Hey, You’re Cool! Liza Jessie Peterson
The poet and actress taught on Rikers for 18 years
When Liza Jessie Peterson was told that her first assignment as a teaching artist would be at a place called Island Academy, she figured it must be some fancy prep school. Nope. Island Academy is the High School located on Rikers Island. And Peterson would be coming through to teach poetry to the kids there.
You may recognize Peterson as a member of HBO’s Def Poetry or from her inclusion in 13th, Ava DuVernary’s documentary about the American prison system. She’s also an actress and playwright. Her one-woman show, The Peculiar Patriot, will premiere at the National Black Theatre in September. Now, add memoirist to the list of Peterson’s accomplishments. Her recently released book, ALL DAY: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island, chronicles her first year as a full-time teacher at Rikers.
We talked to Peterson about her work at Rikers, some surprising things she’s witnessed there, and the changes that have a chance to make a real difference in the system and the lives it affects the most.
How long have you been teaching at Rikers?
Next year will be 20 years. I started in 1998 as a teaching artist, teaching poetry workshops, and my roles have evolved over the years. I worked with a reentry group, working with incarcerated youth when they come home but still doing outreach on Rikers Island with them while they’re still incarcerated. Then I was a full-time school teacher, working on the school floor all day, which is what my book is about. Most recently I worked for the Department of Corrections as a program counselor, back again with the same population, working all day in their housing area where they sleep and eat, and did five hours of daily programming.
What made you want to begin teaching there?
It really came and knocked on my door. Back in ‘98 I was part of the spoken word scene at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which gave birth to Def Poetry. I was part of that enclave of poets and as an artist and a poet you have to find other means to earn a living, especially in New York. So at that time there were non-profit organizations that would send poets into the schools across the five boroughs to do writing workshops. I hooked up with this organization and my first assignment was at Island Academy. At the time I had never been to jail, never been to prison; I didn’t even know the difference between prison and jail and when they assigned me to Island Academy. I was so naïve that I thought that it was a prep school or some fancy academy because it sounds fancy, you know, “academy.” I didn’t know that “island” stood for Rikers Island. So… I did it for money. It was a teaching artist gig. It was supposed to be a three-week gig. I worked with a class at Rikers Island for three weeks and then the organization would send me to another school in another borough. You just kind of bounced around as a teaching artist. But three weeks turned into three years because the teachers at Rikers Island High School kept asking me to come back. They kind of passed me around. So I would do three weeks in one class, three weeks in another class, and I looked up and they just kept asking me to come back. I became the poet-in-residence at Rikers Island. So that was my first introduction.
Did they ever say, “Hey, you’re going to Rikers Island?”
Yeah, when it came time to get the details they were lik,e “Okay, so you’re going to Rikers Island.” And I was like, “Wait wait wait! Rikers Island?” So, I had to do a mental adjustment.
What was it like when you first got there?
I was terrified. Not for my safety, but I was terrified because I didn’t think the kids would be into it, that they would clown me, that I wouldn’t be able to get their attention or get them to want to do poetry. I had my preconceived judgements of how incarcerated kids would respond to poetry. But, man, they rocked out. That first day, I had them.
The kids probably also had their preconceived ideas of what poetry was.
Back then, they thought poetry was corny. This was pre-Def Poetry. Def Poetry hadn’t hit the scene. It was not in the zeitgeist, so poetry was old dead white people.
What was it like when you first started?
The reason why they kept asking me to come back was because the reception and the rapport was so powerful. It resonated. They just tapped right in because they have so much to say. They’re very expressive and they do express their feelings. They may hide them because jail is a place where you have to be guarded for your safety to survive. With poetry it’s the exact opposite. In my approach, if you’re not tapping into your feelings and your observations then you’re not writing, that’s not creative writing. That’s not poetry. That’s not honest. So I go right for the truth and they want to talk, they want to express, and it was really powerful. That’s why my three weeks turned into three years, because I was getting results. Instantaneously.
Being vulnerable like that can be hard. Did that ever cause a problem?
No, I’ve never had that. Actually, quite the opposite. One of my techniques that I do, when the kids finish writing, I take their pieces and poems, and some are great and some are not so great, but as long as they’re writing and engaged and they’re expressing themselves, they get equal praise from me. So, I read their poems aloud, anonymously. I never say who wrote it. And because I’m a performance artist, and an actress, and a performance poet, I can take the alphabet and make it sound fly. So I take their poems and I add my performance swag on it and they just get all excited like, “Oh! who wrote that?!” And so they start validating each other which is really powerful.
Tell me about your book. Where does the name come from?
At time that I wrote All Day I had been working in the prisons on Rikers Island for 18 years. I had worked in different capacities. I was a teaching artist, reentry specialist, I was there consistently. But when I was a school teacher I was in the classroom with them all day, from 7:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. I was the main school teacher. I wasn’t the poetry lady that came in and did the poetry workshop for 45 minutes to an hour and then went to another class. It’s a different muscle, it’s a different relationship, it’s a totally different dynamic. And the kids at Rikers Island, they don’t change classes. There’s no bell that rings and they go to their English class and math class and science class. Whatever class they go to when they come in the morning that’s the class they sit in all day. I had to teach all the subjects, except for math, so I taught science, social studies, English, writing, all the subjects to get them ready for their GED. The reason I call it All Day is because I was like, “Wow, I’m with these jokers all day, literally.”
What was your impetus for writing this book now, after all this time?
The book chronicles 2008 – 2009, when I was a full-time school teacher. I wrote it in 2011. When I was teaching I wasn’t thinking: a book. I wasn’t like oh this will be a great story, I should write a book about this. That was never my intention. What I did do while I was teaching, I kept a journal of all the things that I was going through and all the things that were happening because as an artist I had no creative muscle because my schedule was so crazy. I had to be at Rikers Island at 7:30. I don’t drive so that means I had to leave my house at 5:30 to make sure I got to Rikers Island on time to punch in at 7:35. So if I had to leave my house at 5:30, I had to be up at 4:30, so my whole schedule as an artist was just crazy. By the time I got home I was emotionally, physically, just zonked. So the only thing that could keep a little bit of heart beating with art was to write in my journal. I would just download into my journal. Again, not thinking book, not thinking story, just a way to keep a pulse, for myself as an artist. I picked up my journal after two years, in 2011, and I read it, just looking back on what I was going through. I came across one of my journal entries from when I was teaching in that capacity as a full-time teacher and it made me laugh. I was like, oh my God I remember this kid. I remember we went through this. And I kept turning the pages and it literally read like a book. When I wrote the book it was really about just wanting to bring forth their voices and humanize these adolescents who are demonized and criminalized. This was before the “close Rikers” campaign. That wasn’t even around, so it just was kismet and the universe conspiring that this book happened to be published right when everybody was talking about Rikers.
How bad are things at Rikers? How do you feel about closing it?
Anytime you have kids in jail, incarcerated, it’s not good and it’s so disproportionately biased against black and Latinos. The adolescent population at Rikers is 98 percent kids of color, black and Latino. That’s insane. 98 percent. Just wrap your mind around that. Like, that’s almost a hundred percent. Kids. At Rikers Island.
So yeah, it needs to close. Black and brown children need to be humanized and not criminalized. I’m not saying that what some of them have done, horrific things, and some have done some not so horrific things, deserve second chances and programs and not to be incarcerated, but the judicial system is rigged in a way that prejudices and biases don’t give black and brown children the benefit as being seen as human. They’re looked at as case numbers. They are menaces to society. They’re criminals. They’re disposable. I have been working for almost 20 years in the belly of the beast to disrupt that narrative. It’s not exclusive to New York. So, if this is happening in New York, can you imagine Mississippi? Can you imagine Alabama? Can you imagine in the crevices of the Deep South? I mean, please.
What was your role in 13th?
I was one of the people that was interviewed by Ava (DuVernay). It was towards the end when they focused on Kalief Browder and his tragedy and talking about bail and basically how he was punished for not wanting to take a plea deal. She included me in that section because I work with incarcerated adolescents. So, even though I didn’t work specifically with Kalief, I have worked with “Kaliefs.”
What is the performance piece that you do at the penitentiaries across the country?
I have a one-woman show called The Peculiar Patriot. It’s a theater piece, a dramatic satire about the prison industrial complex. It’s been in development for over 10 years and when it first came out some theaters didn’t want to touch it because again, this is before The New Jim Crow, before “prison industrial complex” was in the zeitgeist. “Mass incarceration” was not even a term that people were using. Nobody wanted to hear a play, especially from a black woman, telling a love story about this relationship of a woman in prison. So I took the play to the prison population and I started out at Rikers. The first upsate prison facility I did it at was Eastern Correctional Facility up in Napanoch, New York. It was phenomenal. The 35 facilities across the U.S. are all adult, minimum, medium, to supermax facilities. I did a 45-minute excerpt of my play. I didn’t do any poetry. That was a theater run and a prison tour.
Did your time at Rikers have an effect on the work that became the play?
Absolutely. When I first stepped foot at Rikers Island in 1998 I had no idea what I was getting involved in. I was not a prison abolitionist, a prison activist, at all. Aside from being familiar with international and national political prisoners like Mumia (Abu-Jamal) and Geronimo Pratt. That was kind of as close as I got to it. So when I first started in 1998, I’ll never forget. I kept seeing the same black and brown faces, these boys, every day, every week, every month, every year. So, my first couple of months there I knew something was wrong, something was off, but I didn’t have the language to articulate what it was because I still had no real concept of what I stepped into. So a correctional officer, he goes, “Oh, you don’t know where you are, do you?” Almost like like I was Dorothy in Oz and I said, “What are you talking about?” And he was like, “You know you’re on the plantation?” And I was like, wow! And so he goes. “Yeah, you don’t know, do you?” and he pointed to the boys and he goes, “That’s the cotton, they’re the crop.” I was like oh my God. I never heard this language used in this way about these kids and about the system. And so he goes, “When you go home you put ‘prison industrial complex’ into the computer and see what comes up. Do a little bit of reading and then we’ll have another talk tomorrow.” And he sent me on the path because when I went home and I looked on the computer it just took me into a rabbit hole and I haven’t left the rabbit hole since that day. This was before The New Jim Crow. Nobody was talking about it in a national way. I mean unless you were an advocate in the trenches and doing the work. But it wasn’t that accessible unless you knew to have access to it. Like Angela Davis of course, Are Prisons Obsolete? There were activists but their voices were not loud. They were not in those circles. It wasn’t a national conversation.
Do you feel that it’s a national conversation now?
Absolutely. The New Jim Crow just busted it open and 13th took it to another level. So yeah, it’s national. Everybody’s talking about it.
And do you feel that things will finally begin to change now?
They have to change. It’s always been the oppressed that have changed the meter on progress. It has always been black and brown people who have pushed the envelope to move this country towards its ideal of democracy, whatever that’s supposed to mean.
If they do close Rikers, don’t you just move the same problems to the new place?
I think what has to happen and what is happening—and there are a lot of different advocates more well-versed and proficient on the issue than I am about the closing of Rikers and the different plans that are in place—but money and funding need to go to community-based organizations and going back to the community to support the communities where the incarcerated populations are coming from or entering back into so that there are support systems. Creating job opportunities and support systems like job training and counseling and education. And look at the bail system. When you have, and I don’t know the specific statistic, but it’s something like over 90 percent of the people at Rikers Island have not been convicted, they’re just charged and they’re sitting there because they can’t afford bail.
We only ever hear about the horror stories going on at Rikers. Is there anything good happening there?
Yes, absolutely and I talked about this in my book. I witnessed a lot of correctional officers who took on the role of like a surrogate mother or surrogate father or auntie or big sister, big brother. I saw where there was a lot of conversation and building with the kids and connecting with the kids. Yes, you do have officers who are violent and who have committed violent acts, yes, but what I witnessed more often than not were officers who were interested in helping the kids and who wanted to talk to them and build with them, it wasn’t a constant adversarial relationship. I think that part of the reason is because the correctional officers at Rikers Island, the majority of them are black and Latino so these kids, they are our sons and our nephews and our cousins and an extension of our community and our family. There’s an unspoken relationship that happens with the black and Latino kids and the black and Latino correctional officers.
What would people be surprised to learn about your students?
That they are so smart and so funny and they’re so resilient and there’s so much potential. I think a lot of people either think that most of the kids have mental health issues, and not that they don’t, but that’s kind of like the broad stroke of, “Oh they have mental health issues” or “They’re just these gang related bad criminals.” Not that that’s not the case for some of them but it’s getting past those labels and getting past that to see the humanity of their adolescence. They’re still developing and the difference between them and the kid who’s going to a normal high school is no different at all. Because teenagers, whether they’re black, white or Asian, they are all insane for a temporary period of time. That’s across the board. So these kids were criminalized for their reckless adolescent development. They are being criminalized for their normal adolescent act-out and bucking up against authority. That’s what adolescents do. I did it.
What’s the take away?
For me the take away is that our kids are worthy of our attention. They’re worthy of our resources. They are valuable. They are not disposable. And we really need to look at other ways to deal with their temporary developmental process of adolescent insanity. I shouldn’t use that word because I don’t want people to take it literally like, “Oh, she’s calling them insane.” I’m calling all teenagers insane, because that’s what they are. They’re crazy. All teenagers are crazy. And that’s part of their development because the prefrontal cortex is not even fully developed yet. I compare it to the “terrible twos.” That’s a developmental stage. A two-year-old, they go through the “terrible twos.” Well, teenagers go through the “terrible teens.” So it’s the same developmental phase but in their teenage years, and it’s crazy. But black and Latino youth are criminalized for that natural phase of development so I hope that with this book the takeaway is to humanize our children and not criminalize them.