JTA (New York Jewish Week) – Reuven Blau, the son of a Holocaust survivor, suggests that his father may have inspired him to seek change inside New York City’s notorious Rikers Island prison.
“There’s this unconscious urge to change things, or to help people in a way that you don’t understand,” Blau said. “Within the Rikers, you realize how difficult that must have been, and how horrible the conditions must have been for everyone involved.”
A city reporter who attended a Brooklyn seminary, Blau is the co-author, with Graham Reiman, of “Rikers: An Oral History,” a new book about the prison that makes frequent headlines for the violence and despair trapped within. its walls. The book seeks to humanize the people inside the prison – whether they are prisoners or those who work there – and tell their stories.
Speaking to the New York Jewish Week, Blau said his goal was to amplify the voices of “people who are rarely seen as people,” he said.
The prison complex, which opened in 1932, has long been criticized for its harsh conditions, which include horror stories of inmates in cages in tiny bathrooms, sleeping on excrement-stained floors, suicides, beatings, and more. Many have called for its closure since the 1970s. As of December 14, 19 people have died in Rikers in 2022 – the highest death rate since 2013.
Blau and Rayman spent nearly three years interviewing about 130 people, most of the conversations taking place over the phone or in person with people who had already gotten out of prison. They also made several trips to the prison complex.
One of the people they spoke with was Rabbi Gabriel Kretzmer Seed, a Jewish chaplain at Rikers. Sid talked about singing Shabbat songs with an inmate who suddenly got up and punched him.
“He was a very strong person, but I ended up with bloody lips. He might have been muttering something, but I don’t remember what he said specifically. I was so shocked. I was in complete shock because I had known him for a while and he was The last person I thought would hurt me.”
Syed then noticed that he was able to work with the mental health staff and was eventually able to establish a good relationship with the inmate after the incident.
“It was a revealing story of how there are people out there to help others,” Blau said. “And they realize how out of place people are out there.”
Prior to joining The City, Blau worked for the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Despite his deep reporting experience, Blau, 43, noted that it was the “weirdest thing” to become the “voice” of Rikers. “I am this whole religious guy,” Blau said. “I’ve never been to jail. It wasn’t a problem I was at all aware of in any way.”
He remains observant, said Blau, who grew up in Denver and attended Yeshiva High School in Chicago. “A huge fan,” said Blau, who lives in New Jersey with his wife, Sarah, who had a baby girl in May. “My favorite part of the culture is the social service network that exists in many communities.”
He got into reporting after majoring in English at Brooklyn College. Before working for the tabloids, Blau wrote for The Chief, a newspaper dedicated to work and local politics, where he covered the union representing New York Correctional Officers, among other things.
In 2011, he got a scoop with The Post on a “prison bar mitzvah” that revealed that correctional officers and overseers attended a lavish Jewish coming-of-age ceremony behind bars at a midtown Manhattan prison paid for by taxpayers.
“I’ve always had some advances in prison coverage,” Blau said of his time working in the news industry.
His co-writer, Rayman, covers criminal justice for the Daily News. Reiman told The New York Jewish Week that he didn’t think people could read the book and “come out of feeling that anything other than this prison system is so deeply flawed and in need of big changes.”
The city is required by law to close down Rikers Island by 2027, yet many question whether that is even possible.
“I really hope there won’t be a journalist behind me in 20 or 30 years who writes about the same issues, because I think that means the coverage we were doing didn’t make any impact,” Blau said. “I look at it through that lens. I try to come up with ways that will change things for the better in a really meaningful way.”