The Rikers Nightmare is Far From Over

By Cecily McMillan

Last summer, I was inmate 310-14-00431 of the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s facility on Rikers Island. I was only there 58 days, but it was long enough to experience and witness firsthand almost every form of abuse that has since surfaced in the news — and much more that hasn’t yet.

Cecily McMillan speaks to reporters on Rikers Island on July 2, 2014.
(Credit: Marla Diamond/WCBS 880)

Last month, the U.S. Justice Department reached an agreement with New York City to employ “sweeping operational changes to fix a broken system and dismantle a decades-long culture of violence.” It requires the jail system to develop new use-of-force protocol, install thousands of additional surveillance cameras and improve staff selection and review practices. It also calls for higher standards of safety and supervision for adolescents, including restrictions on (and the eventual phasing out of) punitive segregation.

I agree with The New York Times editorial board that the reform package is an “important first step.” Had I not been there myself, I’d probably also agree with what its headline suggests: that reforming the abusive relationship between guards and inmates would effectively “[end] the Rikers nightmare.” I wish that were true, but the possibility of being beaten, raped or murdered by guards was just the beginning of the abuse I faced at Rikers. I learned that even if the reforms do work, the “culture of violence” at Rikers will persist.

The night before I left Rikers, the women of my dorm (4 East A, 800 Building) drafted a plea for basic decency, a list of demands to address the nightmare of “Rosie’s” — the nickname for the women’s facility. I promised them I’d do everything in my power to make their voices heard. When I was released on July 2, 2014, I read their demands aloud at a press conference in front of the welcome sign at Rikers; I repeated them in The New York Times and circulated a petition calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte to end human rights abuses in their jails. Nearly 14,000 people signed on and several elected officials endorsed it, but our demands went unanswered. So on Aug. 15, I returned to Rikers with a busload of supporters to deliver the petition to the commissioner myself. He didn’t show up, but after photos of the drug dogs and the bomb squad surrounding us surfaced on Twitter, Robin Campbell, the spokesperson for the city’s Department of Correction (DOC), agreed to set up a meeting (in exchange for my leaving right away).

On Aug. 25, I sat down with Campbell, Ponte and Deputy Commissioner Erik Berliner at the DOC headquarters in Queens. I told them about my friend Judith, who went into Rikers with a liver problem and died from negligent medical care; about the overly invasive gynecologist who convinced me that I might have cancer and unnecessarily cut into my cervix, after refusing to provide me with birth control (my attempt to avoid getting pregnant if raped by a guard) without a pap smear, despite my having signed over medical records to prove I’d had one recently; about the psychiatrists who refused me the ADHD medication I’d relied on for 13 years, the withdrawal that nearly drove me crazy, and Buspirone, the anti-anxiety pill they prescribed that made me lose my memory; about the alarming number of women on liquid Methadone to treat symptoms of narcotics withdrawal, but the minimal programming to help them stay clean.

Commissioner Ponte thanked me for my insight and even invited me to continue advising on necessary changes. I’d like to offer that advice now: The culture of violence at Rikers runs far deeper than the guards, and begins well before they beat us. As long as jails continue to be dumping grounds for the impoverished, the mentally ill and the chronically addicted, you cannot continue to neglect the ailments that inmates come in with — you have to treat them. Otherwise, it’s abuse.

This article was originally published on Al Jazeera America.

cecilymcmillan2.jpg Cecily McMillan, a DSA member and former YDS regional organizer, spent two months in Rikers Island prison in 2014 for allegedly assaulting a policeman who assaulted her while she was trying to obey a police order to leave Zucotti Park during an Occupy Wall Street reunion. Her memoir: The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan is forthcoming from Nation Books.

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