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.jpg
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.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 46 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 55 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 52 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.