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Crossing Over

I vividly recall a statement made by my uncle, a voracious reader of the classics. The subject of hopelessness came up, and he quoted from the inscription in Dante’s Inferno over the gate of hell – “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”, or “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” My uncle ruminated how he could imagine nothing worse than a life without hope. Over the years, I have reflected many times over his statement and that hope is indeed the fuel that keeps the human spirit running in the face of adversity and misfortune.

Nothing frightens me more than the idea of prison. Here, with this fate, we have at least two abhorrent conditions – number one, taking away a fundamental right of a human being, something that most individuals hold most dear: freedom, the cornerstone of American society and government. And, number two, given a serious crime and a lifetime sentence without parole, is the prospect of experiencing Dante’s promise here on earth – a life without hope. I have watched numerous prison documentaries on television, hoping to get an understanding of how a prison inmate can get through day to day life, knowing that there is no hope of regaining the freedom they once had and that the average citizen enjoys.

Recently, Gothamist ran a story on the relatively unknown Vernon C. Bain jail barge – a prison floating in the East River off the South Bronx. I read the article, perused the photos, and located the prison via an aerial map view online. The Department of Corrections built the barge in 1992 for $161 million to deal with overcrowding in the Rikers Island jail complex. The jail barge houses approximately 800 inmates, medium to maximum security. There are 100 cells within 16 dormitories, a law library, recreation rooms, and a basketball court on top of the barge’s deck. The place seemed fascinating, so I corralled a friend to join me on an excursion to see the place firsthand with the hopes of getting a few photos.

When we arrived near our destination in the Bronx, my map indicated only one street leading to the prison – Halleck Road. It did not appear that one could park on this street, which reached a dead end at the prison entrance gate. So, we chose to park around the corner on Ryawa Avenue and walk down Halleck Street towards the prison.
On the way, we met a man sitting alone at the side of the road, who introduced himself as Glenn Mercado. I asked if he was familiar with the prison and any possible restrictions regarding photography. He had been inside – he was there to visit an inmate he knew. He assured me that it was permissible to walk to the fence and take a photo of the prison.
We also learned that Glenn had intimate first hand knowledge of prison life. He had served 15 years from age 13 to 28. I was very heartened to learn that he had, however, turned his life around. He was now married with a family and employed as a union carpenter making a substantial wage. We bid our farewells and continued walking towards the end of Halleck Road.

I pressed my camera against the chain link fence. Unfortunately, I was very close to the entrance/exit gate and security booth. The attending police officer was not pleased with my behavior and barked at me from afar that I was not to take photos, adding, “That camera has got to go.” I was not sure of the exact meaning of his statement, quite worried that perhaps he was threatening confiscation of my equipment.
I was also terrified that my activity might lead to arrest and that I would no longer have to watch programs on prison life but I would learn first hand what a place like the Vernon C. Bain jail barge was really like. My friend and I scurried away from the fenced area without any response to the corrections officer. Silence was my only prayer. Unlike psychic mediums such as John Edward, I was not interested in learning what was on the other side by Crossing Over :)

More prisons: The Tombs

6 Responses to Crossing Over

  1. You are braver than I am. I don’t think I could have gotten that close myself. A place like that would scare me to death. I did visit Alcatraz once, but that doesn’t really count.

  2. Brian Dubé says:

    I’m not how much was bravery and how much was foolishness. I was embarrassed to have involved my companion for the adventure – a younger person who works on this blog and trusts my judgement. I am glad we are not sharing afternoons in the law library aboard the Vernon C. Bain jail barge :)

  3. blournalist says:

    It’s funny – we are definitely drawn to these places (to look!)
    And you stand there for a bit, and then it hits you; prison is real. Of course.


    But I think it’s one of those things you need to see in person to really make the connection and take the mystique out of it. Your story made me understand why I did it, too. Thanks.

  4. Most interesting post. I love your bit of humor at the end! Prisons give me the willies.

    I am also a huge advocate for ending the Death Penalty. Not only has it not deterred crime, but it takes away any chance of the prisoner—a human being who feels and bleeds and who’s life is as precious as the rest of us (in god’s eyes??) —of exonerating him/herself.

    There have been too many who have been exonerated in the last few years to ignore this barbaric and outdated practice.

    • Brian Dubé says:

      blournalist – that’s exactly how I felt. I am a very curious person by nature, and that was the realization I had once the guard told me to put away my camera. This wasn’t just any old curiosity or spectacle. This was PRISON.
      Great story and pics on your blog as well. The only difference is that the prison is right there on the main road, not out of the way as I was. I wonder if it just blends in to the residents after a while.

      Leslie – certainly not a world I’d like to explore further. I’ll just stick to documentaries about prison from now on :)

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