the future of incarceration

What I Saw in New York's Most Notorious Jails and Prisons

You don't see what I've seen and then just come out and be OK and adjust. We should get PTSD treatment for this shit.
December 13, 2016, 12:00am

Stephon Rucker is finally back home.

Born in 1985, he grew up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in the Walt Whitman Housing Projects. By the time he was a teen, Rucker says, he was running with Bloods and his neighborhood houses were feuding with the nearby Farragut projects. At age 20, Rucker says he was a cocaine wholesaler, moving product from Brooklyn to Schenectady. After what he describes as a violent dispute with another seller—prosecutors accused him of "terrorizing" a man and a woman with a female accomplice—he was convicted of a slew of charges, including third-degree assault, second-degree robbery, and first-degree burglary. He recalls several nights in the NYPD's 79th Precinct, in Brooklyn Central Booking, and on Rikers Island—and then several years in Coxsackie, Clinton, and Bare Hill Correctional Facilities upstate.

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While imprisoned, Rucker read the law and handled parts of his own successful appeal, reducing his sentence from 12 to eight years. He came home, at age 30, in 2015.

Now that Rucker is back in my neighborhood, he's almost as well-known as he is whip smart. As he sips from a paper cup one night on Myrtle Avenue, dapping all the passersby in front of a late night Chinese food spot by Adelphi Street, Rucker sounds like a public defender when he cites the 180.80 Criminal Procedure Statute governing the amount of time the state can hold you without a hearing.

Upstate, those pilgrims told me straight up, "Naw, nigger, up here, we'll kill you."

We spoke over Hennessy one night this fall, and over coffee a couple mornings later. I asked Rucker about his new life on the outside, what he remembers from the inside, and what he thinks about reforming and maybe even closing down a massive jail like Rikers Island. Here's what he had to say, in his own words.


I've been on both sides of the police brutality thing, to be honest with you… I've assaulted [correctional] officers. I've been cuffed and thrown down stairs, broken ribs, what have you. But I have a really strong will to survive. I don't say that lightly.

This is something that I'm speaking from experience, that I've actually lived, that I've actually witnessed. I've actually witnessed the cops throw a man down the stairs. Did you pull up the YouTube video? The one where they allowed the man to die there on the floor with his hands cuffed behind his back—I didn't know him that well, but I saw him. I was workin' back then in Tailor Shop 3. We made jackets in there for EMS. Ten cent an hour? Ha. Maybe it was two bucks a week.

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My first time on Rikers? It was 2004 or 5… yeah, I'm like 19. It was just a few nights. The worst is the intake: It's a sensory-deprivation process from the time you get booked and go down to whatever precinct and you're held there, then, you know, you go to central booking—there's violations of due process over all the shit, to be honest with you. But I didn't know that back then. There's no Miranda Rights, [they're] taking fruit of the poisonous tree. They break you down with the intake process, and you got guys coppin' out to plea deals, at the behest of duress, really. People are taking pleas just to get off that Island, and they talkin' 'bout conviction rate. But they don't convict nobody. Not at trial. The system can't keep its promises. If everybody on the island said, "I'm going to trial." Boom. Done.

The first sense they deprive you of is time. You don't even know how long you been in there. You have no idea if it's past your 24 hours. Then they restart your clock. I had a lot of time on my hands, and I read Gilbert law books and learned about our rights. There's no constitutional rights in there. I mean, I seen 'em beat a nigger cuz he asked what was goin' on. And you got turnstile jumpers in there. C'mon man.

The most traumatic thing is the bookings. When you on that bus and you gotta go over the bridge to Rikers, that's when you know it's real. First and foremost, it's just an inhumane environment. The conditions is just disgusting. Some heroin sick dude throwin' up, walls filthy, police have zero regard if this man gonna choke on his own throw-up. For hours. When does cruel and inhumane get taken into account? If they were to do something [to reform], they'd have to start right there—intake. One CO's mood determine whether you go through hell or not. One person shouldn't have so much power like that. I've seen the COs throw a known Crip into a Blood house on Rikers. I read the Oath of Affirmation—they got the same one as the cops, they supposed to uphold the US and New York State Constitution. They violating they oath. You just knowingly endangered this man's life because of how you feel about some shit he said to you?

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Don't get it twisted. Some COs go there just to work they eight hours and go home. They in jail, too, man. But some go there to live their eight hours. Fantasies. Power trip. Upstate, those pilgrims told me straight up, "Naw, nigger, up here, we'll kill you."


Watch Kingsley Rowe talk about his journey from incarceration on a third-degree murder charge to being a professional criminal justice reformer.


See in Rikers, you might know a CO. I mean, you might have grown up in the same hood. It ain't no thing to be gettin' a slice of pizza on Flatbush and see a Rikers CO. So, I mean, what he gonna do to me, when I got friends on the outside know where he live at? But upstate? You don't know nobody. It's six and seven hours away. It's too far for families to visit. You all alone. And they know that. They can get away with it. They wanna make it as difficult as possible to connect the outside to the inside. That way they can keep on doing shit, and no one will really know what it's like in there.

I got out January 29, 2015—thrown to the wolves, basically. I mean, I utilized my time wisely. I was up on Popular Science and magazines. But had I ever seen it physically? No. But I knew: This is how you use a tablet, a touch screen, what have you. [But] like, what the hell is this WiFi thing, you know? I'm still adjusting to it. Coming outta AdSeg [administrative segregation, a.k.a. solitary confinement], where the only thing that speaks is the voice in your mind, and it speaks so loud you can't hear anything else—I built my mental wall there. But I know other people who aren't so fortunate. They went crazy. They went literally crazy.

It's surreal sometimes: I'm walking down the street, and I just look up. I mean, just look up. I know people that will never see that free sky.

I fight mentally every day to find a way to stay out of the system. I ain't stickin' a gun in nobody's face, ain't no fuckin' way. I ain't sellin' no crack, ain't no fucking way. They sent me to a halfway house, but I read the Parole Handbook and fraternizing with felons can get you sent back. They can violate you. No wonder the recidivism rate is so high. You got criminal-minded people who have done years and years and years and can't necessarily adapt to society… you got them all in the same place?!

But I lucked up, got a great parole officer. She was up to no bullshit—she just wanted me to stay out of jail, no matter what, and just do anything productive. So I told her: Stop making me live with convicted felons and let me go back to Fort Greene. And she said, "You know what, Mr. Rucker? We gonna give it a try."

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I found my job on Craigslist. Make sure you say Speedy Romeo is the best goddamn pizza place in Brooklyn—they stand by me. I built a rapport with them, and they love me there. I brought my cousin in, and he's workin' with me now.

It's surreal sometimes: I'm walking down the street, and I just look up. I mean, just look up. I know people that will never see that free sky. Sometimes I would be scared of crowds. I was scared of crowds on the train, comin' from an environment where you have to be constantly watchin' over your shoulders. I would not take the train. It's paranoia. I wanna say it's post-traumatic stress.

Rucker with his son in Fort Greene

You don't see what I've seen and then just come out and be OK and adjust like that. I've seen a dude in the yard get hot oil just dumped on him, shhhump, face peelin' right off—cuz he couldn't pay a debt. I've seen a dude get stabbed in the mess hall—to death. COs gotta lock it down, so we can't even move. We gotta sit there and watch this dude shake out on the floor. We should get PTSD treatment for this shit.

The whole reform thing? Yeah, that's some bullshit. It's already been established that this a cash cow. Is too many people makin' too much profit off this. But to me, it's like the glue concept. It's really easy to squeeze it out the bottle. You ever try and put it back? It's too many officers too comfortable with the current circumstances; they are not gonna go for that shit. Yeah, you can reform it for the outsider perspective. They probably sayin' that shit because it's too many lawsuits right now.

I'm skeptical because I'm a realist. As long as there's people to lock up, it's gonna remain the same. And that's by design. What's that amendment, the 12th? The 13th? No slavery 'cept for criminals. Went from whips to sticks. Boats to busses. Plantations to prisons. Different toilet, but same shit, for lack of a better expression.

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYSDOCCS) did not comment on some events described in this article after being contacted prior to publication.

This article is part of the VICE series The Future of Incarceration. Read the rest of the package here.