It seems pretty clear that the situation at Rikers Island, the jail that holds the vast majority of New York City’s prisoners, is reaching some kind of critical mass. While no one has ever been under the impression that it’s some kind of model facility, a recent, scathing series of reports has revealed just how bad things are: after a two year investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice found “rampant” use of excessive force by guards against adolescent inmates. Before that, in July of this year, an investigation by the New York Times found similar brutality committed by corrections officers against mentally ill inmates. Three guards have been arrested for allegedly smuggling drugs into the jail, with correction officials darkly hinting there may be more arrests to follow.
In the wake of all that, Cecily McMillan, former Occupy protester and brief one-time resident of Rikers, is urging Commissioner Ponte to address what she calls the “desperate” situation at Rikers, particularly for women.
McMillan was convicted of assault on a police officer earlier this year and served about two months at Rikers. On her release, during a press conference at the Rikers gates, she read a list of demands from the inmates at the Rose M. Singer Center, the facility for female prisoners, calling for more timely access to healthcare, for the COs to follow established jail protocol and better rehabilitative and educational services.
McMillan and her media team have been circulating an online petition calling for these same reforms; to date, it’s garnered a little under 8,000 signatures. In an open letter to Ponte, which we’ve reprinted in full on the following page, McMillan is asking the correction commissioner to meet with her on Friday morning in front of Rikers, to receive the petitions and to discuss reforms to the Rose M. Singer facility.
“We are members of the public who have loved ones amongst the people labeled prisoners, and we insist that their humanity is equal to our own,” McMillan wrote, in part of the letter. “We are taking the demands of those incarcerated across the bridge to Rikers Island for you to receive and acknowledge them at 10 a.m. in front of the Samuel Perry Building on the morning of Friday, August 15th.”
The letter asks Ponte “to recognize the desperate needs of our imprisoned brothers and sisters,” adding, “Please take time out of your day on Friday, as we will, to listen to the people being abused in your correctional facility.”
Ponte has already said publicly that he agrees that reforms at Rikers are necessary and overdue. In the wake of the Department of Justice report on the treatment of adolescent inmates, the DOC issued a statement from him, promising to continue to cooperate fully with the ongoing investigation. Ponte, who only started on the job in April, also said, “I have made it clear that Excessive Use of Force, unnecessary or unwarranted use of punitive segregation and corruption of any kind are absolutely unacceptable, and will not be tolerated under my watch.” In March of this year, after a mentally ill inmate baked to death in his cell, Mayor Bill de Blasio also vowed to clean up Rikers. He expressed confidence in Ponte, saying that in his previous post as commissioner of the Maine prison system, he had “taken on very troubled situations in jails systems and prison systems previously, and had tremendous success.”
This isn’t the first time Rikers has been under the microscope, though it’s been a while: in February 1972, the State Commission of Correction threatened to take away the jail’s state certification if they didn’t improve housing, health and educational conditions for inmates within six months. A brief investigation into conditions at the jail had revealed that homosexual inmates were being excluded from educational programs, that the only counseling available was “superficial,” and that the dormitories were so overcrowded they violated city and state health codes. In 1992, yet another damning report called conditions in the cells “unsafe and unsanitary,” noting, once again, that they violated local and state health and safety laws.
The full letter from McMillan to Ponte is on the following page.
Dear Commissioner Ponte:
On July 1st, the women of my dorm (4 East A, 800 Building) in Rose M. Singer Center came together in the spirit of democracy – we collectively drafted demands to make our lives livable. When I was released on July 2nd, I read their words at a press conference in front of the gates of Rikers Island – our only opportunity to be heard without a working grievance process at RMSC. We hoped you would hear us.
When those demands went unanswered, I repeated them in a New York Times op-ed that further stressed the need for immediate change, specifically the circumstance of my friend Judith who suffered an untimely death due to the medical neglect and malpractice that is a part of everyday life at RMSC. Still, our experiences did not reach you. Still, we did not hear from you–despite a thoughtful response from former Corrections Commissioner, Martin Horn. Still, I remained hopeful that you would one day listen to our pleas for dignity.
I started a petition. It has been widely endorsed by elected officials and prisoner advocacy groups alike–we have nearly ten thousand signatures. Since you still have not been moved by these voices, we are bringing them to your doorstep. We are members of the public who have loved ones amongst the people labeled prisoners, and we insist that their humanity is equal to our own. We are taking the demands of those incarcerated across the bridge to Rikers Island for you to receive and acknowledge them at 10 a.m. in front of the Samuel Perry Building on the morning of Friday, August 15th.
We respectfully request your presence to recognize the desperate needs of our imprisoned brothers and sisters. We will calmly await your arrival and make every possible preparation to allow you to receive the thousands of signatures calling for basic human rights at Rikers: adequate mental and physical healthcare, and an accountable grievance process. Please take time out of your day on Friday, as we will, to listen to the people being abused in your correctional facility.
I look forward to meeting you there.