This past spring, Cecily McMillan rode a bus across a bridge to Rikers Island, home of the notorious New York City jail. When the Occupy Wall Street activist was released nearly two months later, she had left her old self behind.
I didn’t cry my first night in jail.
By the time I got through the 12 hours of intake — the lines, the fingerprints, the strip search — it was 4 a.m. In a dorm with 50 women, I lay on a cot smaller than a twin bed, with a mattress so thin, I could feel the cold metal beneath my back.
I didn’t feel much of anything emotionally, except a vague sense of resolution. At least I knew my fate now. I was a convicted felon.
I had spent two years awaiting a trial, accused of assaulting a policeman at an Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City in March 2012. As I remember it, the officer surprised me from behind, grabbing my right breast so forcefully, he lifted me off the ground. In that moment, my elbow met his face.
At the time, I was a graduate student at The New School for Social Research and volunteering as a union organizer, in fact helping police negotiate contracts. I was studying nonviolent movements and had been inspired by pacifists like Bayard Rustin, the activist who helped Martin Luther King Jr. My arrest was the opposite of everything I stood for.
I remember someone pushing me to the ground, my face hitting a grate. Next thing I knew, I was strapped to a gurney, my skirt up above my hips. I had bruises across my body and a handprint on my chest. Officers were joking about my “Ocupussy.” I learned later that I had been beaten on the head, triggering a seizure. Videos posted online showed people shouting “Help her!” amid the seizure while the cops stood by. The first time I saw those videos, I watched in horror — I couldn’t believe that I was the person going through that ordeal.
At the trial, I sat trying to appear calm as I got ripped apart. Prosecutors said I had inflicted the injuries on myself. They said I hadn’t immediately mentioned being grabbed — but I was completely disoriented after the seizure. The judge didn’t allow evidence that my attorney wanted to show the jury, including a range of videos of the incident. I was found guilty and sent to Rikers Island to await my sentence. My lawyer Marty Stolar, a human-rights expert and watchdog for Occupy who had taken my case for free, was so shocked at the verdict that he was visibly shaken.
The prosecutors had offered a deal that would have kept me out of jail, but I refused to plead guilty to something I didn’t do, especially a felony. So I sacrificed my freedom for my convictions. I will never regret that. But I will never be the same person after Rikers Island. I know now what it’s like to lose your freedom, to abandon any sense of personal space, and to face a level of humiliation that is almost impossible to describe.
Those first few days, I tried to figure out “how to jail.” I knew I would have to make friends fast. I started by giving people my food — turkey sausage, beans, canned vegetables. I tried to think of Rikers as a study in society.
That feeling didn’t last long. On my third or fourth night, I sobbed, my face buried in the frayed blanket. I couldn’t let anyone hear. Crying at night makes the correction officers, or COs, slam on the lights and shout, then everyone is awake and furious. But something funny happened that night too. A woman started singing softly, “Wimoweh, wimoweh.” Others joined in: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.” Women in their teens, in their 80s, were singing that song. It felt like a warped summer camp. I realized, we’re all in this together.
I was issued a shapeless jumpsuit and moved to a new dorm. I also learned my sentence: 90 days. I felt like the system had been stacked against me. I was a representation of a movement, not a person. But I stayed focused. I worked on my graduate thesis in jail.
One of my first friends was Fat Baby, a young mother in jail on a drug charge. She started catcalling in Spanish: “Hot legs, mama.” I’m part Mexican, and I knew what she was saying. I told her, “That’s no way to speak to a lady — you sound like a construction worker.” We became pals. I observed her, learning to keep my eyes down, not to stand with my hands on my hips or do anything that conveyed confidence.
Being polite will also get you in trouble. I learned that during a battle to get my medication for ADHD. Everything in prison is about waiting and obstruction. You spend hours waiting in lines — for a mail pass, for the phone — only to be denied for some arbitrary reason. I knew that without my meds, the upheaval in my life would spark an anxiety attack, which could be mistaken for a tantrum, getting me sent to solitary. Thanks to friends who raised a ruckus with public officials, I got the medication. But when I was meeting with the pharmacist, I couldn’t hear him, because a CO was shouting in the hall. I called out, “Sir, I’m sorry, but I’m having trouble hearing.”
Mistake. “Are you telling me to shut up?” he yelled, launching into a tirade. Later, when I stood up to leave, I apologized. He barked, “You white bitch, I told you to shut the fuck up!” My eyes went to his badge. “You want to see my badge?” he yelled. He rammed it into me, sending me flying backward. You are supposed to be able to report grievances, but I never said anything. I was afraid of retaliation.
I had joined Occupy Wall Street after moving to New York City for grad school. I saw people living on the streets, but no one seemed to hear them. The movement was getting started in August 2011, and I liked its objection to corporate greed and income inequality. I wasn’t the most popular protester because I didn’t fit the mold. With my iPad and secondhand Manolo heels, I was called the Paris Hilton of Occupy.
But people didn’t know my past. I had grown up in a trailer park in East Texas with a single mother and my brother. My mom had such dignity that I didn’t realize we were poor. Once, during a food drive at school, I emptied our cupboards and packed up the cans. I didn’t know they had been donated to my own family.
I was an idealistic kid. I lobbied to abolish the school dress code, and I was spanked with a wooden board when I refused to do morning prayers at my public school. I spent summers in Atlanta with my father and liked the big city. I got a scholarship to Lawrence University in Wisconsin and then moved to New York.
Occupy Wall Street set up camp in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan’s Financial District on and off starting in September 2011. On St. Patrick’s Day, I was dressed in green when I went to the park to pick up a friend to go out to a bar. But police were sweeping through the park, so I started walking away. That’s when my troubles began.
At Rikers, word spread that I was part of the Occupy movement, and a few of the guards secretly told me they liked the group’s message. Their lives weren’t so great: They were in jail too and always getting yelled at by higher-ups. They were from the same streets as the criminals.
That’s not to say the indignities weren’t rampant. People often ask if jail is like Orange Is the New Black, but I see nothing similar in incarceration and entertainment. Every day in jail, you are belittled and berated. There’s no library, no computers or cell phones. A TV blasts Criminal Minds. I went through a surreal fight for weeks just to get a pair of sneakers so I could run around the yard.
Before and after seeing visitors, you have to strip naked and squat to prove you aren’t hiding contraband. And on random nights, guards burst into the dorm in full riot gear. You line up while 50 women are strip-searched and X-rayed in a special chair. Next, you return to your bed and hold up the mattress while the officers dump out the two blue buckets where you keep personal items, confiscating whatever they feel like. It looks like a tornado hit the room.
In my buckets, I had 700 letters from supporters — it took me hours to get them back in order after one search. I kept my buckets very organized, much to the amusement of other inmates. “White girl doing her buckets again,” they would say.
One day, someone stole something from my buckets: a small radio. That’s when I met my friend Ida, an older inmate. “You might want to move to a less-trafficked neighborhood,” she said. We called our beds houses and divided the dorm into “neighborhoods.” People had to respect their neighbors, not invade other homes by stepping too close. I moved to Ida’s neighborhood.
For me, the medical situation was a nightmare. When I tried to get my birth-control shot, I was told I had to get a Pap smear. I was warned the examiner might be “handsy.” I was told I might have cervical cancer. I did not. I lost a friend called Jack, who died after coughing up blood for days. She should have been in the infirmary … better yet, a hospital.
Over the weeks, I recognized how strong these women were to survive in such an oppressive place. You get a sense of how common the female experience is. Every woman I met had been sexually assaulted. And they were all on the phone every day, running families from behind bars, reminding husbands and children to pay bills. I learned about myself too. As a student, I was always busy theorizing about society, but in Rikers, I was part of a society. I listened and made friends and became more in touch with myself and other people.
My release came after 58 days. I lost 17 pounds. Now I’m on probation for five years. As a felon, I can’t vote for the next seven years. My lawyer is appealing my conviction.
Even being set free became a trial. On the day of my release, my friends on the outside had helped me set up a press conference across the Rikers Island bridge, to speak for the women in jail. But a CO told me he had been ordered to drive me to a subway station 45 minutes away. I protested but no one would help, so that’s where I ended up.
I borrowed a stranger’s phone to call my friends, who brought me back to the bridge. I gave my press conference, describing how the women were treated. These women had sustained me, becoming my friends, my confidantes and advocates. And now I am their advocate. I walked into Rikers Island as part of one movement and left as part of another.
I’m not coming out of the shower
It’s such a comfortable crutch
It’s a warm loving womb, and intoxicating tomb
And I don’t miss the outside world that much
Tumblr won’t allow me to post more than 10 images, so I stuck all my PAX Royal Rumble photos over here if you fancy a gander: http://imgur.com/gallery/NftSD/
Amazing show. Major kudos to all involved!
people don’t realise how fucking on-point the simpsons used to be
What if your kid went to jail for trying pot, something that is very probable if your kid is black and living in a state like Texas. Does that mean they deserve to be raped? Does that mean that they should live in conditions that go against all human rights?
Most prison rapes are committed by prison staff. Even if you are heartless and do not care about the prisoners, remember that these prison staff rapists go home to their nice houses in the outside world. Remember that they are your neighbors, maybe they even have babysat your children. Remember that as long as some victims are dehumanized and ignored, many perpetrators will never be caught. And yes, these perpetrators do pose a threat to you and your family. Prison rape, rape in general, is everybody’s problem. And definitely not a fucking joke.
The idea that prisoners “deserve” to be raped is part of rape culture.
Rape is not a punishment. It can not be earned. It is a crime every single time, no matter what, no matter who the victim is.
No one deserves to be sexually assaulted in any way. NO ONE.