Long Sentences, Short Stories
It was not your average setting for a book launch party: the George R. Vierno Center (GRVC), one of 10 jails on Rikers Island. Rivera organized the reading from two compilations, Killing the Sky and Aguas Con El Caballo, which consist of short stories by 18 GRVC inmates attending one of two Rikers schools, the Horizon Academy. "I want people to read these stories and say, 'These are real people, not gangsters like portrayed in the movies,' " Rivera says. "I want them to know there is a powerful voice in jail."
Erick Gordon, director of the Student Press Initiative at Columbia University's Teachers College, handed out copies of the paperbacks before stepping to the podium and thanking teachers who had helped out the program, now in its third year. Last September, Gordon and others chose inmates, recorded their oral stories, transcribed them and then worked with the prisoners to edit them down. The finished books will go to public school classrooms around the city.
Gordon says the process wasn't an easy one. "The association most of these guys have with interviewing is the DA," he says. "We have to develop a lot of trust." The logistics were also tough. His authors were often at court, talking with their attorneys, transferred to other facilities, put in solitary, and a few fortunate ones were released.
This article appeared in the June 19, 2007 edition of the Village Voice.