Concept: Elijah Kuan-Wong & Sidd Joag Drawings: Jacob Cohen
Jacob Cohen is a Brooklyn-based experimental cellist, visual artist, and educator. Since 2014, he has been working with adolescents and young adults incarcerated on Rikers Island. He brings his cello directly to the housing units, often playing for those that have received infractions for violent behavior while on Rikers. After about a year he started to draw portraits of them and their surroundings. At first they were very basic, but over time complexity and nuance began to develop and the drawings began to capture something deeply personal about the subjects, and revealing of the system in which they are ensnared. There are no photos taken of the inmates during their incarceration other than their mugshot. No cameras are allowed onto the island. These images are of youth, ages 16-21, currently incarcerated and awaiting sentencing.
One of the Dominican kids made a pair of chancletas out of two pairs of foam slippers. He cut one of the slippers to make the strap and sewed it on using thread from his pillowcase. He drew on the Nike sign and flames with markers. I’m not sure what he used as a sewing needle.
He took out his braids and posed like this for Black History Month.
He asked me to draw a picture to send to his girlfriend for Valentines Day.
“Bitches love my hair.”
She wanted me to draw her with the cello. I remember when I met her she was so nice and polite to me. A few minutes later an officer did something she didn't like and she was cursing like a sailor and threatening to kill him.
This officer got between two boys that were starting to fight, with one hand on each boy trying to hold them both back. One of the kids threw a punch that hit him in the face. He stayed completely calm and continued to try to diffuse the situation. He quickly got one of them through a door and locked it so the kids were separated and the fight was avoided.
The phone calls are their most consistent contact with the outside world. A lot of them do three way conference calls with other inmates using a third party as the conduit to connect the two callers. They do all types of business on the jail phones despite the fact that all the calls are recorded. They have people outside send money through Western Unions (“Westies” is the slang term) in order to purchase drugs or other contraband in the jail. Gang orders are often relayed through phone calls. They have all types of conversations with families, and wildly sexual and cringe-worthy conversations with girlfriends and lovers.
This kid was beaten up in four different units before he settled down in a place that he could live. They call it a “World Tour” when you get beat up and moved out of 7 or more units.
Young father missing his child
A young father missing his child.
Young artist playing a cello for the first time
A young incarcerated artist playing a cello for the first time. I am a cellist and I always bring my cello around the jail with me in order to do impromptu performances and collaborations, as well as give the kids a chance to play the instrument. Many of them have never seen a cello before, but every once in a while one of them can play very well right away. For years now everybody has been calling me Cello.
Eating tacos and talking about what they are going to do to the next person that gets moved to their unit.
Watching TV. A few items commonly found lying around the day room are on the table including one of my drawings, an empty cereal package, a milk carton, and a TV remote. There are never very many items available to the young people, however there can often be found a chess board, a few books, a deck of cards, a puzzle, some notebooks, a roll of toilet paper, sugar packages, apples, a bible, a water heater (if the kids are going to be using hot water to make their Ramen noodles), and a jug of water. They have a short list of things they are allowed to buy from the commissary including basic foods, a radio, or hygiene products.
One of the girls
One of the girls. She went home a few weeks after I drew this.
Waited until hair was done
She made me wait a week to draw her so that she could get her hair done at the salon.
She gets a lot of respect from the young women
Another one of the girls. She gets a lot of respect from the young women. She has been released and periodically comes back to visit her girlfriend.
One of the other programs used to run a recording studio in the housing units. They recorded dozens of tracks and the program was incredibly popular. Unfortunately a few weeks ago a program facilitator that was part of a different program tried to bring a few razor blades into one of the other facilities. They were caught and subsequently all of the programs that had been coming in on temporary clearances have been discontinued, including the music-recording program. I have a Department of Corrections ID so I am able to continue my program, but there are very few others that have clearance. It is sad because the culture was really beginning to change. I was running into all types of artists and educators around the different facilities and it was beginning to feel hopeful. Now in the hallways I only see officers and inmates.
Stuck in da cell
During an incident this kid was pepper sprayed by officers and then beaten up. They destroyed his property and flushed his doo rag down the toilet. They locked him down for a few days and then moved him to a secure unit where he will be locked down for most of the day. During the time that he is out of his cell his must be shackled to a desk.
Working on a love song
Working on a love song.
#1.This young man is a Haitian immigrant that came to the United States seeking a better life. He caught a very serious case and he may never go home again. He is a leader among the detainees and he runs his housing unit. He has been recording music with a program in the jail and he wants to use this picture as his album cover.
When he is released we are supposed to meet to record some music together
I met him a few days ago for the first time. He told me he is going to make his $100,000 bail. When he is released we are supposed to meet to record some music together.
He was watching Jerry Springer on TV while I drew this portrait
He was watching Jerry Springer on TV while I drew this portrait. Every morning, no matter what housing unit I go to throughout the jail, Jerry Springer is on every TV.
He wants to be a tattoo artist
I first met this kid in 2015 when he was arrested as an adolescent. Now he came back again as a young adult. He was always into drawing so he would gravitate towards my program and we had a lot of great conversations. He wants to be a tattoo artist. He was upset because he has to go to a year-long drug rehabilitation program. I told him he is actually lucky because most of his peers are going to prison. He plans to do construction with his cousins when he is released.
“Take one step into this dayroom an’ you getting’ SHOT
When you first enter a housing unit, there is a plexiglass wall that separates the dayroom from the entranceway. This young man ran up to the glass right in front of me with his hand down his pants like he was reaching for his shank yelling: “Take one step into this dayroom an’ you getting’ SHOT. Shot is slang for cut. I told him no problem and turned to leave, but then the other young men started to laugh and told me to come in and that it was just a joke. Later he told me that he just settled a lawsuit that he caught for being slashed across his cheek.
He was under the blanket when I walked into the new admissions unit
He was under the blanket when I walked into the new admissions unit. I asked if anybody wanted to hear some music and he lifted the blanket back from his face and said yes. He listened to me play for a while, then began to talk about his dreams. He told me that every night he dreams he is home with his friends and family hanging out doing normal things. He wakes up forgetting where he is.
I have been working with this kid for over a year now. I have drawn portraits of him many times. For a long time he had all of my drawings of him hanging up in his cell. I think the search team took them from him because they are not supposed to have anything hanging on their walls.
I met this girl in the adolescent unit for 16 to 17 year olds
I met this girl in the adolescent unit for 16 to 17 year olds. She was embarrassed to have her hair tied up with a shirt but in the end she was happy with how the drawing turned out.
Kids are escorted to the barbershop for haircuts
Typically, the kids are escorted to the barbershop for haircuts. The barber is occasionally escorted to housing units for kids that have had violent episodes in the corridors. This kid drew a line in pen across his hairline before his haircut to make sure the barber did not push his hairline back.
The game room is a very popular option
For their mandated hour of recreation time the adolescent boys are given an option to go to the gym to play sports or to go to the game room to play video games. The game room is a very popular option. They used to not allow them to play violent games, but now they have Call of Duty.
This young woman is a talented visual artist
This young woman is a talented visual artist. She asked to play my cello. At first she was nervous and self-defeating, but I encouraged her to keep exploring the instrument. Soon she was producing incredibly beautiful and haunting melodies.
David Maddox Patrick Lydon Juan Carlos Arroyo Katrine Claassens David Brooks Rebecca Chesney Emilio Fantin Lloyd Godman Fran Ilich Todd Lanier Lester Frida Larios Mary Mattingly E. J. McAdams Mary Miss Edna Peres Caroline Robinson Finzi Saidi Keijiro Suzuki Ganzeer