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Life Inside

I Was at Rikers While Coronavirus Spread. Getting Out Was Just as Surreal.

“My family is my family. I am used to our little quirks. But I am still getting used to what's going on outside.”

Around mid-March, the men in my dorm on Rikers Island were starting to get antsy.

We were all watching the news, hearing reports about coronavirus spreading in New York City. And the jail was getting more restrictive every day.

They stopped letting us go to the law library and the commissary. Instead they’d deliver us the materials we’d ask for and we’d pick up the items we ordered instead of crowding into the waiting room. They’d stopped transfers to upstate prisons. They’d stopped visitation. We couldn’t see our families.

People started to wonder how long this would last. But nobody had an answer. Officers would just say they didn’t know.

Soon officers started coming in wearing masks and face shields. I didn’t know if it was to protect them from us or us from them.

In my dorm we’d started sleeping head-to-toe. Imagine a big open room with 60 single beds less than 2 feet apart. There were only 51 or 52 men in the dorm on any given day, but everyone is still close together. It’s uncomfortable. We shared a bathroom with a few sinks, a few toilets and a few showers.

They tried to keep us apart. But we wondered what difference it could really make.

Soon the rumors about sick inmates started to spread. One person in our dorm got sick, and officers took him out and packed up all his stuff. The next day, they came back and packed up the person next to him.

“Oh they had it,” people said. “Oh God!”

Everyone was nervous, but then a week later they brought one guy back. He had the regular flu. But the other person never came back, and the rumors kept spreading.

Eventually I saw him walking in the hallway. “How are you doing?” I yelled to him. “I am fine,” he said. They had put him in another dorm.

Some people would joke about the whole situation. I guess everyone has their own way of coping. But I was worried about my family who lived in the city. Besides, we were running out of soap. We were running out of toilet paper. We were running out of bleach to clean showers, toilets and sinks.

We’d heard on the news that Mayor Bill de Blasio was considering releasing prisoners. But even though we could watch the news on TV and hear it broadcast on the radio, jail officials would censor anything about jails from the newspapers. Every day we’d get copies of the New York Daily News and El Diario, the city’s Spanish language paper, with pages ripped out.

I went to where officials delivered the newspapers and asked: “Why is it you’re ripping out information about inmates being released when we hear it on the radio?”

“I am just following orders,” the officer said. It’s a common answer in corrections.

I’d been at Rikers since October. I was there on a parole violation. I’d been out of prison since 2015. In February, the parole office had already agreed to revoke my jail sentence and restore me to parole. But the next month, as the coronavirus swept through the city, the parole court closed. Even the lawyers were working from home.

My lawyer informed me that the Legal Aid Society had filed an emergency motion to have more than 100 parole violators released. I was in constant touch with her over the phone. She told me on a Friday that the motion was granted but that the parole office needed more time to get their end in order.

When I went to sleep that Friday night, I didn’t know when I was going to get out.

At 5 a.m. the next day, an officer tapped my bed. She didn’t speak, but she made a sign like: “You're going home.” Like a bird flying away.

“I am getting out?!” I asked.

“Yes,” she shook her head. Yes.

I jumped out of bed, and got on the phone to call my wife who said she’d pick me up from the jail. I gave away some of my things. I had just gone to the commissary the day before. I gave away my slippers and some clothing. The only thing I took home was a few pictures.

I went down to the intake area where there are a whole bunch of cages. We call it the bullpen. Everyone enters and exits Rikers through these cages.

All of the people there were excited and talking to each other. Some didn’t really understand the process or why they were being released, but everyone was happy.

It took hours before we got out. I was in the bullpen from 6 a.m. to almost 2 in the afternoon. It was unnerving, but I kept reminding myself that at least that day I’d be going home and that my wife was waiting for me on the other side of the bridge.

On the bus that takes you from the jail to the first building over the bridge from the island, I got my first glimpse into this strange new world. I got on through the back of the bus because the front was roped off so no one could get close to the driver.

Opening Statement

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My wife had been waiting for hours. I was worried she would be gone by the time I got out. But when we arrived at the bus stop, she was sitting in our car. I ran over to her. She got out of the car, and gave me a big kiss.

“Hand sanitizer! Hand sanitizer, quick quick,” I yelled. We laughed. I didn’t want to touch anything. I felt like a mess. The jail had lost my property, so I left wearing sweatpants that were too big. I didn’t know if they were clean or dirty.

After we called a few family members, my wife and I headed home. I remember thinking how strange it was to see the empty streets.

My kids were surprised to see me. My wife didn’t tell them I was coming home. Seeing them for the first time was surreal. But before I could truly settle in, I told them I needed to go take a shower. I needed to wash the jail off me. I was so worried about bringing something home.

In that short span of time since I was locked up in Rikers, the whole entire world changed. My family is my family. I am used to them, and all our little quirks. But I am still getting used to what's going on outside.

Even things I thought would never change are changing. When you are locked up, security overrides everything. Officers could delay something to help someone who is dying—for security reasons.

But even coronavirus has trumped “security.”

Normally when you come home, you have to report to parole the next day. When I got out, I called the 24-hour hotline and was told to call back on Monday. Before I could make the call, an officer called me and told me my next reporting date was in late April if things are back to normal by then. Normally I’d have to go down to the parole office and sit in a waiting room with 50 other guys.

Coming home in the middle of the pandemic is like going from one lockdown to another.

But I really can’t compare. I am around people I’d much rather be with. I have the freedom to eat what I want. If I need to, I can go outside, even if it’s just to throw out the garbage.

If there is one thing that incarceration teaches you, it is to be patient. You have to roll with the punches. The whole jail could be locked down for two weeks at a time. You just learn to adapt and be patient and persevere.

That's what I am doing. I was locked up during 9/11 and the whole world changed then. I know the whole world is going to change after this. I am just hopeful things will get better sooner rather than later.

Donald Kagan is working toward a master’s degree in social work. He was released from Rikers Island on March 28 along with more than 100 others held for technical violations of their parole. Kagan lives in Brooklyn with his wife and family.

A spokesperson for the New York City Department of Corrections denied that newspapers were being censored at Rikers Island. They stated that every detainee has access to soap and that daily inspections are carried out “to ensure cleaning and sanitation supplies are available as necessary.” They also stated that “where possible in dormitory housing units, DOC is ensuring there is an empty bed in between people.”