I was born in Flushing, Queens, and grew up in Forest Hills. Forest Hills is a place usually thought of as fancy houses and rich people. But there’s a dividing line at 71st avenue, and on the other side there are many smaller, connected houses, often inhabited by immigrant families who moved here to buy their first house. So the part of Flushing where I lived was full of people of different races and cultures.
One of the funny things about the New York City school system is that, even if you’re a couple of blocks away from a high school, it may not be the high school you’re zoned for. You might be zoned to go to a totally different school. My mom didn’t have the kind of social capital that would have enabled her to navigate these social and political systems. She didn’t realize she should be asking people how to make sure I went to the school two blocks away from my house.
So I went to Hillcrest High School, which is in a section of Jamaica that is predominantly people of color, predominantly low-income. The school itself is massively overcrowded. Outside the school, what used to be a track is littered with crack vials and occasionally bullet casings, so nobody actually goes outside for gym. It’s the kind of school where a lot of students don’t see the point to engage, they don’t feel like they need an education. It was a great recruiting ground in the 1990s for a lot of the street gangs. Gangs would send somebody in to recruit, or they’d have one of the students recruit. They’d be like, “Do you really wanna do this? Or would you rather make a few hundred dollars at night?” To most teenagers, the answer is pretty clear. Of course you’d rather make a couple hundred dollars in the night rather than sit in a classroom where nobody cares. Maybe be able to buy a new pair of sneakers and have some money leftover to give to your mom who’s working two jobs. Be able to take your girlfriend out. Be able to hang out with your friends and not have to be like, okay, “Who’s gonna buy the hamburger this time so all five of us can sit at McDonalds?” At that age, you don’t think, “Oh wait, I might get arrested, and I might spend a lot of time in prison, and it’ll fuck up my life forever.”
One thing that’s perverse about New York City is that supposedly we can’t afford quality education for everybody, but we do have money for an entire jail – Rikers Island. Rikers Island is right by La Guardia airport, just across the Rikers Island Channel. It’s an island that’s devoted to mostly pre-trial detention, people who can’t afford bail, and people who’ve been sentenced to less than a year. So this is where we put our resources. And this is where a lot of my friends ended up.
I was dating a guy who was in a gang, and he convinced me that it would be a fine idea to participate in a robbery. Me being 16, there was no disclaimer that I might get arrested, I might go to prison. It’ll be easy, he said. This was a guy who’d already been in jail and had been to prison upstate, so you’d think he’d have an understanding of the risks. The plan was to go in, rob the place, our friend waiting outside in a car. I was the one with the bag, and it had a gun inside. He pulled out the gun and robbed the cashier. The cashier totally freaked out. When we go outside the car is gone, because our supposed friend had taken off. And then the cashier was outside on the street, screaming she’s been robbed. A group of people started to form, and started chasing us all around. Eventually we got arrested.
I spent 48 or 72 hours in jail, in central booking. Because I was 16, I wasn’t allowed to mix with the adult population, so they put me with the other people who were under 18. Until recently, when you go upstate, they’d allow you to mix. But now, under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, 16 and 17-year-olds have to have their own separate space so that they can’t be prayed upon by older people, supposedly. So I was stuck in a tiny little cell. I don’t want to glamorize it, it was a pretty dismal experience, but it also wasn’t the worst awful thing to be in a cell for 48-72 hours, given that people spend years, if not decades, in cells.
Then I got out. Luckily for me, because I was 16, because I had good grades in school, because I was small, because I was Asian – the combination of all of these factors led the judge to adjudicate me as a juvenile rather than as an adult. In New York State, once you’re 16, you’re considered an adult in the criminal punishment system. This means they will charge you as an adult unless you can argue that you should be charged as a juvenile. New York is one of two states – the other one is North Carolina – that does that automatically. In other states, the prosecutor has to argue that they should be able to charge you as an adult.
Because the judge is willing to let me get adjudicated as a juvenile rather than as an adult, I was able to plead out and get five years of probation. But had I been, say, a C-student, or dropped out of school, had I been larger, had I been darker-skinned, had I been black, the judge might have decided differently.
Around the same time, a lot of my friends dropped out, joined gangs, got arrested, went to jail. They were sent to Rikers Island and I started visiting them. That’s how I started understanding more about jail and prison. Just going to Rikers, meeting the same women over and over in the waiting room, meeting at the bus stop, getting to know them. They’d ask me, “Who are you here to visit?” and we’d start talking. Unlike the taboo among those incarcerated, there’s no taboo among family members or loved ones preventing them from telling you what their man is in for.
If you ever go to visit somebody at one of these facilities, you’ll end up waiting several hours for your one-hour visit. You’re just sitting there, waiting, without anything to do. It’s not like they have a TV set like in a doctor’s waiting room. You have to lock up all your things in a locker, so you can’t bring anything. But you’ll be surrounded by other people coming to visit. So you turn around and you start talking to people.
I got to hear a lot of stories about people getting locked up. Nobody was Jeffrey Dahmer or Bernie Madoff or any of those horrible people you read about in the newspapers. They were all in for drugs, some dumb gang thing, some dumb property thing. Around the same time, I decided to start reading about prisons and incarceration. Nobody had ever talked to me about jail or prison before. Even in the gangs, it was never talked about. You don’t lure somebody into a gang by saying, “Here’s the flip side: you might go to prison.” They’re just like, “It’s a great life. You get money, you don’t have to do much.”
Victoria Law, who goes by Vikki, is an anarchist, a prison abolitionist, a freelance writer, author, editor, and a mother.
Vikki grew up in Flushing, Queens in the 80s and 90s, and at the age of 16, she was arrested for participating in an armed robbery. After avoiding a jail sentence on probation, she became a prison abolitionist and writer. She is a rare individual who has made a career writing about women’s prison organizing and resistance after seeing her social circle trapped in the prison-industrial complex. She’s the author of the book Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press 2009) , and co-editor of Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities (PM Press 2012). She’s a regular contributor to Truthout and BitchMedia, where she covers mass incarceration and women’s prison issues, among other things.