On Island: Journeying to Penal Colonies, from Rikers to Robben -The Toast

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table mtn from robben 2 Table Mountain from Robben Island. All photos taken by the author.


I am early and alone, and this might have been enough to set me apart from the crowd. Ticket in hand, I am waiting for the collector to open his booth for the first Robben Island tour of the day. In the vaulted-ceiling departure area, all dark wood and slate and frosted glass, Robben Island’s history is sketched as a timeline across three walls. In the 1600s, the Dutch cast their unfit slaves and political prisoners there. In the 1800s, the British used the island as a leper colony and lunatic asylum. In the 1940s, it became a garrison. Only in the 1960s did the South African government build the notorious maximum security prison on Robben Island that housed Mandela, Kathrada, Sisulu and hundreds of political prisoners during the country’s Apartheid era.

Now, the entire island is a museum. A ticketed destination. Behind me, the waiting area is bustling with middle-aged Europeans in khaki bermuda shorts, white t-shirts and pastel cardigans with sleeves folded around their shoulders. A group of Dutch tourists, I think, from the clunks and twists of their words.

This is my first trip to Cape Town in many years. My last visit of any significant length was in 1989, when I was eleven years old and on holiday with my parents from our then-home in Gaborone, Botswana. I remember a few details. The mustard and black polka-dot leggings I’d shivered in for most of the wintry trip. Waves beating in churned-cream fury against the rocks at Neptune’s Dairy beach. A maitre d’ ushering us politely out of the Mount Nelson hotel’s magnificent tea room. I remember the powdery face of an old white woman sipping from her china cup, watching our exile to the hotel’s blustery terrace where Indians and Coloureds and perhaps even Blacks were allowed to sit. Though I cannot be sure I have not invented her since.

Twenty years later, boarding our gleaming white catamaran to Robben Island, I feel keenly that hotel’s proximity, my unwanted shadow cast across tea room sameness. I climb the steel steps to the open deck of the ferry. The white of the seats and the silver beneath my feet are almost blinding under the cloudless day, and the wind whips through my t-shirt mercilessly. But I was first in line, so I find and take the front seat in the front row of the top deck.

As Cape Town recedes, tourists crowd around the prow with their cameras to capture the city. No one needs a flash under this glorious sun. The grey-brick Nelson Mandela gateway fades in the distance as everyone’s gaze rises instead to looming Table Mountain, in whose lap the city is scattered. The cameras are wild in frenzied marveling. But soon, the wind has the tourists beaten back to their seats, and we all clutch at railings for support.

As the island nears, a close warmth gathers in my throat, my thudding chest. I did not expect this reaction, or any emotion at all. Who am I to dread this island? When I was in Cape Town last, the island was still a prison, but I was only a child. My family eventually moved to South Africa in 1992, just as the past was beginning to crumble. And today, I am South African only between the green covers of my passport, and during these annual visits from my home in Brooklyn, New York. Even my tongue has betrayed me; I am a New Yorker even in my speech. So, who am I to fear this place?

Across the world, a few weeks later, there are no tickets, cameras, ferries, and hardly the rumor of sunlight. Here, my co-worker and I wait under the shelter of a wooden trailer, just barely shielded from falling snow, for our assigned Corrections Officer of the day. Shivering, I glance regretfully at my Dunkin’ Donuts cup lying in an open trash can a few feet away. The stench from the river was too overwhelming, as always. I could barely keep my breakfast steady in my stomach, much less finish the coffee I brought with me.

We are at the Queens-side “mainland” entrance to the Rikers Island Correctional Facility, the New York City island jail where detainees await trial and sentenced inmates serve out their less-than-a-year time. More than 13,000 inmates are housed here daily. Some call it the world’s largest penal colony. A mile-long bridge over the fetid river separates us from the island.

My co-worker and I are here for our work as researchers, studying the effectiveness of a social program in the men’s jail. The program is designed to help men transition back into their communities once they leave here. Traveling to the jail from our homes in Brooklyn took us close to two hours this morning, and that because we were able to expense a taxi for part of the way. We watch the Q100 bus transporting jail visitors trundle over the bridge and wonder how long that sole public transportation to the jail might take us.

Finally, the officer arrives, jumping out of a blue van, clutching the form permitting us into Rikers for the day. We follow her to the Plexiglas window behind which another officer sits. A few minutes later, we have a pair of plastic numbered badges in exchange for our IDs.

The officer gives us a ride over the river, and we chat about her son, her recent hospital visit, her stylish new handbag. We have some brief sense of her life from these weekly trips. An expanse of ink stretches from either side of the bridge, low planes dip over La Guardia Airport just along the other side of the river. Below us, water choked with weeds and cans breaks against rocks jammed against the banks of the mainland. Then, the concrete and barbed wire of the jail loom against the grey morning and blot out everything else.

Off the bridge, we are “on island” as the officers call it, immersed in this destination’s own ecology of fencing and trucks and men in identical jumpsuits sweeping or picking up trash. The officer smooths our way through two more checkpoints with little asides and insides, other officers peer at our badges as they shoot back their practiced one-liners. It’s surprisingly difficult to get into a jail.

Finally, we pull up to one of the six men’s facilities; this is where we are conducting our study. Inside, the air is so densely acrid, I can taste the metal of each surface. I am just as conscious here as around those tourists in Cape Town of the precise contours of my body, exactly how I might appear to others. But this time, less for color and more for shape, for being a woman in this place.

As at Robben Island, I struggle with my reactions to this island. I am fortunate, have never had to confront the justice system in any country. And yet, I am nervous around the officers, as though I have sneaked past their checkpoints. It’s as though I live on the wrong side of this river. As if I should live inside, on island.

We are about to dock at Robben Island, and panic will surely burst through my chest. Struggling to stay calm, I repeat: I have no right to these emotions. I did not suffer on this island. But the mantra can’t abate my dismay at nearing it.

The railing is still bracing cold, and its chill seeps through my veins, pulling me into the world. The rifle-fire snaps of a hundred cameras also have this rousing effect; the tourists are taking shots of the approaching jetty. I decide to pull out my own camera. Perhaps, someday, I will need help remembering this, too.

The island stretches far and flat, dotted with red roof and concrete block and stubborn green bush. Black gulls swoop, skimming sunlight off the water. We clamber off the boat and onto a waiting tour bus just off a clutch of grey-brick buildings. I find a seat toward the back this time, glad to have some space to myself.

The tour guide is a wise-cracking Capetonian; he soon has us laughing as we settle in. Do we know where the island’s name comes from? Robben is Afrikaans for seal. The Dutch nod approvingly, yes, this word comes from us. Though few seals are left here. Rabbits have taken over, and penguins–hordes of the flightless birds waddle around the island.

The bus begins a circuitous tour, longer than I had expected. This island’s topography has always consisted, in my mind, of imprisonment. Sightseeing before even getting to the prison, just one part of the tour, seems ludicrous, even offensive. I did not come here to ride around this speck of dirt farther south than the southernmost tip of Africa; an island known only for centuries of misery. The object of our pilgrimage should be singular and sacrosanct. And yet, that object is a symbol of heinous acts. And how can a prison be sacred? Confused, I try to appreciate the view from the bus, the giant cacti and endangered birds and rocky beaches.

We travel through what is still an inhabited city of a grotesque kind. The low earth so close to sea-level, the wardens’ village full of close-packed bungalows, the lepers’ graveyard. A primary school which a handful of children still attend. A church the lepers built, a different church the guards built. And, unexpectedly, a kermit-green dome rising from the dust at one end of the island. The structure is called Moturu Kramat, and is a shrine built to honor one of Cape Town’s first imams who was exiled by the Dutch and died on the island in the eighteenth century.

We pull up to a beach which, the tour guide tells us, is the best place on the island to take pictures of Table Mountain on the mainland. The Dutch crowd around every open space of grey rock around the shore, training their lenses to the smooth pen-and-ink crag of the mountain. The smoky outlines of the city seem a lifetime from this island, forsaken by the continent. I take a few pictures of the celebrated view but tire soon; I have seen the contours of this mountain on postcards and in textbooks almost all my life.

Robben Island Robben Island

Instead, I am fascinated by the cruel petals of a succulent plant, a variety of Cape Aloe, a few steps away. I have seen a plant like this, but half the size, at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens in the desert room, a carefully calibrated greenhouse that mimicks this climate. The aloe at Robben Island is as tall as I am, with a hundred yellow-lined brittle tentacles of green flesh, some of them curled against the sand but most raised in salutation to the sky. Pebbles of all colors are scattered about the plant’s base, and a fat, rusty pipe runs among them, along the length of the beach.

The pipe’s presence is somehow obtrusive. The greens and blues of the island had dispelled my distress, and I’d forgotten where I was; this pipe reminds me. But I cannot blame the aloe or the dry soil at the plant’s base. They did not conspire with us; we made this place what it became. I return to the celebrated view, the grey flat-topped mountain in the mist, and think about the people banished here, standing on this soil. Maybe they hated the sight of the mountain, cursed each rock and weed on the mainland. Maybe they raged at the very ground I stood on as I posed for my mother’s camera in my mustard-and-black leggings twenty years ago, against the breakers of Neptune’s Dairy.

The bus stops again a few minutes later so we can snap pictures, from the inside this time, of the island’s indigenous endangered bird, the African Oystercatcher. The duck-like black gull, an odd hiccup of history and biology, possesses tomato-red eyes, beak, and legs. Who knows how long this dinosaur will last in this place, now peopled only by caretakers and seasonal tourists. Or perhaps the bird will thrive, left in peace. As nature takes her course without us.

The bunkers are perhaps, after the imam’s shrine, the biggest surprise of this tour. Concrete blocks–each the size of a small house, painted camouflage green and black–are planted in a group and sheltered by a copse of trees. They were built during World War II in case of a German invasion. A garrison was stationed on Robben Island as a first line of defense against an attack from the ocean. The Germans never came and the succulents have taken over now, growing on the bunkers’ roofs, around them, inside them.

Finally, we’re reminded of why we’re on this surreal bus ride on a sunny island: we approach the limestone quarry. Here, Mandela and other prisoners developed eye damage from two decades of chipping away at white rock under blistering sun. This was where Kathrada, Sesulu, Mandela hatched their nascent plans for a future. Mandela called the quarry “the university” and clandestinely held regular lectures here. The prisoners could talk as they worked, if they were careful; constitutions were composed here, cabinets assembled, as they shaded their eyes from blindness.

Their shadows linger in the caves hewn into the lime cliff-face, in the eerie stillness of this place where even the Dutch are quiet.

The first gate clangs shut. We are led by another Rikers Corrections Officer into the hallway that flanks the belly of the jail, passing a reception shielded by bullet-proof glass.

An hour after our arrival at the Queens-side trailer, we’re in, walking along a wide hall from which the common areas of the jail branch off: the gym, mess hall, library, chapel. White walls are painted over with various signs advertising programs offered, instructions on where to stand and where not to step. The linoleum floor is broken every so often by a metal detector. We do not need to pass through these detectors or follow the instructions. They are for the jump-suited inmates, to be found singly every few steps, mopping the floor. The men are instructed to stand still until we, the visitors, have safely passed them by.

We conduct interviews every week in one corner of the gym, a vast space with windows set far up, close to the 20-feet-high ceilings. The weak light picks up the grime of the gym, the outline of the doorless toilet, the scratched and bitten primary colors of plastic chairs and tables scattered about.

On most days, twenty or so green-suited, mostly brown-skinned inmates are gathered already, slouching in classroom-style rows of plastic chairs in the middle of the gym. They are silent as we shuffle our papers, our pens, water bottles. I walk up and say good morning, tell them why we’re here, the questions we will ask when we call them individually to our tables. Their voices are important, I say. Only they can help us make the jail better, by sharing their stories with us.

We’re standing in the shadow of Robben Island prison. The Capetonian says his goodbyes as he hands us over to our next guide, who will take us through the prison buildings. The new man is middle-aged, a blue button-down shirt stretches over his ample belly. A baseball cap, embroidered with a rendering of the Table Mountain cable car, is pulled over his sweaty forehead. His eyes are very small, set back into the folds of his face. He was a political prisoner here, for more than ten years, part of that time spent with Mandela. Now he leads these tours of the prison and lives in the wardens’ compound nearby that still houses some of the guards from that time.

As we follow him into the prison, I try to imagine coming to live alongside the men who enforced his captivity, the notoriously cruel Robben Island guards. But then, those guards were another unwanted group, too, cast on the island by the mainland. They took the jobs voluntarily, but how many working class jobs are truly voluntary? My heart opens a crack but I slam the opening shut. I have not endured the suffering required to forgive those men.

The prison is a set of non-descript buildings topped with corrugated metal roofing. The grey brick, dull barbed-wire fencing, are a counterpoint to the brilliant blue day. We enter through double doors, left open. The cool emptiness echoes with our footsteps and coughs as we gather around the guide. Weak light falls in from a stairwell to one side. The guide begins a rehearsed speech about the censor’s office outside which we now stand. All correspondence was opened here and read. The letters the prisoners received from family arrived with passages–sometimes political, sometimes just words of comfort–cut out by the censors. I imagine prisoners carefully smoothing out scraps of paper, diaphanous as lace, eager for any news they could piece together.

He leads us upstairs, downstairs, through corridors lined with offices, through passages lined with cells and iron bars, outside one building in the complex, through a blinding courtyard into another dark building. The blue-and-whitewashed walls begin to blur, each corner a clone of the one that came before. Finally, we reach the cell that was Mandela’s, “Cell number 5,” where he spent most of his 19 years at Robben Island; 19 of the 27 years that he was imprisoned. The gate to his cell is locked, but we can peer through the bars as we crowd around the narrow corridor. The cell is six by ten feet, a barred window set in one wall. Folded bedding sits on a rolled coir sleeping mat in a corner, a tin plate and mug rest on the blanket, an aluminum toilet-bucket next to the bundle. The floor is cold cement.

Until recently, the cell was open to visitors. You could stand in the precise corner where he must have crouched and watched the back of his hand furrow with wrinkles over the years. The place where his head of black then grey then white hair must have rested on his thin mat. You could press a palm against the wall where he must have edged and steadied his shaking body when the guard came to tell him his teenage son was dead. You could linger by his window, watch the dust gather and billow around the courtyard, day disappear into evening.

Perhaps because the cell is now kept locked, and I cannot touch the corners and crevices, Mandela’s cell, which one might expect to prove the most profound moment of this tour, fails to make an impression on me.

It’s only when we gather in what used to be a dormitory–some bunk beds still stacked against a wall–that I am struck by the true ugliness of this building. The guide tells us about life at Robben Island: everyday indignities that carve a deeper horror than the abstract shell of a barred space could.

He points to two cardstock signs, magnified for this lesson. The first sign is titled: “Differences Between B and C Diets.” B, the sign tells us, are “Coloured/Asiatics.” C are “Bantus.” One can only guess that A must stand for white, but there are no instructions for white diets because there were no white prisoners at Robben Island.


Differences Between B and C Diets:

B – Coloureds/Asiatics C Bantus
Mealie meal – 6oz – Breakfast Mealie meal 12oz:Breakfast – 6ozSupper 6oz
Bread:   4oz lunch & 4oz supper Puzamandla – lunch
Fat: 1oz daily per person Fat ½ oz per person daily
Mealie rice or saap Mealies
Meat:   6oz per person Meat 5 oz per person
Jam/syrup:   1oz per person daily No jam/syrup
Sugar:   2oz Sugar 1 ½ oz
Coffee: Breakfast – 1/8 ozSupper 1/8 oz Coffee: breakfast 1 ½ oz 1/8 oz


This sign is well-known, and I have seen its image before in books and magazines. But today, the petty divisions and measurements quicken my blood as if for the first time; the faint emphases, the deliberation of type are a new outrage. The “no jam/syrup” in particular strikes at my heart; the knowledge that, as an “Asiatic,” I could have enjoyed an ounce of jam here.

Especially after the birds and breakers of the island, I am sickened by this building. Sickened that men could ferry other men over water, cast them for decades in this concrete hole. But that, too, was not enough. Even here on this island, so full of green and blue life, men enforced unnatural divisions. I did not deserve that jam more than this man, our guide.

The second sign is a magnified identification card, this one belonging to Billy Nair, one of the Rivonia trialists; he would later become a member of parliament. At Robben Island, he was: Sentenced Prisoner No. 69/64. Religion: Hindu. Crime: Sabotasie [sabotage]. Date of sentence: 28/2/64. Date of release: 27/2/84. And two smudged thumb impressions, concentric lines in relief against black ink.

At Rikers Island, a man stares at the stapled papers between us. He has just completed the mental health inventory section of his interview, answering “yes” to each of the twelve questions (Have you felt depressed for at least two weeks? Do you avoid reminders of something terrible you witnessed?). Now he contemplates this new black-and-white indictment of him by a stranger. I shuffle my papers, but say nothing. I’m only a researcher, I can’t help. I move on to the next interview.

The young ones smirk, joke around, sit back with an eyebrow raised or an elbow against the back of their chair. Some are more earnest; they want very badly for me to know they don’t belong here. They frown as they answer questions, recalling precise details. I don’t drink often, maybe on weekends. Crack? No, nothing like that. Almost all of them snicker at the drugs inventory.

But one man has a hunted expression, his eyes dart into the corners of the gym as he answers “yes” to almost each drug category, yes, every day. He tells me the story of how he came to be here, though I have not asked. A mistake, it was all a mistake. But now he’s leaving, tomorrow, can I offer him something? A referral for services? This is a research interview, I’m sorry. I’m not a social worker. But ask your Corrections Officer, the jail can help you. He gives me a look approaching disgust.

When I began conducting interviews at Rikers, I thought I would remember the face of each man, each circumstance. The shifting eyes, the downcast eyes, the unnerving-direct eyes; the listless, the shut off, the shut down. Even though I’d already conducted research interviews for the better part of eight years, I’d never worked at a jail before. Surely, this made each man at Rikers memorable, each story was fraught with urgency, and surely each one would stay with me always. But after ten interviews, perhaps fifteen, the inmates begin to blend into a singular green jumpsuit, something to be classified and filed away in a sliding steel drawer. At first, I am distressed when I cannot recall faces, particulars, and then, I am just tired.

We conclude each interview with thanks and a handshake. The men disappear back into the innards of the jail from whence they came, where we do not go. From different trips to Rikers, I know the briefest outlines of that place. Concrete floors and televisions high up in a corner, blasting daytime talk. Rows of doors in one of the mental health units, a tiny window set in each one to observe the suicide-proofed cell. A line of dazed women with cough-syrup-size cups in their hands, waiting for medication. A room of men, a support group, and at the front, a green jumpsuit from my composite memory, this is the last time he’ll be here, he says, this is the last time. A different jail, a different city, another mental health unit, a woman thrusts her arm under my face, look, she says, look. The coffee skin of her forearm is rippled up and down with a mosaic of raised mauve scars. Look what I did, she says, I shouldn’t be here.

But they’re here at Rikers, the great unwashed unwanted, pushed as far away from our bustling mainland as we could cast them, across water so thick with our sewage that nothing could wade through. No one could escape the stink and fear between us and them.

At the end of the morning, my co-worker and I gather up our stack of forms, hearts light with our departure. Just like that, we leave Rikers, collecting our belongings from the lockers, pushing through the reluctant revolving gate out of the facility, watching the jail disappear behind us as we are driven back over the bridge. Waiting in the parking lot for our taxi, I am both groggy and giddy with relief, as if I have narrowly escaped capture. Each time I leave Rikers, it’s as though I have cheated fate, free to plunge into the city one more day.

On Rikers Island, I am an unthreatening shade of brown. I speak the right kind of English. I know all the right people. Across the water, I’m wanted, the right kind of wanted, so I do not have to fear this island. And yet, my journey to that other island so far away, the old unwantedness that journey summoned in me, lurks in a small thudding place in my chest. This thudding makes me look over my shoulder each time I leave Rikers Island.

bloubergWe are directed to take the very dirt path out that the last Robben Island prisoners walked, perhaps ran, as they left. Just before the glittering barbed wire fence, a billboard, about six feet tall, is planted in the soil. The board is a blown-up photograph of those last prisoners on a steamer boat called the Blouberg pulling away from the island. Most of them have their arms raised in jubilation; they are yelling, leaping, almost moving within the confines of this picture. Just one man is still, his face blank, arm hanging over the side of the boat, and a hat pulled low over his forehead. Then I realize he is wearing the uniform of a guard. He was operating the boat taking free men to the mainland.

“Freedom,” proclaims the billboard. And in smaller print: “’We want Robben Island to reflect the triumph of freedom and human dignity over oppression and humiliation.’ Ahmed Kathrada, Prisoner 468/64, Robben Island 1964-1982.” I snap a photo of the board against the dust and the blue sky, against the bermuda shorts and sun hats of the next group of tourists disembarking a few feet away.

At our waiting ferry, I decide to sit below deck in the first floor cabin, shielded from the bitter winds of the journey. As the boat begins a grinding retreat from the harbor, a flock of oystercatchers caw across the jetty, as we leave them to their home. All they have seen of us is our abhorrence on this island. The only people they have known are the unwanted who were cast away and those who banished them.

So much has changed now that I can cross the ocean and visit the birds at my will. Now, I am the right kind of wanted on this island, too. But I do not think I will return.

I huddle again at the Queens trailer-hut early on a Rikers interview morning, waiting with my co-worker. A flicker of movement, and we turn to see a small cat creeping up from under the trailer onto the shaded deck. Pausing, paw in air, she contemplates us. She is small but not a kitten, a petite mutt of a tabby. Evidently, she decides we are not a threat, proceeds calmly to a dish in a corner and laps up the milk that was clearly left for her. Satisfied, she curls up after she is done and licks her paws, washes her face. We laugh at the incongruence of this little animal so close to Rikers. We wonder who feeds her.

From the van, headed over the bridge, I gaze out at the wide expanse of sludge that separates us from the island and yet, this is only a tiny gash in land mass that the sea has rushed in to fill. This journey would be nothing by boat, a fraction of the distance between Cape Town and Robben Island. And I have read that, before this bridge was built in the sixties, you could only get to Rikers by ferry.

A small boat could one day dock at Queens-side. I could board the ferry clutching my ticket on a warm afternoon. The wind would rush me on the top deck, air clean of stench, jail complex looming ahead. The ferry would pull into Rikers Island, and a tour guide would welcome us as we disembarked.

At the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens not far away, a small piece of land is preserved with the plant cover that was natural to New York hundreds of years ago. I imagine this same native vegetation allowed to twist and sprout at will across Rikers island. Willows shading the rocks near a sloped sandbank. The loam of tree roots and mushrooms in the damp of the woods. Just as they were, before we came here. The gates at Rikers open, cells empty but for lived echoes. Tourists peering through the bars, breathing in the ghosts. Nature spilling through cracks in the concrete.

Roohi Choudhry's writing has appeared in Callaloo, Open City, CURA, and is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review and The Normal School. She teaches at the Gotham Writers' Workshop in New York City and is currently working on a novel set in Durban, South Africa.

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