Occupy Protester Cecily McMillan on Rikers: "In Some Ways, I'm Treated Better Than Anyone Else In Here, Which is Horrifying"

McMillan with her lead attorney, Martin Stolar, during her trial.
McMillan with her lead attorney, Martin Stolar, during her trial.
Photo by Anna Merlan

After serving a little less than two months in jail, Occupy Wall Street protester and graduate student Cecily McMillan will be released from Rikers Island on Wednesday, July 2. As you might recall, the 25-year-old was found guilty in May of assaulting a police officer during a 2012 protest. She was sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years probation, with time off for the good behavior and time served. It seems safe to say that both McMillan and the city's Department of Correction will be happy to see her off the island, where, true to form, she's been protesting and organizing almost since the moment she arrived.

Rikers has been in an uproar lately, after two officers and 20 inmates were arrested as part of a corruption sweep. But none of them were in the Rose M. Singer Center, the jail unit where women are kept. McMillan and her fellow inmates didn't know about the arrests until relatively recently. The regular paper for the inmates is the Daily News; when they ran a cover story about the arrests last week, the paper arrived with the front cover torn off.

In a recent phone call, McMillan said her time at Rikers has been curious, a mix of special treatment that no other inmates receive and weird restrictions that seem tailor-made just for her.

"I'm treated better than almost anyone in here in terms of healthcare," McMillan told the Voice in a recent phone call. She's been able to get access to physical exams and even, after a lengthy delay, her ADHD medications. But she also says she was physically assaulted by a guard in early June, a man who shoved her and shouted a string of obscenities for no reason she could see.

"I guess he was having a bad day," she says.

McMillan filed a complaint against the corrections officer about the incident. Her support team provided us with a copy of that statement. It reads, in full:

June 7th, 2014 at approximately 10:00am - I approached the "800 building" medication window located down the hall from the 1st floor viewing "bubble", between the rooms designated "salon" and "inmate assignment", to receive supervised medication (adderall). Shortly thereafter I was verbally abused then physically assaulted by a male correctional officer later identified as "Griffin," badge number 14966 (according to the officer himself). In addition to me, the incident (in whole or in part) was witnessed by the pharmacist on duty, one female officer, and one additional male officer in a light blue shirt - further, the officers in the "bubble" also seemed alert of the exchange. Namely, Officer Griffin (#14966) called me a string of obscenities - in an increasingly loud and threatening manner - before rushing me and slamming his body into mine. If not for the other officers intervening, it is my belief that he would have caused further injury - more than just sending me stumbling backward with my glasses askew. This is based on his continued advances upon me (following the physical assault) depite no verbal or physical attack on my behalf. The entire explanation of the event is available as needed. However, I have spoken to my attorney Martin R. Stolar and given the full account (on the evening of June 7th): at that meeting we mutually agreed that no major harm was caused - I was just frightened - and therefore we would forego further action.

Finally, I found that such behavior was atypical amongst the interrelations I've had with correctional officers; most have generally treated me with basic respect, many with courtest, and several have been outright kind and helpful. That being said, I understand that this is not an easy job (the hours are long and stressful) and everyone is entitled to a bad day - especially as it seemed Officer Griffin was already upset from an incident occurring as I walked up."

There have been other, smaller issues: both McMillan and her support team say it's been a "daily battle" for her to get her mail, especially letters. "Everybody but me is allowed to get letters in their mail packages," McMillan says. Her letters seem to go through a different sort of scrutiny and have been arriving "absurdly late," she says. It usually takes two to three days from the time a letter is delivered to Rikers to the time the inmate receives it. On June 17, she got a letter postmarked May 22.

Lucy Parks, a friend of McMillan's who's been organizing much of her jail support, says McMillan's visitors also go through a special screening. "Both me and Cecily's thesis advisor are both flagged to be required to do pat down searches before we can visit, but someone else who goes in every week isn't," she says. Pat-down searches are usually only reserved for visitors who set off the metal detector. Neither of them do. "It's something that comes up in the system when they check our IDs." They also frequently have to wanded over with an ion scanner, a device that tests for the presence of narcotics and explosives on someone's clothing or skin. Another friend of McMillan's says he recently noticed a note on a stack of papers at a front desk where the guards sit. The note said to "call the captain" when McMillan has visitors.

The Voice asked the Department of Correction whether McMillan or her visitors have been subject to any special security measures due to the high-profile nature of her case. Department spokesperson Robin Campbell responds, "Any special security measures would be done at the request of a judge."


McMillan says, though, that most of her "special treatment" amounts to minor annoyances. She's far more concerned with some of the system-wide issues she's observed. One that sounds minor, but has become a major problem is the fact that the 50-some women in her "pod" don't receive the outside recreation time they're entitled to each day. That's because they're called to recreation at the same time that they're called for their meals, medication, and mail. It's not possible to do all four. You have to pick: go outside or eat. Eat or take your meds.

"Last night, I didn't eat," McMillan says. "And sometimes, we'll be called to recreation, but we'll just end up waiting in the day room for two to three hours." Then they'll be returned to their cells without ever going outside.

"The UN has said that it's torture not to allow people to be outside," McMillan says. She organized a "dormwide collective action" last week, where every woman wrote letters of grievance. McMillan's hopes are not high: she's previously spoken to the jail official in charge of hearing grievances, pointing out that the right to recreation is in the Rikers prisoner handbook.

"She told me she didn't write the handbook and she's not required to uphold it," McMillan says. "There's nobody to talk to to enforce these basic rights."

Spokesperson Campbell responds: "We comply with minimum standard set by the Board of Correction. BOC standards require inmates to have access to all mandated services. On occasion, recreation times are rescheduled to accommodate special programs. When this happens, staff provide inmates with reasonable means for accessing all mandated services."

Finally, McMillan also says she's deeply concerned with the quality of healthcare provided to other inmates. She spoke specifically about a woman named Ida in her pod, who McMillan says was kept secluded in the jail hospital for two weeks. "Someone thought she had tuberculosis," McMillan says. During that time, Ida, a throat cancer survivor, discovered mass on her neck. She's been waiting six weeks, and still hasn't received a biopsy.

The day after we spoke, McMillan's support team issued another statement on her behalf via Facebook, saying that the medical privations had become much, much worse. "My friend 'Fat Baby' was denied medical attention after falling in the shower until she awoke this morning unable to move from the concussion," McMillan wrote. "Our friend Jack was only taken to the hospital after coughing up blood for three days and the women in my dorm came together in uproar. We found out that she died this morning. She had undiagnosed liver cancer and Hepatitis C. I remain strong with my sisters. We are developing a list of grievances that I will read at the gates of Rikers upon my release."

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