All photos by Allen Arthur except where otherwise indicated.

Tryna Stay Straight, the Streets Is Bending

Take the L train to Brooklyn around 9AM on a Sunday and you’ll mostly share it with people who have no other residence or who are returning from the jobs that happen while most of us are asleep. Tucked in the middle of the line is a part of Bushwick not fully upended by developers nor entirely untouched. You can still see graffiti and gated lots with names like “Guido’s Auto”, but the hip spots are moving in. This morning, it’s barren. None of the factories or loading docks clatter, none of the restaurants are lit.

If you get off the train and look to your right, you’ll see a large tree penned behind a fence. Trash layers its base. It has no other trees to compete with but it’s growing in confinement. It juts out over the chainlinks for light and fights against the misfortune of its placement. It certainly didn’t choose to grow there.

Ismael Bonano was released from Wallkill Correctional Facility near Poughkeepsie, NY on December 16, 2015. While statistics can be hard to come by, a report from the Vera Institue of Justice cited studies that found 11% of New York City’s returning citizens in a shelter within their first two years out. Ismael’s is nearby.

He says he has a friend who wants to talk too. About fifteen minutes into the conversation, Mike McGriff arrives. They met at Wallkill. Mike was released on January 7, 2016.

Ismael is broad and muscular, his deep voice and intense expressions suggesting he’s lived many more years than his 28. Mike is almost comically Ismael’s opposite: at 34, he is shorter and babyfaced. Ismael speaks slowly and calmly; Mike’s voice is higher and his words often rush out. When Mike was released, Ismael helped him get into the shelter and has shown him guidance. Mike did a longer bid. Ismael says it’s harder to get your footing after a longer bid.

Two histories emerge, only recently intertwined but constantly overlapping. Childhood was the site of violence and loss; life after release is an ongoing struggle between hope and a stacked deck; the dream of choice is regularly interrupted by the shove of necessity and the ache of desperation. They came of age in projects and prisons. They didn’t choose to grow there.

Exiting the subway

The following is compiled from three hours of interviews with both men and prison writings shared by Mike. It has been condensed. Occasionally, small edits have been made for clarity.

Childhood

Ismael: I was adopted. I was conceived in a mental institution in Rockland County. My birth mother was schizophrenic. I was taken away at birth and put into foster care. My parents that adopted me, we lived in the Marlboro Projects in Brooklyn. I’m Puerto Rican, but I’m also Costa Rican and Jamaican. The family that I was with, they were very pale-skinned Latino, so there was already a lot of racism. Towards me. You know, dealing with being called a “nigger”, you know, from the age of four or five years old.

Mike: I was born in Queens, NY in East Elmhurst. My mother was 23 years old when I was delivered. At the time my mother used cocaine; in other words I was a “crack baby”. I have two other bilogical siblings. One baby brother and one older sister. The beginning of my early years from infant up to maybe four years old was back and forth. I was either at my father’s house or at my mother’s house. I can remember those times like yesterday. I also remember down the line, I ended up with someone else, all three of us.

Ismael: My first suicide attempt was when I was six. I was in the bathtub and my mother was there with me and I threw myself under the water. My mother was, like, grabbing me out and smacked me like, “What are you doing?” I already fantasized in my head about just going to sleep and never waking up because I felt so detached. I didn’t feel a part of the world because my family that I’m raised in, apparently I’m different. I’m already told that I have learning issues, that I would never make it in life. So all my dreams and aspirations were shut down at an early age.

Mike: The middle of my fourth grade year was the year that I was taken from my foster mother by the children’s agency. When my sister refused to mop the foor, my foster mother beat her pretty decent. My sister was bleeding clumps of blood from her nose and screaming profusely. How the children’s agency found out, I don’t know. But what I do remember is when the phone rang, I answered it.

A social worker by the name of Lisa who was around five-foot-eight, red freckles, tall, slim and kind asked me did I want to go on another long trip. I said, “Yes.” Then she told me to go pack my bags. I said yes, because of just recently coming back from Orlando. I had no clue whatsoever I was going to experience the things I did and be seperated forever.

My sixth grade year was all hell. I lost interest in school. I was held back for another year. My seventh grade nothing changed, held back again; my eighth grade year passed; my ninth grade year I was held back, then I decided to drop out of school. Ninth grade is also the year that I left home and found another home with a friend. It is also the year that I was arrested and shipped upstate.

Ismael, in Brooklyn

Ismael most recently served time for robbery in the third degree and Mike robbery in the second.

Ismael: [The police] ran down on me. I was already on the run from parole. I knew I was going back to jail. I was like, “Okay, I’m going back to jail.” They got out the car, right? They immediately went to go grab me and I pulled away. They beat me severely. They beat me bloody. I thought I was paralyzed.

They charged me with assaulting an officer and robbery in the first degree. They caught me in a catch-22 because they were gonna pursue the assault on an officer. Meanwhile it was them beating the shit out of me. (Note: this charge was eventually dropped.)

They showed a picture of me running at the scene of the crime. No footage of me committing any crime. It’s just a picture of me at that place at that time. And I’m on parole? Coming home from the same type of offense? In my mind, I’m like, “I can’t beat this.” I was like, let me just get the best offer I can get. My first offer was 15 years. After that offer it dropped to seven. Then I got it from seven to four, then I got it to three-and-a-half-to-six, non-violent, which I took immediately. I was tired of being on Rikers and in my mind, I had already assessed that would be more of a shot for me because I had a hope of going home on my merit board if I take the proper steps.

Mike: It started out as a fight at a dice game. I took his money to pay the other guy so they don’t shoot us. He goes to the police officers and he tells them that he got robbed. They don’t find nobody else. The camera sees me taking stuff at the dice game.

Both Mike and Ismael have served time at Rikers Island, New York City’s notoriously violent and corrupt prison complex

Ismael: I was about 18, 19 first time I landed in Rikers.

Mike: Whatever you want to know [about Rikers]. I been under, top, crack, crevice. I been on the boat. (Note: “the boat” is the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a prison boat that sits adjacent to Hunts Point in the Bronx. It is a facility of Rikers Island.) It’s sneaky loud [on the boat], but Rikers Island is organized chaos. What I mean by sneaky loud is that … it’s quiet but everything goes down. You’ll be there all day and won’t see nobody get cut, won’t see nobody to get stabbed, nose busted, but it all goes down.

Ismael: I been in a situation where somebody got cut, and you had to stay in the most uncomfortable position ever, on your stomach with your hands behind your head. And we stood there for about five hours or more. We couldn’t move. You move? Ya gettin’ ya ass whooped. This motherfucker standing there with that nightstick banging on the metal handle of your bed.

It’s so much of an issue for people without funding, because now you can’t make bail. Now you’re stuck there, right? So now you wanna cop out so bad just to get out of Rikers. The mental anguish that you go through — yo, let me cop out so I can just move on with this transition. I can’t stay here any longer, you know? So you cop out because you’re tired of going back and forth to court, you’re tired of not eating nothing but bologna sandwich and laying on the dirty floor with your shoes as pillows.

Both men talk about their last release day. After years of isolation, each remembers being left at Port Authority, the chaotic transportation hub in Midtown Manhattan, with no housing arrangements.

Mike: I was scared as hell. I didn’t have nowhere to go. I didn’t have nobody to turn to. All the people that I looked forward to, that helped me when I was home, they all died on me when I was in jail.

They give you the bus ticket, put you on the bus, (whistles), drop you off in the city. You on your own.

Ismael: Yeah with all your luggage.

Mike: I had the money that they gave me, and that’s what?

Ismael: Forty dollars.

Mike: Yeah forty dollars.

Ismael: Yeah and imagine you’re like this: you got a big bag and you’re walking, trying to move around, feeling nervous ’cause you know, you got these draft bags. People are looking at you like, “That dude just came home.” State clothes, two big-ass draft bags.

Mike: I hated that. State clothes, they give you clothes, a khaki suit. It’s thicker than Dickies.

Ismael: You could have the nicest demeanor. “Oh excuse me, where can I find a payphone?”

Mike: People are looking at you like you got shit on your face.

Ismael: It makes you feel like shit.

Ismael (right) simulates carrying his bags.

Ismael is returning from over two years. Mike is returning from more than ten. Neither had a solid family structure for his return.

Mike: When I was released from the penitentiary [after the first sentence] I thought things were the same. Family wasn’t family anymore nor were people. I became selfish because I was blinded by the hate from incarceration. I remember being wrong to my grandmother. I didn’t stop by the house to say hello. Nothing.

During the course of this [most recent] sentence I’ve lost two grandmothers and one grandfather. What is disturbing to me is that, over the duration of this time I have redefined myself into who I really am, and would love for them to see me now. I never got the chance to say, “I love you” and “good bye” and “look at me now”.

Ismael: I told my peers, you know, my brothers in there, they gave me the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas that I had in a long time, since I was like 14. They gave me the first birthday I had since I was 14.

Ismael and Mike acknowledge they have committed acts that harmed other people.

Ismael: There’s nothing in my mind I could say would be more of a weight on my shoulders than having that on my mind and knowing what I truly did wrong. Going to prison, going through a harsh treatment, it gets to a point where that doesn’t affect you anymore. You know, it’s the realization of what you did wrong that takes the biggest toll. It’s not being locked in a cell; it’s not being underfed; it’s not being screamed at; it’s not watching people getting beat up; it’s not living in constant fear of getting cut or stabbed up.

Mike: A crime is a mistake. It’s your best thinking at that time. Whether a person take a person’s money, that’s that person’s best thinking at that time. That’s the best he could think of at that time, because if he could think of any better, he woulda did something better. The reason why they can’t think of anything better, not because they don’t want to. It’s because the opportunity of something that they want to do does not present itself.

The view from the shelter. Photo by Ismael Bonano

While incarcerated, Mike and Ismael both got GEDs, and took college level classes, behavioral courses, job certifications, and computer training. They say all of that work must either be done again as a condition of parole, or is looked down on because it was done in prison.

Mike: I’m going through that right now. Program, from 9 o’clock to 2:30. I can’t even go look for a job. If I’m here, how am I gonna go there? Now when I exclude the program and I go look for a job, they got a beef. They call parole. Parole got a beef. Now I don’t have money for transportation to get to parole. “Where you was at?” I went to the program. “Why you went to the program?” Because that’s the only way that I can get a MetroCard. “You’re supposed to see me at 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock. I’m gonna send you back to jail.”

Ismael: How can you call this reform, or “Okay you paid your debt to society,” if your debt is never paid? They’re always gonna bring up, “Well look what he did in the past.” It’s never paid.

Mike: If you made a mistake in life. To your friend? Wife? You wouldn’t want another chance to make things right?

Despite their successes inside, neither man feels that prison is a humane or suitable way of dealing with crime

Mike: If you don’t have a mental illness, you will have one when you leave. Believe me. I’m scared myself to this day. When it get too crowded on the train station area, I don’t feel comfortable at all. You do not want nobody next to you, only a person that you know.

Ismael: It’s a penitentiary. This is a “penance”; “rehabilitation”; we’re “reforming these criminals” when that’s not what it is. That’s just terminology that’s diverting people’s minds from what it really is. Let’s call it what it is: torture. Let’s torture these people. Let’s put these people in the torture facility. Let’s put these people in the place where they’ll be degraded, where they’ll go through severe psychological trauma, where they’ll be absued, where their health will be neglected, where their rights as human beings will be stripped away. And they’re no longer human.

Mike: It can make you and it can break you and sometimes when it make you, it break you at the same time. It’s a nightmare.

Ismael: [We need] education. Educational growth. Giving people a higher self-confidence, higher self-esteem. Actually giving them the means and letting them know they can change, that if they do change it’s actually opportunities for them. Give them the mental incentive to know, okay, there is hope for you.

Mike: Give them a head start. Like their driver’s license, get them a job before they leave the facility, get the housing before they leave the facility, not when I get to the street and it’s like . . . okay, which way do I turn?

What would they tell their 18-year-old selves?

Ismael: Try hard. You can do it. You’re a smart kid. People are not telling you that, but you’re a smart kid. You’re smart and you have a lot of potential, you have a good heart and you’re strong.

Mike: I would tell Mike, “Tomorrow is always another day. You don’t have a penny today? Might get one tomorrow. You don’t have a penny tomorrow? Might get one the next day. But I guarantee you, before that week is up, you will have a penny.” He woulda did the right thing. Trust me, he woulda did the right thing.

Ismael: It’s sad. At the age of 19 I remember thinking to myself, “I’m a career criminal. This is the rest of my life.”

Mike: Yeah and I woulda told him like, “You don’t realize what you got until that shit is gone.” I woulda been more appreciative. I’m appreciative now because of the things that I lost, I know I’m not gonna get back.

Now

Ismael: Now [with my family], it’s repairing. There’s some things going on, there’s things. But it’s changed so much because of how much I’m attaining, how much they see me doing and progressing. Like, “Okay he’s still clean, three years clean. He’s doing all this different. He’s still going to college. He’s working. He lives clean. He’s well-spoken, haven’t heard any drama from him.” May 23, Columbia, I start my Humanities program. That and going for my A+ certification.

Mike: I just said to myself, “Man, I’m just gonna go out here and start over.” My family, I’m not gonna force it with them. I don’t wanna force it with them. I just wanna get on my feet, do the right thing, and take it one day at a time. One day at a time is slow. It is slow. Sometimes I look at other people walking. I envy them with they mothers and they fathers and stuff like that. I envy that a lot. Christmas time comes, birthday, Mother’s Day, stuff like this. I see people walking with they families, “Hey mommy.” I envy that with a passion. But I don’t say anything. I just look and be like, “Damn.”

This piece would not have been possible without the openness of Mike and Ismael, as well as Incarcerated Nation, Inc. and MrFive. Greylined will be an ongoing, evolving space sharing the voices and experiences of those affected by incarceration in NYC. To follow along, click here. Allen can be found on Twitter @LissomeLight.