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 punishment, 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-in-law, 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.”
— Jerry Zezima