By Mame Kane, VI Form
Yo, ma, can you put some money on my account? I heard these words quite frequently while listening to inmate calls from Rikers Island. I started my internship in the District Attorney’s office assuming that all prisoners were awful people, but by the end of my six weeks, I learned that prisoners can be truly ordinary people. I listened to 206 calls and was able to profile my assigned inmate as a decent human being. My fellow interns thought that I was insane. After all, we were listening to prisoners who were affiliated members of three notorious Upper West Side Manhattan gangs. As interns, we were each assigned to a separate inmate who was a part of Manhattan’s largest drug bust, which occurred in early June 2014. 104 members of the three Manhattan gangs were arrested on 125th Street, central Harlem, a location I visit quite frequently.
Upon receiving an internship at the District Attorney’s office, I was unaware at how close I would be studying communities of which I am a part. When I arrived at the office on the first day, I expected to spend the summer assisting a lawyer. However, the program supervisors split most of us (40 interns) into groups of two. I was not assigned to a group of two, rather I was placed in a group of eight. Seven other students and I were selected to be a part of a special segment of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office called HIDTA: High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. At HIDTA, we listened to Rikers Island phone calls and transcribed them. At first, I enjoyed the assignment because I found it fascinating to study my inmate’s life through the conversations that he held on the phone. Yet, I began to sympathize for my inmate when I learned more about him. He had already served two years in an upstate facility by the time he was 19 and had been rearrested for violating probation. He had been an ordinary teen who did not know how to avoid violence and actively engaged in it. In many of his phone calls, he often reflected on how he wished he had never gotten involved in the altercations that landed him in prison. He promised his family that he would pursue a community college education and become a chemical engineer upon finishing his sentence.
Through a shocking phone call, I learned that he had been raised in the same neighborhood that I had spent twelve years of my life. I was even more frightened upon learning that he even attended the same elementary school that I did. My inmate was only 21, four years older than I am, which means that we could have possible occupied the same space at the same time without me ever having realized it. While learning more details about my inmate, I began to question how did our lives become so different especially since we had been raised in the same neighborhood and attended the same school. How is it that his life path resulted in him going to jail at the age of 19 while my life path led me to listening to his intimate phone calls? It began to click to me that we are all born with different privileges. I realized that it is more difficult to be an inner city black boy than it is to be an inner city black girl – expectations are different. My inmate was raised with the pressure to join a street gang while I was raised with the pressure to excel academically. I could even tell that some of my elementary school teachers had given up on some boys – girls took academics more seriously while boys played around in class.
When I used to live in Harlem, I was oblivious to the gang activity occurring in my neighborhood. It was never directly in my personal sphere, and I only learned of it while being an intern at the DA’s office. The neighborhood that I had felt comfortable in was dominated by a small street gang composed of boys from the ages of 14 to 19. This disappointed me as I began to think of my former classmates and what their lives may have become. Many of them had been indicted on conspiracy charges after being arrested for being gang affiliated.
At the end of my internship a unique opportunity to visit Riker’s was presented to us. We toured a general population facility, one of 11 prisons on the island. I was able to see the area where my inmate made phone calls and the cells in which inmates lived in. It was a terrifying experience to walk through the jail and pass the prisoners. While walking through the holding cell area, an inmate yelled, “Someday your brothers are going to end up in here!” and others warned us about the horrors of jail. Yet the comment that resonated with me was when a guard told a prisoner to keep walking. The inmate looked back and laughed while saying, “Just let me look; I’m never going to see girls again.” The inmate looked to be about 18 or 19, and he had done something that would ensure that he would never know what it is like to be free again.
My internship at the DA’s office has shown me the ways in which the privileges that I have been offered have shaped my life. I was pleased to find out that my inmate was able to turn his life around after his release. Although he is a felon and I am not, we started at the same place – at Hugo Newman College Preparatory School – yet walked completely different paths because of the different opportunities with which we had been presented.
Mame Kane is a VI Form student form Manhattan. In her free time, she enjoys eating, watching Netflix, and reading. She loves traveling to different parts of the world and hopes to visit new places in the future.