Inmates in New York City’s jails can’t tell them apart. Sukari Barnes and Tajiri Swindell are 33-year-old identical twins. Each has been a correction officer at Rikers Island and other jails throughout New York City for 12 years.
Much like its police and fire departments, New York City’s correctional system has long been fed by familial networks. At one time, men ushered their sons into careers as guards. But since female officers were first permitted to work in men’s jails almost 30 years ago, the number of women entering the profession has been on the rise. Today, nearly half of the city’s COs are women.
On a spring evening, the twins sat in Tajiri’s living room on Staten Island. Petite with oval faces and long black hair. They wear pink. At 33, they have five little girls between them. They were joined by their mother, Joyce Gourdine, a retired deputy warden who’d encouraged them as teens to pursue careers in corrections.
Sukari Barnes: When we came on the job, I was 92 pounds soaking wet.
Tajiri Swindell: I was 98 pounds. We actually looked like we were 16.
SB: We were babies. If I saw somebody that looked like me come on the job, I think I’d laugh.
TS: We find officers now that tell us they actually took bets that—
SB: —we wouldn’t make it.
TS: It’s good having her and my mother with an understanding of the job, because you have an outlet.
SB: Somebody to debrief you. If you do have a hard day, you need to be able to talk with somebody who understands what you’re really going through. At this point in corrections, I could tell you that everybody that comes on now in some way is connected to someone who has already been an officer or is an officer at this moment.
TS: It’s not a bad job, and the pay has increased enormously.
SB: I cleared $80,000 last year.
TS: I cleared 86.
SB: It’s a comfortable living.
Joyce Gourdine: When I first came on, women could only work with women. I was given the survey when I was at the Brooklyn Courts in 1978, asking if I could work with men. I said, “Yes, I could.” I was an officer at the time, and the captain told me, “You just ruined it for all the women in the department.” So I said, “Well, why is that?” He said, “They’re going to put you in with the men.” That was supposed to scare me. I said, “Well, listen, if I get raped by a man, what’s new? If a man gets raped by a man, it’s worse.” So I said, “I think I could handle getting raped as much as you could.”
TS: When I came onto the job, I found a new respect for what my mother did. I didn’t have any understanding, because my mother did a wonderful job of not bringing it home with her. And then when I went into the academy, I said, “Mommy! I had no idea.”
JG: It’s a psychological thing. You have to psychologically rule. It’s not a physical thing. If you come in everyday and write people up and bring the riot squad down and everything, you’re not doing your job properly. You have to learn how to individualize people and deal with them mentally. Let them know you are not playing: “You will move when I say move.” And then you make a believer out of somebody if you have to.
SB: There was a situation on Rikers Island in the recreation area where an inmate hurt himself. He’s acting up, he’s flipping out, going crazy: “Call the captain! I have to go to the hospital!” And my sister walked right over and said, “Are you okay?” Just those three words made him calm down. He looked up at her and said, “I just hurt my knee a little bit.”
TS: All he wanted was a little attention! I said, “Oh, okay. You need something for your knee. Let’s just go to the clinic.”
JG: These are all murderers, rapists, serial killers! But when they get in there, they’re helpless because they can’t do anything without your permission. You tell ’em when to get up, you tell ’em when to eat, when to sleep—
SB: —when to shower.
JG: You have to open their door. So they’re really at your mercy. And we’re all human beings.
SB: The phones are controlled. The food is controlled. The sleeping arrangements are controlled.
JG: Everything is controlled.
SB: Everything is controlled by you.
JG: I’m very proud of my daughters, because they’ve been on for 12 years, and I know it’s not an easy job. I know it’s difficult, and I felt badly at first for even having to put them in, because I know what I went through, and it gets very raw in there. You see the rawness in life.
SB: We’re very rarely shocked.
JG: You try to raise ladies, and you know you’re sending them into hell. You have to come back and keep your femininity about you. Know how to act a certain way. Know how to keep that wolf in you down. Control that wolf. A lot of females couldn’t keep a husband. You can’t go home and rule. You can’t be the boss. You have to be a boss on the job. When you go home, you have to be a lady.
SB: I remember the night before I entered the jails for the first time. My husband—we were engaged at the time—he took me out to dinner. He sat me down. Now he’s never been in corrections, and he’s telling me, “When you go in there, you got to be firm, just mean what you say.” And I’m looking at him and say, “Are you scared for me?” He said, “Yes.”
TS: When I started dating my husband, I was already on the job. He would drive me to work, and I would get phone calls, and he’d say, “I saw an ambulance leave Rikers. Are you okay?”
JG: I come from a family of nine, so, you know, I kind of fend for myself. But you would be lying if you said you don’t hit that atmosphere and know you are out of your element.
TS: I pride myself on not being scared, and I was petrified! But you cannot show it.
SB: I remember my first time walking into the housing area on my own. I went in and I told myself—you know, you prep yourself up—”They’re human beings, they’re human beings.” I walked in and told the guys, “Sit on the bench for the counting.” Someone at the back of the house yelled, “F. U., B.!” It was like somebody just clicked a switch right on the back of my head. And I just became a completely different person, and I’ve been that way since.
JG: [Laughs.] She found out she was a bitch! I had a female tell me—when I was in the hallway with a group of females—she took a knife and said, “I’ll cut your neck.” She said, “I’ll slit your fucking throat.” I shut up. I said, “I don’t think that would be a wise thing.”
SB: You know what you do after a situation like that? You debrief and continue your day. It becomes second nature.
TS: I had to put a guy’s feet on my shoulders, because I was too short to lift him up. He had wrapped his belt around his throat. To keep him from choking I had to push him up, and an officer climbed the bars.
SB: There’s an area on Rikers Island, it’s for sick people, the Communicable Disease Unit, where they have to stay behind closed doors and their food is given to them through a slot. They would put Saran Wrap around their food. [A prisoner] had apparently saved up his wrap. I got up and walked over to his cell, and I see that he had paper lining his windows. All I could see is his feet on the floor. When I went in there, he was laying face down with a towel over his head and a mattress on his back. We pull the towel off, and I see the plastic is completely over his face. His eyes are open, and they’re completely pale. Now this is a black man with brown eyes, they’re completely pale. So I jumped down, and I got this close, and I said, “You’re going to breathe, M. F.!” I reached into his mouth, and I had to pull plastic from the back of his throat out. As soon as I popped it, it made a sucking sound, and he went into a seizure. The doctor ran, the nurse ran, everybody just left me in there with this guy, and he’s just shaking away. I go to the phone, and I call the control and say, “I have an attempted suicide.”
TS: You have to choose your battles. I found one inmate assaulting another inmate. And it was a sexual assault. It was two males. And he looked up at me and said, “Sweetheart, what the fuck are you going to do? I’m doing 25 to life anyway.” I stepped back and said, “He is absolutely right.” Usually I would run in, but we’re going to have to wait for the squad on this one. Because that’s a man on a man. I’m a woman. I walk in there, it’s a done deal.
JG: Wait for the squad, that’s right. You already walked far enough. What he’s going to find out is some of those 25 years are going to be a little more miserable than they have to be.
TS: Our privilege to carry firearms on the streets is to protect ourselves, because these individuals do get released.
SB: My oldest daughter wasn’t even two years old yet. I was in Queens with my husband’s aunt, and I was in a drugstore, and this guy starts following me through the store. He’s following me through the store: “CO, CO!” And I heard him the first time, so I told my husband’s aunt, “Take my daughter out to the car. Because if something were to happen…” And as soon as she got out to the car, I turned around and said, “What? Okay, so everybody knows I’m a CO. Now they know you’re a crook. I’d rather them know I’m a CO. Would you like them to know you’re a crook?” And he just stood there staring at me. I said, “You finished?” And he just walked away.
TS: You have to assert yourself the same way you would at work.
JG: You can just say hello though. You don’t have to be a snob.
TS: You know, most of the time, you see them, they acknowledge you, you acknowledge them. In the world we call the small city of New York that contains five boroughs, they live amongst us.
JG: There’s 22,000 of them out there.
SB: When you’re fresh on the job, you’re scared to see someone you know [in jail]. I was doing the mess-hall feeding, and somebody started calling my first name. Inmates don’t know you on a first-name basis. My first reaction was to act like I didn’t hear it, because if I turned, then everybody in there would know my first name. So I’m hearing it, and I’m just going on about my business like I don’t hear it.
JG: Well, why didn’t you answer? That’s impolite!
SB: Mommy, please!
JG: You have to be human!
SB: I was in the mess hall, Mom. I’m not going to have all these inmates knowing my first name. If I did that, by the next day, every inmate in there would be like, “Sukari!” No, it’s not happening.
SB: When I saw that particular area was going to dump their trays, I looked in every last face. When I recognized that face, I knew this was a guy who didn’t even speak to me in what they call “the world.” In New York, outside Rikers Island, we weren’t even friends. He just knew my name. We went to school together.
TS: In jail, knowing a CO is like knowing a star. I ran into a guy on the Staten Island Ferry that we went to high school with. He said, “I saw you in C95.” I said, “When?” He said, “As soon as I saw you there, I turned back and went to the housing area. I was embarrassed to be there and didn’t want you to see me.”
JG: My nephew ran up to me and kissed me. He was an inmate. I’m not going to lie. I told him somebody was going to have a better Christmas because he was in jail. I told him, “Look, you can’t kiss me!” I was the captain. I said, “You cannot kiss me, Tater!” And then he was being sent away, and I got permission to go see him. He was being sent away for four years. He had killed somebody. It was four months before he got killed…I loved my nephew. He was a thug. And he lived, and he died for it. But I loved him, you know? Family’s family, and that comes before everything.
SB: Now we’re not allowed to wear any jewelry in the jail. I used to wear, when I had my first daughter, you know those Sears chokers? I had one of those of my daughter. And on a search, I found this humungous 8-by-10 replica, hand-drawn of this picture of my daughter.
JG: They’re very talented.
SB: They have nothing but time to observe you.
JG: They check you out.
SB: I looked at him, and he said, “Oh, I was going to give it to you on Mother’s Day.” I swore never to carry a picture of any of my children in jail again. It scared me.
TS: When [our daughters] get together, we’ve caught them playing CO. You know, saying, “My mommy’s a CO. Let me show you how to search.”
SB: My daughters ask me questions. They’ve come to pick me up from work. You see people come in in handcuffs. So my daughter said, “What did he do?” And I said, “I really don’t know.” She said, “I’ve never seen an inmate before.” So I was telling her the other day, “Well, you know, they’re human beings.”