I first met Denis Martinez late last summer. A mutual friend brought me up to Sing Sing, the infamous “Big House” prison that just as infamously sits “Up the River” from Manhattan.
A 29-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, Denis is up there finishing a 13-year sentence for a non-lethal shooting he committed in New York back in his teens. When I met him, he had a year to go. (Now it’s a matter of months.) At the time, I was looking for an inmate willing to work as a columnist for our doomed Racket website.
Denis Martinez grew up in the South Bronx and Washington Heights sections of New York. As a teenager, he’d had only a few minor, quality-of-life style brushes with the law (including driving a motor-scooter without a license) before a fateful night over a decade ago in which, after a night of partying, he fired a gun out of the window of a car in a dispute between two groups of people who were hanging out in Fort Tryon park.
The bullet hit a young man in the leg. Denis shortly thereafter was tried and convicted for aggravated assault, and given that 13-year sentence. Absent some extraordinary intervention, he will be automatically deported to the Dominican Republic upon the completion of his term next August.
I first met him this past August, when a friend of his brought me up to the Sing Sing visitor’s lounge, a sweeping gymnasium-sized room in which the mostly nonwhite relatives of inmates share bittersweet vending machine meals over a surprisingly beautiful view of the Hudson river.
Denis is a soft-spoken young man of medium height and build, clean-cut with deep brown skin and a shaved head. He smiles a lot and has an easy, patient, almost fatalistic manner about him. In our first meeting, I got the sense that he went through the remorse phase a very long time ago and has long since moved on to learning to survive and make sense of his situation.
Denis is known throughout the prison for having finished its college program (he has a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree), for excelling in International PEN prison-writing competitions and most notably for his artwork.
He makes incredible, carefully rendered portraits of iconic historic and political figures like Sojourner Truth and Sitting Bull and Malcolm X. When I first saw these pictures, I’ll be honest, I thought they were good, but I didn’t see what was so terribly special about them. Then his friend asked me to take a closer look. I did and was shocked to learn that his pictures were made entirely out of ink fingerprints, an insanely time-consuming and interestingly symbolic genre Denis seems to have invented.
He even made the New York Times last month when intermediaries abroad delivered his fingerprint portrait of the three crosses at Golgotha to Pope Francis, who in turn sent back a rosary and a promise to keep the Sing Sing inmates in his prayers. Denis is not so much of a Catholic, but he was overwhelmed to have received the attention of the Pope. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says now. “I never expected anything like that to happen.”
But in his unit at Sing Sing, Denis is respected for another reason. He keeps a current Almanac in his cell and has become something akin to the human Google search of his unit. At night, when the inmates watch the news on TV and argue about current events, they turn to Denis to be the arbiter of factual disputes. It’s a respected job that he fulfills with relish and a lot of humor.
“You’ll hear every kind of opinion up here,” he says. “It ranges from the absolutely crazy and ignorant and racist to the very thoughtful and insightful.” He pauses. “But the thing is, people take these discussions seriously. There’s not a lot to do except think about things. So there’s this lively debate and discussion about everything on TV. Outside, people probably just sit on the couch and pass the time when the news is on. Not in here.”
As he told me about this, Denis and I formed a plan for an opinion column that would be about these nightly cell block debates around the TV. It would be a kind of diary of his last year of prison life based around the daily “action” of watching the news with the other guys in his block.
Way back on September 10th, he sent in a piece about the Ray Rice case that included the reaction of all the guys in his wing to the infamous video: