The Rikers nightmare is far from over

Providing inmates with mental health services and safe medical care is just as crucial as reforming guard abuse

July 13, 2015 2:00AM ET

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.

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, 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. 

The culture of violence begins when people come into Rikers sick — emotionally, mentally or physically — and you effectively ignore them.

Commissioner Ponte, you have to afford inmates safe and timely medical care, and women, the right to request a female doctor. While I was imprisoned, we routinely waited up to a week to see a general physician and more than a month to see a specialist — and even then received inadequate care. Some of the male doctors required sexual favors for certain prescriptions, and one was infamous for sticking his hands into women’s crotches to make sure they “didn’t have penises,” even though he wasn’t a gynecologist, no nurse was present and, according to many of my dorm-mates, “it definitely felt sexual.”

Commissioner, you have to provide inmates with basic mental health services. Therapists and psychiatrists on Rikers are routinely unavailable and when you finally do see them, visits are perfunctory at best. Even the U.S. Department of Investigation was “struck by the short length of time (PDF) for both the mental health sessions and the medication appointments,” which it noted could be as brief as three minutes. Many women in my dorm, myself included, were prescribed Buspirone (but nothing else) to treat a variety of mental health disorders ranging from depression to schizophrenia. I watched women “lose it,” and saw officers mace or beat them until they stopped moving, then cart them off to solitary confinement. (Felicia, who is infamous at Rosie’s for eating her own feces and throwing it at guards, had been held in isolation for more than a year.) Additionally, there was negligible programming to heal the trauma, abuse or addiction that most women there suffered. I saw women leave Rikers and come back in the time I spent at the jail. “I want to get better, but I don’t know how,” they said.

The culture of violence begins when people come into Rikers sick — emotionally, mentally or physically — and you effectively ignore them. You stuff them into rooms with 50 others (many of whom are sick, like them) and leave them — sometimes to die. You leave them in the charge of a single guard — often a different one, with different rules, every day. You order the guards to make “unskilled” inmates work up to 40 hours per week for as little as 17 cents an hour (PDF), and in my experience up to 70 hours per week for one dollar an hour (the highest paid position on Rikers), as a suicide prevention aide in the adolescent wing, making sure the 16- and 17- year-old girls didn’t “hang up or cut up.” When our work shifts corresponded with mail, medication or recreation times, guards denied us letters from our families, the treatment we needed and our one hour of direct sunlight each day. Additionally, you order the guards to make inmates “face down!” as dogs sniff around them, “shut up!” when searches destroy their stuff and “line up!” to strip naked and pee in a cup.

So yes, Commissioner Ponte, the relationship between inmates and guards is a violent one. You stick both together in the nightmare that is Rikers. Some guards are out-of-control, yes. And, yes, I think the reforms will reduce assault and murder on Rikers. More inmates will walk out alive, but everyone one of them will still walk out more damaged than before — and more likely to return because of it. Both are true for me. You can’t cure the culture of violence by relieving its symptoms alone; you have to treat the infection at the source. Rikers Island, in my experience and that of the women I came to know and love, isn’t a “correctional” facility at all — it’s a destructive one.

Cecily McMillan is a social justice organizer and prison rights advocate. Her memoir “The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan” is forthcoming from Nation Books.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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