An officer pushed a metal food cart into the Bing and parked it in front of cell #1. Unlocking the door’s slot, the guard shoved a tray of food inside. Before he could shut the slot, however, the occupant of cell #1 thrust his arm out the door. He had spied me outside his cell and begun hollering. “I want to talk to her!”
“Move your arm out of the food slot,” said the officer, who kept one hand on the heated cart stocked with dozens of lunches.
“I got things to address!” the inmate shouted.
It was “feeding time” in cell block 1 South in the Bing, the most soul-deadening place on Rikers Island. On Rikers, there are five separate Bings, or punitive segregation units—for men, women, adolescent girls, adolescent boys, and mentally ill inmates. But when people refer to “the Bing,” they usually mean the men’s unit, officially called the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, which occupies a five-story addition to the Otis Bantum Correctional Center. This 2000-bed jail is one of Rikers’ newest, a high-tech facility with prefab cells and sliding doors operated by switches in a central control room. From the outside, the slate-colored building with bright blue trim bears little resemblance to Rikers’ older jails.
The Bing was created in 1988 as a management tool, a place to put all the most rebellious prisoners together in order to make the rest of the city’s jails run more smoothly. Today, two-story cell blocks run along each side of the Bing, creating the illusion that it is an airy, spacious place. But from inside its 72-square-foot cells, of course, the place looks quite different.
On this day, Rikers’ jail-within-a-jail held 269 men, who spend all day alone, locked inside rooms just big enough to spread their arms or walk a few steps. Unlike inmates elsewhere on Rikers, these prisoners exit their cells only for a shower or “recreation,” which is an hour alone in an outdoor cage. There are no televisions, no visits to the law library, no chances to gossip in the mess hall. The primary occupation of the men here seems to be the struggle to stay sane.
Showing me around the Bing this morning were Leroy Grant, the warden of the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, and Angelo Rivituso, then the deputy warden in charge of the Bing. Grant is 6-5, with a basketball player’s build and the sort of imposing presence that seems to befit a Bing warden. At the moment, Grant did not look pleased that the occupant of cell #1 had interrupted his tour, creating chaos in front of a guest.
“What’s the problem?” asked Grant, who wore a navy jacket with four gold buttons, a black tie, and one gold star on each shoulder.
“It’s a pleasure to see someone in authority by here,” the inmate said.
“Y’all right?” Grant asked. “Take your arm out.”
The inmate did not deliver a litany of gripes. Not about today’s lunch of steamed carrots, spaghetti with meat sauce, white bread, and Kool-Aid, nor about anything else. What he wanted, it seemed, was a little attention. “Can I have your business card?” he asked the warden.
Grant ignored this stab at humor, but he’d already given the inmate what he wanted. The inhabitant of cell #1 pulled his arm inside, and the officer shut his food slot.
Mealtimes are the most chaotic periods of the day in the Bing, sometimes dragging on for two hours. Almost every day, someone shoves an arm—or occasionally even his head and shoulders—out of his slot. Prisoners scream all day long, but they know the best way to get a response is to hold a one-arm protest during mealtime.
Sometimes, inmates have a legitimate grievance—an illness, a missed weekly phone call, a suicidal urge. Sometimes, they just want to taunt their jailers. For men locked in their cells all day, mealtime brings not only food but also a chance to get a tiny taste of power. In this setting of extreme isolation, putting an arm through a food slot can seem like a desperate grab for recognition.
The occupant of cell #2 tossed his overcooked carrots into the hallway before the guard could lock his slot. If more than one prisoner at a time refuses to let the officer shut his food slot, the guard halts his midday routine. The mantra for maintaining control in the Bing is “Two slots, everything stops.” It takes only two inmates to dangle their arms out of their cells, the deputy warden explained, before “food is flying.” Prisoners fling veal patties and apples across the cell block, and they squirt shampoo bottles filled with urine and Kool-Aid at officers passing by. Sometimes, female guards even encounter prisoners trying to masturbate on them through an open food slot.
To regain control, Bing officers are supposed to follow a strict protocol. “After we exhaust all our IPC [interpersonal communication] skills,” Grant explained, “then we have to bring in the officers with the stun shields and OC [oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray] and get him to comply.” Getting the prisoner to comply often means performing a “cell extraction”—entering an inmate’s cell, forcing him facedown onto the ground, cuffing him behind his back, and hauling him out.
A typed document, known as the “24-Hour Report,” circulates around Rikers each morning, detailing these incidents and any other “use of force.” Between July 1998 and July 1999, there were 496 use-of-force incidents in the Bing, including this typical incident from May 29, 1999:
At 1225 hours, in 1 South Cell 27, Inmate Malik . . . refused repeated orders to close his food slot. . . . Under the supervision of Captain Lomas, Officers Malone (E.I.S. [Electronic Immobilization Shield]), Wilson (Legs), Evans (Right Arm), Hill (Left Arm), and Guzman (Handcuffs) restrained Inmate Malik with a 6 second application of the E.I.S., control holds, and the application of handcuffs; and removed him from the cell. Inmate Malik refused medical treatment and no injuries were noted. No injuries were reported by staff.
Jail officials and their critics agree that the use of stun shields and pepper spray has led to a drop in the number of broken bones and bruises in the Bing. But some prisoners do still get hurt. During May and June of 1999, Bing inmates were injured in about half of the 129 use-of-force incidents. Their injuries ranged from a scratched arm and a swollen wrist to broken teeth, multiple contusions to the face and nose, and an asthma attack triggered by pepper spray.
There are far fewer serious injuries in the Bing today largely because of a class-action lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society in 1993. This suit exposed rampant abuse, revealing that between 1988 and 1998 guards seriously injured at least 300 Bing inmates. Broken bones, perforated eardrums, and fractured skulls were fairly common here several years ago.
Perhaps the most damning document collected in this lawsuit was a report prepared for the Legal Aid Society by Vincent M. Nathan, who has been a court monitor in prison reform litigation cases for more than 20 years. Nathan wrote:
The CPSU [Central Punitive Segregation Unit] occupies the third ring of hell in the field of corrections in the United States. Staff’s behavior in this highly secure unit is . . . psychopathic behavior. Not only do officers respond to any form of aggression with punches and kicks, they actively seek out their victims and punish them brutally for verbal insults and insubordination; staff inflict “greeting beatings” to establish their turf or, perhaps in some cases, just for sheer perverted pleasure. . . . CPSU supervisors, including wardens, have deliberately adopted terror as their underlying management philosophy.
As part of their settlement with the Legal Aid Society, Rikers officials added 300 cameras to the Bing and now document every cell extraction. To show how he monitors his guards, Rivituso, the deputy warden, led me into his air-conditioned office on the Bing’s third floor, where he kept a popcorn popper, a jar of homemade pickled jalapeño peppers, and a stash of videotapes depicting his officers wrestling inmates out of their cells.
A bulletin board across from Rivituso’s desk featured a row of Polaroids of the Bing’s worst inmates. The most notorious one was a 22-year-old Blood named Peter Showers. Grant pulled out a two-page list of Showers’s infractions: refusing to have his cell searched, assaulting staff, threatening inmates, arson. When Showers comes to Rikers, officers do not wait for him to break Rikers’ rules again; he goes straight to the Bing.
I was not permitted to interview Showers or any of the other prisoners in the Bing. So I asked to speak with an inmate who worked in the Bing, one of the men who held the job of “suicide prevention aide.” What I got was an interview with Samuel, an affable 40-year-old with a missing front tooth, who had been locked up for 10 months on a cocaine possession charge. Samuel and I stood next to the “bubble,” the glass-enclosed control room outside the cell block, as he told me about his job.
“I watch the inmates to make sure they’re not attempting to injure themselves or commit suicide,” he explained. “If an inmate is attempting to hang up, I contact an officer. Then I lift the inmate up so the noose is no longer around his neck, and the officer cuts him down. If the inmate is cutting [himself] up, I’m to stand outside the cell and wait till the officer comes to disarm the inmate. I’m supposed to make, like, a tourniquet or a patch press to slow down the bleeding.” Samuel demonstrated by pushing his palm against the inside of his wrist. “Or stop the bleeding, if I’m lucky,” he said.
Samuel is one of several suicide prevention aides who patrol the Bing, earning 50 cents an hour to peer inside cell windows and make sure none of their fellow inmates are trying to kill themselves. “A lot of guys—they have a very hard persona, but you get talking to them and they’re just young guys,” said Samuel, who is older than most of the inmates in the Bing, where the average age is 23.
“They’re just followers, following what’s hot right now,” he continued. “A lot of times, guys lose hope, especially guys who are facing a lot of time. Their wives are leaving them, their girlfriends are leaving. I try to reassure them that even people who are not in prison, their relationships go south for whatever reason, and that’s just a part of life.”
So far, nobody has tried to hang himself on Samuel’s watch. He’d been a suicide prevention aide for only a month, working the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, but already all the prisoners seemed to know him, or at least know his voice. If he showed up a few minutes after 10 p.m., the inmates chided him for being late.
Samuel’s current job could not be more different from the last one on his résumé: stock manager at the Warner Bros. store in Times Square, supervising workers as they lined the shelves with Tweety Bird T-shirts and Bugs Bunny drinking glasses. In an unexpected way, though, Samuel said, his stint at Warner Bros. helped prepare him for his current position, since they’re both “standing-type jobs.”
As Samuel spoke, the warden stood a few feet away, monitoring all of his words. Perhaps to placate the warden, Samuel adopted a demeanor of complete deference. He kept his hands clasped behind his back, as if he were wearing a pair of invisible handcuffs. When Samuel finished his spiel, the warden stepped forward. “His role is very significant,” Grant said. “A lot of guys feel loneliness and a sense of despair. He can go over to them and let them know they’re not the only ones going through this. He plays a vital role helping them cope.” Samuel stayed silent as the warden spoke, and soon an officer came to lead him away.
Grant and Rivituso escorted me out of the Bing and past the “staging area”—a curve in the hallway where guards suit up before storming into the Bing. Riot vests, fireproof jackets, firemen’s boots, metal helmets, and gas masks lined wooden shelves. Samuel’s words seemed to linger in Grant’s mind; without any prodding, the warden steered the conversation back to suicide. “If you happen to have one of those experiences of a guy hanging up, there’s guilt,” Grant said. “I’ve had this as an officer. I saw a guy successfully hanging up. It leaves a hollowness.”
In his office, Warden Grant explained that he had been an officer at the Anna M. Kross Center 15 years earlier when an inmate tied a T-shirt to a cell door and hung himself. “You ask yourself a million questions,” said the warden, leaning back in his leather chair. Grant fingered his remote control and glanced across his desk at the three video screens, which allowed him to monitor every part of his jail. “It’s very painful,” he said. “You’re in touch with the fact that you’re supposed to be preserving life. It’s something that always stays with you.”
Nobody has killed himself in the Bing for several years, though there were six suicides in the city’s jails in 1999 and six in 1998. In the Bing, Rivituso said, “We had two attempts in the last four months [of 1999], and the SPA [suicide prevention aide] was the first to alert the officer. They had torn sheets tied around their necks, [but] in both cases their feet were on the ground. In one case, the guy was just sitting on the bed—he wasn’t even attached to anything.” Rivituso explained that they report such incidents to a central office only if a mental health worker determines it was a “bona fide” suicide attempt.
“With inmate suicide attempts, we have nonserious and serious,” Grant said. “In both these cases, we viewed it as an attempt for these individuals to avoid doing their time.” Training for Bing guards includes warnings about prisoners trying to feign insanity in order to escape their solitary confinement and move into a less punitive setting.
“We call them Bing beaters,” Rivituso added. “They play like they’re crazy so they can get out of the Bing and be in a dorm with people who really are off so they can take advantage of them. We all saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. McMurphy plays cards with all the M.O.’s [mental observation patients] and wins their money. We have a lot of McMurphys here.”
One minute later, an assistant opened the door to the warden’s office and handed Rivituso a slip of paper. Signed by a doctor, the form upgraded a recent incident to a suicide attempt. In this instance, a Bing prisoner had tied a sheet around his neck and attached it to a vent cover in his cell around 2 a.m. I asked the warden and deputy warden if this was one of the two suicide attempts they had just mentioned. “No,” Rivituso said. “This would be the third.”
The interruption seemed to push my hosts slightly off-balance. On our tour, Grant had used corporate jargon to describe his job. “We try to operate from a preventive management approach,” he’d said. “Our goal is to create a win-win atmosphere.” But suddenly the Bing seemed less a well-managed cell block than a place of horror, where officers confront the seemingly impossible task of keeping prisoners alive in a place designed to crush their souls.
Rivituso handed the doctor’s form to Grant, who stared at the sheet a few moments. Neither the warden nor the deputy warden could recall the incident, and they wondered aloud whether this particular inmate was actually one of theirs.
Perhaps such incidents are hard to remember because so many Bing prisoners engage in similar behavior. There may have been only two—or now three—”official” suicide attempts in the Bing so far this year, but that number tells only a fraction of the story. There were more than 30 incidents of self-injurious behavior in the Bing during the first five months of 1999. In January, an inmate was found lying in his cell with a string around his neck, saying that he heard voices telling him to hang up. A Bing prisoner lit his jumpsuit on fire in February. In March, an inmate sliced both his wrists with a razor and claimed to have swallowed seven pills. Some of these inmates were sent to other jails, some back to the same cell block, and some to the Bing for mentally ill inmates. These incidents might sound like suicide attempts, but here on Rikers Island they are called “manipulative gestures.“