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Former Rikers Detainee Tells His Story

Damian Stapleton (Image from the film “Rikers: An American Jail”)

By Melanie Correa

After last Wednesday’s screening of Bill Moyer’s documentary “Rikers: An American Jail,” the Department of Africana Studies at Lehman College held a panel discussion about the film, incarceration, and surviving the notorious facility.  The Panelists were Bronxite Damian Stapleton, a former detainee who was featured in the film, and educators Dr. Sunyata Smith and Dr. Carl Mazza.

The men and women featured in the film offered vivid stories about their time at Rikers including details of their interactions with inmates and officers as well as their transition into society when they were released.  Rikers Island has recently gained political and media attention for the conditions at the facility, including alleged violence and abuse of inmates and correction officers.

“Now that I saw this film, I want to know more about what goes on at Rikers,” said Lehman student Maria Colon,”I have family in there and I am guilty of just living my life and forgetting about the people on that island.”

Stapleton says that at Rikers in particular, violence is almost unavoidable.  “I made it through by not being a follower. I did my own thing. And by being scared.”

He was first taken to the Rikers’ holding facility for stealing a book bag when he was 18 years-old. He spent his time reading books and observing the conditions around him, adding that despite the difficulties, both were beneficial to his growth.

“Coming home from prison, I was scared to tell my family what I went through in there. Things like packages not being received, going hungry,” he said.

During the panel Dr. Smith talked about the importance of meditation and mindfulness for the mental stability of those behind bars.

“It’s a cultivation of awareness to being in the present moment,” she says. “It allows them to step back from fear, anger, depression and not let it take over.”

Even while trying to meditate, though, Stapleton remembered hearing everything around him, including those fighting and yelling.

Dr. Mazza explained, “Incarceration is an industry in the United States. You can’t talk about incarceration without talking about racism and economics.”

Trying to reintegrate into the real world after incarceration is also a big issue. Stapleton said that although transition programs help, there are limitations.

For example, he recalled that on a select bus he was not aware that he had to purchase the bus ticket before entering and as he held his MetroCard in his hand, the driver waved to go ahead further inside. Sometime later, two cops approached him about not paying the fare and he was fined $100.

Dr. Mazza adds there are also emotional components of re-entry, for instance negative labels that imply failure such as “ex-convict.”

Stapleton’s advice to those who may face time behind bars or who have family members and friends in the prison system is to, in essence, stop the behavior in its tracks. He suggests education both in school and at home can help navigate someone towards a different future.

“The only thing that’s constant,” he said, “is change.”

Allegations of violence and mistreatment have led officials to propose closing Rikers and replacing it with locations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.













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