Bs like me, filling heads with legal fantasies. Their fees are assessed in the prevailing currency: cigarettes, sex, whatever. There’s a law library in every jail on Rikers, each staffed by a civilian librarian. The Rikers Bar is as old and as active as any of the County Bar Associations.
Plea bargains are the local currency of the justice system. No way can the courts give every defendant a jury trial. As a reward for not being difficult, defendants plead guilty and get far fewer years in prison. But insist on your day in court and you get hammered upon conviction. Contrary to the opinion of the Rikers Bar, Enrique will be convicted at trial because the District Attorney has physical evidence and witnesses— which I don’t, and seldom do.
I must steel myself for the coming battle. I must erase the word “trial” from Enrique’s mental slate.