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The Lords of Rikers


Sharmaine refused to tell her daughters where Daddy was. “He’s at work,” she’d say. The girls would cry and scream, and finally she told them; soon she was like Robinson’s mother and other mothers and spouses who make those dreadful prison visits.

In a way, the gravity of Rikers had pulled them all down into its orbit. One day in court, Sharmaine approached Charnel Robinson. Trying to show compassion, Sharmaine told Charnel, “I know what it’s like to lose your loved ones. I lost my husband for a year and a half [in prison].”

Charnel was not comforted. “Your husband may be away for a year or whatever, but you’re visiting him, talking to him on the phone. I am never talking to my son again. And he’s my only child.”

After his death, Charnel learned that Christopher’s girlfriend was having an abortion. Charnel begged her family to reconsider. Charnel offered to raise it. To bring up her boy’s child would be a way of keeping Christopher with her. The girlfriend had the abortion anyway.

“Like two deaths at once,” Charnel says.

She is sitting in her apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. She’s preserved Christopher’s bedroom as a kind of shrine. She’s kept his first paycheck from his first real job—the one that got him in trouble with his parole officer and triggered his fatal trip to Rikers—sealed for two years before opening it. He earned $279.39 as an overnight stock boy. She also has letters he sent her when he first went away to the juvenile facility upstate, letters she used to read in the bathroom with the door locked so others in the apartment wouldn’t hear her sobbing.

I pick one up.

“Yo mom wats good wit you,” he’d written. “I realy miss you I getting in troble up here but I’m gone change up cause I got to get home … I wish I never got locked up and the first place and if I get home I am not coming back.”

Additional reporting by Andre Tartar.


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