A Visit to Rosie’s
By now, summer classes at the Rosewood High School had ended. The girls in the Rose M. Singer Center, or “Rosie’s,” where Rikers houses its female inmates, had to entertain themselves. So on this humid morning, four girls crowded around a table playing spades and swapping stories in a room with bare walls, one fan, and a long window looking onto a guards’ station. The ringleader in cell block “6 Upper” was Mona Lisa, a saucy 17-year-old from Harlem.
She glanced at the cards in her hand and tossed a two of diamonds on the table. A cigarette swung from her lips as the teenager rattled off the reasons why life stinks inside the Bing, the jail’s cell block for especially unruly prisoners. “In the Bing, you can’t have an ashtray,” Mona Lisa said. “You can’t have cigarettes. You can’t have oatmeal. The other thing about the Bing is you only get one shower a day.”
Scattered around the room were nine other teenagers, who gossiped and braided each other’s hair as a television blared The Jenny Jones Show. The audience in front of the television included the captain who had been assigned to escort me around the jail—a sign, I figured, that he wasn’t too worried about what the girls might tell a reporter. Kerik’s tour of Rikers’ reforms does not include a stop inside cell block 6 Upper at Rosie’s. Indeed, the women’s jail, which has never had a problem with stabbings and slashings, does not fit neatly into Kerik’s tale of dropping crime rates.
Today, the population at Rosie’s includes 1600 adult women, 30 16- to 18-year-olds, and nine babies. After touring the men’s jails on Rikers, strolling through Rosie’s is a surprise: The entrance is painted pink, the fear of violence doesn’t hang in the air, and most of the guards are female. Prisoners sometimes stroll arm-in-arm through the halls, and if they encounter a toilet with no seat, they’ll stick down sanitary pads to create a cushion.
Pregnant inmates live together in a dorm called “Building 7,” passing the days in a haze of cigarette smoke. And in the jail nursery, mothers push strollers around a patch of asphalt, chatting about the three new sets of twins or about which of them were shackled after they gave birth. In every part of Rosie’s, the women debate a pet theory, that they get worse services than the men—that their food is less tasty, that they are told to use toilet paper instead of sanitary napkins when supplies run low—because they are less violent.
In cell block 6 Upper, the inmates’ favorite topic of discussion was the Bing, and the self-appointed authority was Mona Lisa. Short braids frame Mona Lisa’s baby face, which might let her pass for 14 until she sashays around the cell block, drawing attention to her ample hips. Though this was Mona Lisa’s first trip to Rikers, she already sounded like an old-timer, wearing her Bing time as a badge of honor. Mona Lisa said she’d arrived on Rikers three months earlier and had already spent 40 days in the jail’s Bing, where inmates are locked in a room for 23 hours a day.
“You get a phone call once a week,” she said. “You can’t have no food in the Bing. Nothin’ that we get up here. We don’t go to commissary for soap, y’know, things you want. They call it toilet-bowl shopping,” Mona Lisa said, referring to the inmate practice of storing soda or perishable foods in a cell toilet. “In the Bing, we don’t even go toilet-bowl shopping!”
What did Mona Lisa do to earn a trip to the Bing? “A girl threw pee on my bed because I didn’t give her a cigarette, and I threw pee in her face,” Mona Lisa said with a smirk. “She slapped me. A C.O. broke it up. Then I beat her up in the bathroom.”
Male prisoners get sent to the Bing for offenses like attacking a guard or slamming razor blades, but female inmates receive the same punishment for less serious transgressions. According to the warden of Rosie’s, female prisoners tend to go to the Bing for “fighting with each other, disrespecting staff, not following orders, lingering in the hallways . . . and stealing from each other.” One of the few times an officer found a razor blade in this jail, the inmate was using it to sculpt her eyebrows.
Jennifer, 17, sat nearby, half listening to Jenny Jones and half watching her fellow inmates’ card game. Jennifer’s belly pushed against her T-shirt, evidence that she is among the 20 percent of Rosie’s prisoners who are pregnant. Jennifer said she had been on Rikers for three months after being picked up in a drug sweep. Today, she looked sulky, but it was not morning sickness or the lack of air-conditioning that was troubling her.
“A girl in here just got jumped and had a miscarriage,” she said. Two weeks had passed and Jennifer was still upset about how her friend’s alleged attacker was treated. “She didn’t go to the Bing or nothing,” Jennifer said. “That’s not right. She should be tried for attempted murder or murder.”
“Yep.” Evidently, everyone had already heard about the incident, and everyone agreed with Jennifer.
Mona Lisa steered the conversation to another girl they all knew. “You know Cheryl, right?” she asked. (This inmate’s name has been changed.) “She has to stay in the Bing until 2003. She was fighting C.O.’s, captains. She walks around with the black mitts on her hands. She even has a lawsuit because they beat her. She’s 18.” A sense of awe crept into Mona Lisa’s voice as she recounted Cheryl’s troubles. “Everybody in here knows her,” Mona Lisa said. “She’s famous in here.”
“She gets sprayed with mace and she just keeps on going,” another girl added.
The card game ended, and Mona Lisa scribbled down the scores. “This is my case right here,” she said, pointing to the top sheet of a stapled stack. Mona Lisa explained that an adult inmate in the law library had helped her photocopy these descriptions of the penal codes for the charges she faces. The crime listed on the first page: 120.10 Assault in the First Degree. “I was reading it because when we get in the courtroom, I don’t be understanding what they’re saying,” Mona Lisa said. Her fellow players—Christine, Ruby, and Desiree—all nodded in agreement, although no one else wanted to discuss why she was on Rikers Island.
There did not seem to be much to do other than keep playing cards, so the girls dealt a new hand. To pass the hours, they also bickered and fought. They traded tips on how to make an ashtray out of a soap bar and how to make an envelope using paper and toothpaste. They complained about everything—about the cops who arrested them, their prosecutors, the jailhouse soap that made their skin crack. And they talked about how they were never, ever going to come back here.
Mona Lisa’s strategy for combating boredom seemed to involve talking compulsively. “I never would have gone to the Bing,” she continued. “But, you know, I’ve been here a long time, and you can go and tell a C.O. that this person is doing this and they never say nothing. And then when you take matters into your own hands, you go to the Bing. I don’t like that.”
“We’re all different ages, but some of us are more mature than others,” explained Desiree, perhaps as a way to counter Mona Lisa’s Bing tales. “Some of us know how to get along better than others do.” Desiree said she’d been on the island for only three days, but already she had compiled a lengthy list of grievances. “The food is really disgusting,” said Desiree. “That’s what we got to talk about. And the way the C.O.’s talk to us—that’s another thing that’s really disgusting. They curse at us, especially in new admissions. They be treatin’ you like shit, [saying] ‘Shut the fuck up.’ ”
The captain in the corner remained out of earshot, and Desiree seemed unbothered by his presence. Unlike adult prisoners I had met, these girls had little fear about saying what was on their minds.
“And people that get dope sick—” Desiree continued. “You shouldn’t do dope, but the C.O.’s act like it’s [the addicts’] fault. If they see somebody having a seizure, they leave them there.”
“Somebody could die in here because they take their time,” said Mona Lisa.
“You know what I think is so nasty?” said Ruby, glancing up from her cards. Wearing a denim miniskirt and green metallic nail polish, Ruby looked as if she could have been heading out to a party. “Say she just came into new admissions,” said Ruby, gesturing to the girl next to her, “and I’ve been here already. [The medical staff] haven’t checked her, but they’ve checked me. And they chain me to her when we go to court. That’s nasty because you don’t know what she’s got. She could be somebody off the streets. She could have TB or something.”
“We’re not supposed to get handcuffed to anyone because we’re adolescents,” said Mona Lisa. “They’re supposed to put you by yourself in a cage,” another teenager added.
A pudgy girl sitting behind Desiree leaned forward to join the conversation. “I don’t like the cages,” she said, “because I feel like I’m an animal in the Bronx Zoo.”
At 11:15 a.m., Desiree, Mona Lisa, Ruby, and Christine pushed back their chairs and stacked their cards on the table. On the back of each playing card was a helpful message: Play it safe. AIDS can happen to anyone. The girls drifted out of the dayroom and lined up against a wall, ready to be marched to the mess hall. By now, they had stopped gossiping and joking and smiling. Already, they’d mastered this monotonous drill; the excitement of learning to navigate this new world had quickly ebbed.
A few hours later, I visited the jail’s Bing for adolescents. An officer let me into an empty eight-by-10-foot cell, and I tried to imagine how Mona Lisa’s youthful enthusiasm had fit into such a small space. Then I spied her handiwork covering one cinder-block wall:
Shay & Mona Lisa 4Ever One
Bloody Face & Mona Lisa
Blood Shai & Mo-Love 9Stop 1Love 4Ever In Life.
It could have been a high school bathroom stall, I thought—until I noticed that some young prisoner had sketched a calendar by the door and drawn a slash through each day of captivity.