Monday, November 10, 2014

#ResistRikers Rally against Solitary Confinement and the American Gulag

banners by #ResistRikers 
photo by banners by #ResistRikers

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been terrified of the idea of solitary confinement.  Reading memoires on the topic, Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arneas or the stories of years of solitary confinement endured by the German Red Army Faction, gave me chills.  Many lost their minds in their isolated rubber rooms.  Anarchists have long pointed out that every prisoner is a political prisoner.  One doesn’t have to look very hard to see that we have a huge, ever growing prison population, some there because of poverty or the war on drugs, lack of housing or conviction of petty crime, some three percent of our population navigating the line between prison and parole.  All the while our public housing and hospitals are collapsing, or crumbling. So those on the outside find themselves caught up.  Many are adolescents; others mentally ill.  And there they are all treated like criminals, locked away, often placed in solitary confinement, beaten or subject to brutal discipline.

Saturday, I posted a message to facebook, “hey peeps... a few of us are meeting at 388 Atlantic at the commons to ride together to the action. Join us at 1:30” or the Resisting Rikers rally.” The invite explained:

SATURDAY NOVEMBER 8 We return to #ResistRikers at the gates of NYC's jail complex with enough of our allies to make the walls tremble.

Bring your voice, your banners, your friends and your family. All are invited to speak about their experiences.

Meet outside the Rikers sign at the corner of 19th Av & Hazen St, the take the Q100 bus from Queens Plaza (E-M-R) or the 21 ST Queensbridge (F) (see the Q100 route:

We support the people of Ferguson and their call for #FergusonOctober and we see the struggle for justice at Rikers as one of our parts to play in this effort.

See media from last rally.

NO to solitary confinement
NO to youth detention
NO to jailing mentally-ill people
NO to collaboration with ICE
NO to early lockdown 
NO to officer abuse
NO to medical neglect

OWS veteran, Cecily McMillan, who spent 58 days in Rikers this summer, had organized the event.

“Its barbaric to put anyone n solitary confinement,” I explained to a friend outside the commons before riding over.  “Thought we had rules against cruel and unusual punishment.”
“That’s the truth,” noted a young woman on the sidewalk, walking by.


Riding the dozen from Atlantic Ave to Queens, a weird tension/ fear gripped my stomach, particularly, as  I made my way down 20th street to the facility, an eerie feeling along the open space.

“That’s a good bike ride,” noted Cecily when i arrived at the welcome sign just before the bridge to the underground world of the US gulag.  
People were carrying signs, hinging banners.

“Rikers = Death,” read one sign.  Another noted the incidence of suicides taking place there.

“Mass incarceration=the new Jim Crow.”

“Corrections Officers are Getting away with Murder”

“Mass incarceration = social control.”

“I eat every meal alone.”

Bridge to Rikers 

I asked Cecily what she hoped to see. “I want to see us grow to 12,000, one for every person in there.  I want us to try to take over the bridge.  If they wont see them as people, we’ll represent them as people.”

Standing there, I talked with several activists, including Juanita, an elder African American women with a Black National Congress pin. She had been upset before coming.  That morning, she had been doing a little background research on the conditions there.   “Photos of kids with scars, burnt, beaten and bleeding” she explained.  Yet, she was glad she came. Through such actions, we beat back that depressing feeling she finished.  “You don’t have done anything you get that depressed feeling.  Yet, action equals life.   Looking  at Cecily and everyone else who was so energized there, I think Juanita was right.

Social worker Joan E Roney noted.  “As an environmental and human rights activist,  I had to come out to demonstrate at Rikers.  Prisons should not be a place of mental health treatment.  Prisons should not be a place of education.  Prisons should not be the homes for our youth.”

Cecily made a statement to the press.  “I was imprisoned at Rikers for 58 days because of my involvement with OWS.   March 27th, 2012,  I was sexually assaulted by a police officer at Zuccotti Park, was arrested, and had a grand maul seizure and was left for dead.”  After a long trial, McMillan was sentenced two years later.  “The horror of Rikers”  takes place in countless ways she explained.  “Rules change every day. The lights are on all the time.  Sleep deprivation is constant. “She rattled off a list of other indignities.  Strip searches, sexual assaults, sexual quid pro quo’s.  “Anything you can imagine.   Getting sick can turn to death,” she explained, recalling another prisoner who never got the proper treatment and died of complications there. “She died of systematic organ failure.   After  I got out, one woman told me she would not have known what happened to her sister if it wasn’t for my editorial in the NY Times (see below).  We asked for programs.  Can we have basic conditions?  The officers’ and prisoners need to be treated as humans. Moving the problems to a consulting firm passes the buck.”  Instead, McMillan suggested that people who have been through Rikers be engaged as part of the solution. “Rather than create a bridge to a secondary under class, talk to the families.  You want to make changes, you need a community review board, our own ad hoc community review board.” 

            A quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’ve created a our own walls between those on the inside and the outside, those on one side of the bridge and the other, one side of the water and another, between the affluent and those caught speaking out or without access to lawyers.   A part of us, a part of what’s decent about us is being diminished as we watch so many shuffle through the revolving door between prison, parole, violation, and re entry into our own gulag., without speaking out.

 “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

What I Saw on Rikers Island

Cecily McMillan on Brutality and Humiliation on Rikers Island

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 nowinvestigating 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.
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.

Post Script.

A few weeks after our rally, the NY Tmes posted an update.

Cecily commented on facebook.

well, that's about half ‪#‎resistrikers‬ demands met
It will take vigilance to ensure that the old, abusive system is replaced by a more humane one.

No comments:

Post a Comment