A Jewish reporter enters Rikers to get a new book about a notorious prison

JTA (New York Jewish Week) – Reuven Blau, the son of a Holocaust survivor, means that his father could have impressed him to hunt change inside New York Metropolis’s infamous Rikers Island jail.

“There’s this unconscious urge to vary issues, or to assist individuals in a manner that you do not perceive,” Blau mentioned. “Throughout the Rikers, you notice how tough that will need to have been, and the way horrible the situations will need to have been for everybody concerned.”

A metropolis reporter who attended a Brooklyn seminary, Blau is the co-author, with Graham Reiman, of “Rikers: An Oral Historical past,” a brand new e book concerning the jail that makes frequent headlines for the violence and despair trapped inside. its partitions. The e book seeks to humanize the individuals contained in the jail – whether or not they’re prisoners or those that work there – and inform their tales.

Chatting with the New York Jewish Week, Blau mentioned his objective was to amplify the voices of “people who find themselves hardly ever seen as individuals,” he mentioned.

The jail advanced, which opened in 1932, has lengthy been criticized for its harsh situations, which embody horror tales of inmates in cages in tiny bogs, sleeping on excrement-stained flooring, suicides, beatings, and extra. Many have referred to as for its closure because the Nineteen Seventies. As of December 14, 19 individuals have died in Rikers in 2022 – the very best loss of life charge since 2013.

Blau and Rayman spent almost three years interviewing about 130 individuals, a lot of the conversations going down over the cellphone or in particular person with individuals who had already gotten out of jail. Additionally they made a number of journeys to the jail advanced.

One of many individuals they spoke with was Rabbi Gabriel Kretzmer Seed, a Jewish chaplain at Rikers. Sid talked about singing Shabbat songs with an inmate who abruptly acquired up and punched him.

“He was a really sturdy particular person, however I ended up with bloody lips. He might need been muttering one thing, however I do not keep in mind what he mentioned particularly. I used to be so shocked. I used to be in full shock as a result of I had recognized him for some time and he was The final particular person I believed would harm me.”

Syed then observed that he was capable of work with the psychological well being employees and was finally capable of set up a very good relationship with the inmate after the incident.

“It was a revealing story of how there are individuals on the market to assist others,” Blau mentioned. “And so they notice how misplaced individuals are on the market.”

Previous to becoming a member of The Metropolis, Blau labored for the New York Every day Information and the New York Publish. Regardless of his deep reporting expertise, Blau, 43, famous that it was the “weirdest factor” to turn into the “voice” of Rikers. “I’m this entire non secular man,” Blau mentioned. “I’ve by no means been to jail. It wasn’t an issue I used to be in any respect conscious of in any manner.”

He stays observant, mentioned Blau, who grew up in Denver and attended Yeshiva Excessive Faculty in Chicago. “An enormous fan,” mentioned Blau, who lives in New Jersey together with his spouse, Sarah, who had a child woman in Might. “My favourite a part of the tradition is the social service community that exists in lots of communities.”

He acquired into reporting after majoring in English at Brooklyn Faculty. Earlier than working for the tabloids, Blau wrote for The Chief, a newspaper devoted to work and native politics, the place he lined the union representing New York Correctional Officers, amongst different issues.

In 2011, he acquired a scoop with The Publish on a “jail bar mitzvah” that exposed that correctional officers and overseers attended a lavish Jewish coming-of-age ceremony behind bars at a midtown Manhattan jail paid for by taxpayers.

“I’ve all the time had some advances in jail protection,” Blau mentioned of his time working within the information business.

His co-writer, Rayman, covers prison justice for the Every day Information. Reiman instructed The New York Jewish Week that he did not assume individuals may learn the e book and “come out of feeling that something aside from this jail system is so deeply flawed and in want of massive adjustments.”

The town is required by legislation to shut down Rikers Island by 2027, but many query whether or not that’s even doable.

“I actually hope there will not be a journalist behind me in 20 or 30 years who writes about the identical points, as a result of I believe meaning the protection we had been doing did not make any influence,” Blau mentioned. “I have a look at it via that lens. I attempt to give you methods that can change issues for the higher in a extremely significant manner.”

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