Posts Tagged ‘rikers island’

bn-vu227_nyches_m_20171025125530Photo: Bess Adler for The Wall Street Journal
Rikers Island inmate Camilo Arcelay faced off against chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley at the Rikers Island jail complex.

I like articles about better ways to prepare prison inmates for a return to society. In this 2015 post, for example, I wrote about a jailhouse debate club that beat Harvard, raising the spirits and aspirations of prisoners at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility.

Today’s story concerns a serious chess competition in a notorious New York City prison.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs at the Wall Street Journal writes, “On a rainy afternoon at the Rikers Island Jail Complex [in October] five men and one woman wearing tan uniforms sat in front of chess boards surrounded by an audience of correction officers and fellow inmates.

“Maurice Ashley, a 2003 U.S. Chess Federation grandmaster of the year walked from one board to the next, simultaneously playing six games. One by one, he eliminated the inmates — except for Camilo Arcelay, 37 years old, who used his king to take Mr. Ashley’s last pawn. That left Mr. Arcelay and Mr. Ashley with a king as their last piece.

“The result was a draw — enough for Mr. Ashley, who also judged the event, to name Mr. Arcelay the winner of the first chess tournament, which is slated to become an annual event at Rikers Island.

“ ‘To be in a situation that I’m in right now in jail, it leaves me speechless,’ Mr. Arcelay said, referring to his chess victory. ‘Because I’ve made so many bad decisions to be here.’

“The final round of the 2-month tournament is part of a series of programming designed to educate and reduce idleness funded by a $38.9 million New York City initiative.

” ‘It teaches them how to think, how to strategize, in an environment that is conducive to those things,’ said James Walsh, department of corrections deputy commissioner of adult programming & community partnerships.

“While this was the first official tournament at Rikers, chess has long been popular behind bars. Carl Portman, 53, the author of Chess Behind Bars, and the manager of prisons chess for the English Chess Federation, said the game’s history in prisons dates to World War II, when inmates would create chess pieces from scrap materials, and differentiate the two sides by using coffee powder to dye some pieces. …

“At Rikers, the seed for the tournament was planted two years ago when corrections officer Gregory Lamb bought a chess set so he could play with 16- and 17-year-old inmates. Prison officials soon asked him to organize sessions with adult inmates twice a week. That evolved into the tournament organized by the corrections’ Adult Programs Unit that began two months ago with 800 inmates participating.

“ ‘Inmates are probably the best chess players because they play all day,’ Mr. Lamb noted. …

“During the games, inmates stood on bleachers cheering, critiquing and moving their arms on imaginary boards as if they, too, were participating.

“ ‘Society wastes so much when we don’t channel the energy and capabilities of those who have been incarcerated,’ Mr. Ashley said.”

More at the WSJ, here.

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The 17th century Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace wrote in “To Althea from Prison,”

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for a hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

I am not going to make the case that inmates at New York’s Rikers Island prison have “minds innocent and quiet,” but I will contend that poetry can help to free the soul.

Kirk Semple at the NY Times has a story about a poetry reading in the prison.

“The inmates at Rikers Island were slumped in plastic chairs, their expressions suggesting boredom and doubt. They had been pried from their favorite television shows to attend — of all things — a poetry reading. Some nice people from the public library, they were told.

“Then came the poet: unshaven, in his early 20s, dark hooded sweatshirt, dark T-shirt, dark ball cap slung backward on his head. Some men leaned forward, elbows on their knees. Expressions shifted to curiosity: This was not what they were expecting.

“ ‘I’m going to kick a couple of poems,’ the poet, Miles Hodges, said in a drawl of the street, before unleashing a blizzard of words titled ‘Harlem.’ His intonation percussive and incantatory, he spoke of race and of children playing amid ‘roached blunts and roached joints’ that were ‘scattered around the purple-, pink- and black-chalked R.I.P. signs as if whispering from the concrete jungle, “I’m resting in peace and high.” ’

“Mr. Hodges, 25, is a spoken-word performer and a somewhat unusual ambassador of the New York Public Library, where he was hired this year to help create programs to attract members of the millennial generation.

“For the past couple of months, he has been developing a spoken-word program at Rikers, where the library has for years offered a variety of services, including a book-lending system.

“ ‘I really wanted to include this other section of New York City that often doesn’t get discussed as part of the city,’ Mr. Hodges said in an interview. ‘You’ll hear me say a lot: They can lock your body up, but they can’t cage your mind.’ “

Asakiyume volunteers in a prison where she helps women with writing. Bet they would get a kick out of a poetry reading like that.

More at the NY Times, here.

Photo: Richard Perry/The New York Times
Miles Hodges, in cap, performing at Rikers Island.  

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