I RECENTLY served 58 days of a three-month sentence on Rikers Island. I was convicted in May of assaulting a New York City police officer as the police cleared Zuccotti Park of Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2012. (I am appealing my conviction.) I got a firsthand experience that I did not seek of what it is like to live behind bars.
Rikers is a city jail; it holds some 11,000 inmates who are awaiting trial or sentencing, or who have been convicted and sentenced to a year or less of time.
During my incarceration, two correction officers were arrested on charges of smuggling contraband, including drugs, to inmates. The week after I was released, two more correction officers and a captain were arrested on charges of having beaten a handcuffed prisoner into unconsciousness in 2012. Last week, The New York Times reported on the “culture of brutality” on Rikers. The city is now investigating more than 100 reported violent assaults on inmates.
None of this would surprise the inmates of the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s barrack on the island, who routinely experience or witness brutality of all kinds.
On one day in May, I was waiting outside the jail pharmacy for my daily A.D.H.D. prescription. A male officer began harassing me, and when I made the mistake of looking at his badge to get his number, he slammed his body into mine and shouted a sexual slur at me.
I wrote up a complaint and then showed it to my lawyer, but he advised me not to file it, because of the risk of retaliation. Despite formal rules governing the interactions between correction officers and inmates that are detailed in the inmate handbook issued to everyone at intake, in reality we had no rights and no recourse in these kinds of conflicts.
Violence is easy to grasp and to condemn. What’s harder to understand for people who haven’t done time is the day-in, day-out degradation and neglect.
Inmates are routinely denied basic medical treatment. I saw a woman soiled with vomit and sobbing for hours. We other inmates were afraid and concerned. We didn’t know what was happening, or what we could do. Finally, at the insistence of a few inmates, she was taken to the hospital. She never came back. Her name was Judith. She had befriended me before she died.
I fear for my jailhouse “madrina” (godmother), who remains on Rikers. For more than a month, she has been asking to get a biopsy of a lump in her throat, which she worries is a recurrence of the cancer she was treated for years ago.
And then there is the ritual humiliation of the inmates — not physical death, but death of the soul. Our dorm was searched at least twice a month, and more often if the guards wanted to set an example. Two or three captains, and about 10 officers, male and female, would file into the dorm in full riot gear, wearing plexiglass masks and carrying big wooden bats.
Another set of female officers filed into the bathroom and stood in a line facing the stalls, which lack doors. We were ordered to lie down on our beds, face down, hands behind our backs. A third set of female officers filed in.
They called us row by row into the bathroom, where we were ordered to strip naked, do a deep knee-bend facing forward and another one facing backward, open our mouths, shake out our hair and lift up our breasts.
After we put our green jumpsuits back on, we were marched into the day room where we were ordered to stand facing the wall, sometimes for hours, while the dormitory was searched, the bedding flipped over, our personal possessions ransacked. Then a work detail of inmates went into the dormitory and swept all our “unapproved” belongings — fruit, pens, extra blankets — into trash bags. The aftermath reminded me of what it was like to come home after a hurricane in southeast Texas, where I grew up.
In the face of inhumanity, many of the women I shared quarters with were amazingly resilient and caring. They looked after one another, and they looked after me.
In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Joseph Ponte as the city’s new correction commissioner. By reputation, Mr. Ponte, formerly the head of the Department of Corrections in Maine, is a reformer. He recently told Times reporters that Rikers Island needed change to “really bring it into the 21st century.” But he denied that Rikers had “a culture of violence.” I disagree.
Fixing the prison system won’t be quick or easy. But in the short term, things could be done to improve conditions on Rikers. Before I left, I asked the other inmates what changes they would make. They had many ideas. Here are two.
Upon intake, every inmate should receive a physical and psychological examination, as well as medication and treatment as needed. (I waited three weeks before receiving that daily prescription medication, which I had been taking before I was incarcerated.) While in jail, each prisoner should be guaranteed access to a doctor within 24 hours, as well as emergency medical help — such action, I believe, could have saved Judith’s life.
And inmates need to be able to file grievances about mistreatment without fear of retaliation. The rules governing ordinary interactions between inmates and correction officers, as well as the process for filing grievances, seem all too often to describe an alternate reality where interactions are calm, orderly and reasonably respectful.
But what I saw and experienced on Rikers was far more chaotic and arbitrary. Yes, the women and men on Rikers have been accused or convicted of crimes — but that does not mean that they should be deprived of their basic rights to safety and care.
Originally published in The New York Times