Live From Rikers: Cecily McMillan on the Horrific Conditions Inside


On May 19, after a two year-long trial, Cecily McMillan was found guilty of assaulting an NYD police officer, Officer Grantley Bovell. She was sentenced to 90 days in Rikers Island Correctional Facility, plus five years of probation. A pacifist activist and grad school student, she had testified that she reacted instinctively after a police officer grabbed her breast from behind — hard enough to leave a handprint-shaped bruise — and accidentally elbowed him the eye.

In Cecily’s trial, the jury was not allowed to hear about the larger context of Occupy Wall Street and police violence; they were not allowed to hear testimony from another protester with whom Officer Bovell had been violent the same night; they were only allowed to watch the video of the alleged assault from one angle. The judge put a gag order on her lawyer. And, after the jury convicted her of felony assault, they were shocked to find out that she might be sentenced to seven years in prison.

In Rikers, where Cecily has almost finished serving her time, she is being denied media contact. When I tried to arrange a press meeting with her through the Department of Corrections, the media coordinator gave me a brusque denial and essentially hung up on me. Other members of the press have only been able to visit as friends or family members, meaning that they’re not allowed to bring a pen or paper in with them. (Journalist Molly Crabapple recently tweeted an image of her notes from her meeting with Cecily, which she had scratched onto the back of her visitor’s pass with a key.) Cecily also being denied correspondence in visitors’ packages, which she says is “unheard of by anybody” in the history of Rikers.

On Friday, I spoke to Cecily in two fifteen-minute phone conversations — exactly fifteen minutes each, because the phone automatically disconnects after that amount of time — about the deplorable conditions she’s witnessed in Rikers. She’s getting out Wednesday and plans to hold a press conference in which she’ll read out a list of inmate grievances.

This is the content of our interviews, edited for length and clarity, in Cecily’s words:

A woman that we had been in here with died yesterday. She didn’t die in here, but she was systematically denied, essentially, medical care for three days. She had liver cancer and Hep C — God knows why she was up in general population and not an infirmary — and they put her on too high of a level of methadone because they like to sedate people here, and she ended up getting to the point of a delusional state where she was afraid of everybody.

She’d been coughing up blood for three days, and she wouldn’t go with them [to the hospital] because, at this point, she’s terrified of the medical staff. It’s fucking awful. So they didn’t take her, even though she was coughing up pieces of her liver. The whole room had to go into an uproar to be allowed to escort her down personally with the people she knew and trusted, and they literally made her walk, as she was going into liver failure, propped up by two inmates. And we found out that she died yesterday.

They had known that she was throwing up blood and, more or less, responded, “Well, if she doesn’t come, we’re not going to make her,” but she was beyond the point of making cognitive medical decisions. If she had been in a hospital, a family member would have made medical decisions for her. She was delusional.

It’s not like anyone in here expects to be treated like a human being. My jailhouse madrina, she came in here, and she had been in remission from throat cancer. During the time she’d been here, she developed a lump in her neck. The first time [she had cancer], it progressed very rapidly and they got it really quickly, so she was okay. She’s been waiting for over six weeks to get a biopsy on a lump in her throat, and she’s known to have had cancer before. On another occasion, they told her that she was going to die from a tumor in her neck. As soon as possible, she called her entire family and told them that she was dying, and it turns out that her spine was unaligned.

Another inmate was locked in Bellevue hospital on a 2-ply, chained, because she was told that she had tuberculosis. Anybody in the health or medical profession knows that the first positive is considered a false positive. She was there for two weeks, suffering, away from everybody, until the doctor came in and was like, “You don’t have tuberculosis.”

Anna, another girl here, nearly lost her leg in another case where she didn’t have her diabetes treated while she was in here. The things I’ve seen in here… I mean, you have suspend your belief that you’re a human being while you’re in Rikers. Otherwise, you will go insane. I’m talking Brazil status.

Everybody falls in the shower here. It’s really dangerous. The shoes they give us suck to the bottom of the floor, and you fall. Everybody falls. I’m surprised there’s not a class action suit. [My friend recently] fell and the captain said, “You look fine to me,” and she woke up unable to move her neck and shoulders. When they took her to the hospital the next morning — rushed to the hospital — they were like, “You have a concussion.” Thank god it wasn’t anything like internal bleeding.

I’ve also seen a woman allegedly miscarry. I will say that I watched her as she bled out from her vaginal region for four or five hours, screaming in the inmate holding cell, with no attention paid to her by the correctional officers.

This is normal. If there’s anything wrong with you, you’re fucked. And if you don’t die here — I would love for somebody to do a study of how many people died six months post-Rikers from diabetes, infection…

My biggest surprise is that more people do not die here. I think that if more people did their investigations correctly in investigative journalism, people would find that people indirectly die from [being] here all the time. I went and saw a doctor today who literally told me, “I do not speak English.” That’s happened to me not once but twice.

If every prisoner that died in here made the newspaper, then maybe people would stop being shocked. But the only ones who are named here are the people who are related to people or who are allies with people who have some sort of agency. Like I said, earlier, my friend literally has a lump in her throat after having cancer, and it’s just a given that they’re not going to take a biopsy of it.

I think that people [on the outside] are surprised because you don’t hear about how actually often it occurs. And I think they’re also surprised because prison is so outside of the realm of the educated, liberal society. I have learned that it is impossible for people to imagine the instruments of torture, humiliation and alienation at this place. I haven’t even sat down and given a minute-by-minute play-by-play of what I experience here, because every time I try to explain it, it’s impossible for people to understand.

I had never before been trained as a person on how to be docile. And there’s all these things that prison does: like how you walk on the right side of the hallway. You keep your hands at your side. You keep your head down. You look up when you’re addressed to by C.O.s, but not before that. You are socialized at your core, from outside of this place to inside of this place, to be non-threatening, to be less bad, to be subservient. [I can’t explain] how much of myself I’ve had to undo to just be here.

The real world isn’t actually any different from in here, in the sense that there are structures of violence that are orchestrated from the top to the bottom, and it’s sort of a trickle-down violence. The commissioners shit on the C.O.s, the C.O.s shit on the inmates, the inmates shit on the other inmates. Essentially, we’re all caught up in a cycle of alienated violence against one another constantly, and ultimately confined in a bureaucratic, maddening maze of inhumanity. The only thing that’s missing here is rampant consumerism — and there’s still some of that. Wherever you go, there’s commerce. Now, it’s just in the form of commissary.

The C.O.s and the inmates, generally speaking, are coming from the same place. And the thing is, at the end of the day, if society were promoting things like addiction programs, like recuperation facilities, like rehab facilities, like mental health facilities, the people working here as C.O.s would be working there, and gladly so. They don’t want to come in here and be assholes. Like, come on. They have to be stuck in prison with us.

[The inmates] are people from their neighborhood. They know them. They want to make their time here as amenable as much as possible so that they can get out. It’s not unlike the dialogue you hear about public school: like, all of a sudden, the superintendent shows up and you have to run the drills.

[The C.O.s express their dissatisfaction by talking about] strikes, wanting to go on strikes, talking about mental health care, how they’re trying to look after around 50 girls or so, and people are being denied their bipolar, paranoid, schizophrenia, anxiety medications, and there’s nothing they can really do about it, because A) they’re not really trained in that, and B) they have to take care of the other girls, too. They’re horrified. The health standards, the mental health standards… They see more than anybody, more than The New Jim Crow could ever elucidate, what the reincarceration rates are like. And it’s heartbreaking for them.

I’ll be talking so extensively about mental health when I get out of here. The lack of stability of the medication, the lack of availability of the medication. It’s governed by money. If your medication doesn’t fit within their system, they don’t give it to you, and they sedate everybody. It’s terrifying.

Beyond that, you have to fight for your spot at sick call. You have to get a shift change to go to sick call, which is at six a.m., and you have to wait there to get to the doctors, who come around nine. You have to wait, sometimes, six hours — sometimes eight hours, sometimes twelve hours and you never get in and have to go back the next day — for any ailment you may have. Anywhere from the fact that I’m breaking out in rashes all over my face from the lye soap that they give us — like, a swatch of my skin is gone from my face — all the way to heart palpitations or the flu or hepatitis C. It’s a waiting game. You sit there until you can’t any longer, and people fall out, and you move up. It’s a competition.

In the past two days, I have seen two people in the stages of acting out — one of them singing, talking to herself alone for hours until she got a mental health referral, and the other one just break down sobbing. That’s two in two days, just trying to get into mental health. They’ll also put you in isolation [if you act out]. Did you know that there is a lady who has been in isolation for literally years, who takes her feces and stores them up, buckets and buckets at a time, smears them all over her windows, or smears them all over her body. Smears them all over the windows so that nobody can see into her cell, smears them all over her body so that nobody can take her to court. She’s been known to spit shit, eat shit, and this woman’s in isolation here. Like, are you kidding me? There is something fundamentally and seriously off [when a] woman is so fearful and adamantly against having contact with people or guards or the courts.

After [the inmate] died last night, everybody was really upset. We all got together and I told them that my team is toying with the idea of doing a press conference on my release. I said, “It would make me feel a lot better if you guys would help me write what it is that I’m going to say about this place, so if you could help me with some of your stories.” Everybody was absolutely lined up. [On Wednesday] I’m going to be reading a list of grievances for all the really strong and encouraging women in here. Really, they’re my family at this point.

Image via Shutterstock.

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