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.
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.