Hu­mor is a sur­vival tool on Rik­ers Is­land

The News-Times (Sunday) - - Sunday Arts & Style -

As a fugi­tive from jus­tice who has com­mit­ted count­less crimes against jour­nal­ism (I plead in­san­ity to all of them), I am not ashamed to ad­mit that I was on Rik­ers Is­land.

Now my past has caught up with me be­cause I re­cently found out that one of the se­cu­rity guards at work was a cor­rec­tion of­fi­cer at Rik­ers when I was there.

“I rec­og­nize you!” Ken­neth McDougall said when I flashed my pass at the com­pany en­trance. “They let you out?”

“They had to,” I replied. “I was a bad in­flu­ence on the other in­mates.”

Here’s my con­fes­sion: Sev­eral years ago, I was asked to speak about writ­ing to de­tainees at the New York City cor­rec­tional in­sti­tu­tion.

Af­ter a few hours of cor­rupt­ing the minds of dozens of young men, all of whom promised to re­form af­ter be­ing sub­jected to my cruel and un­usual pun­ish- ment, I was re­leased on my own re­cog­ni­zance be­cause no one else would loan me theirs.

“Rik­ers is a rough place,” said Kenny, as he is pop­u­larly known. “You sur­vived. The ques­tion is, how did Rik­ers sur­vive you?”

“Prob­a­bly be­cause you were there to keep the peace,” I told Kenny, who was a New York City cor­rec­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tor with the In­tel­li­gence Unit.

He worked at Rik­ers for 23 years be­fore re­tir­ing in 2013. Now Kenny, who’s 52, works in cor­po­rate se­cu­rity.

“It’s not as in­ter­est­ing as be­ing in prison,” he ac­knowl­edged as he showed me pho­tos of con­fis­cated weapons, in­clud­ing shanks, ice picks and a tooth­brush with a ra­zor in it. “And those were the lit­tle ones,” Kenny said. “The big ones were like ar­rows. I saw guys with shanks stick­ing out of their backs. They don’t die. If you or I got stuck with a pin, we’d bleed to death.”

“In this place,” I noted, “the most dan­ger­ous weapons are No. 2 pen­cils.”

“Then you’d have to get the lead out,” said Kenny, who was known as “the Shank Hunter” be­cause he con­fis­cated about 4,000 weapons. He added that a sense of hu­mor is the best weapon in a place like Rik­ers. “That’s how you sur­vive,” he said. “Cor­rec­tion of­fi­cers are some of the kind­est, fun­ni­est peo­ple you’ll ever meet. They’re un­sung he­roes.”

Kenny found a lot to laugh about in “the Hooch Ca­per,” when he con­fis­cated two bot­tles of moon­shine that some in­mates were mak­ing.

“I brought the bot­tles to the se­cu­rity of­fice,” Kenny re­called. “These guys used ap­ples and moldy bread as yeast and closed the tops. If you don’t go back daily and re­lease the caps, the bot­tles will ex­plode.”

That’s what hap­pened. They blew up all over the place. There was hooch on the ceil­ing and the walls. My buddy Bill was in there. He said, ‘Who did this?’ I con­fessed.”

“Did you taste the stuff?” I asked.

“Are you kid­ding?” Kenny said. “It smelled ter­ri­ble.”

For Kenny, hu­mor runs in the fam­ily. His fa­ther-in­law, Tony Ricco, was a stand-up comic.

“He played the Catskills, the Po­conos and Ve­gas,” Kenny said. “He’s 87 now. My wife and three daugh­ters have good senses of hu­mor, too. With me around, they have to.”

“I’m glad you were around when I was at Rik­ers,” I said. “But what if I went back?”

“You’d be on your own,” Kenny said. “I wouldn’t be there to pro­tect you. But I think you’d be OK be­cause you have a good sense of hu­mor, too. Just don’t make any hooch. If it ex­plodes, my buddy Bill wouldn’t find it too funny.” Stam­ford na­tive Jerry Zez­ima’s lat­est book is “Nini and Pop­pie’s Ex­cel­lent Ad­ven­tures.” Jer­[email protected]­ton­line.net; jer­ryzez­ima.blogspot.com.

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