Although Cecily McMillan only spent 58 days at New York City’s Rikers Island, she experienced enough brutality and humiliation to convince her that serious improvements need to be made there to defend inmates’ basic rights, according to an account of her incarceration in The New York Times.
A jury found the 25-year-old New School graduate student guilty of deliberately elbowing the officer in the face as he walked behind her. McMillan claimed she didn’t know he was a police officer and she reacted instinctively after feeling a hand grab her breast from behind.
The first-time convict has since served 58 days of a three-month sentence at Rikers Island, which contains 10 jails housing up to 15,000 inmates, both those serving sentences of a year or less and others awaiting trial or sentencing.
McMillan says her troubles began when it took her three weeks to receive the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) medication she had been taking since before her incarceration, she writes in her Times op-ed.
When she was waiting outside the jail’s pharmacy for the medication, a male officer began harassing her, according to McMillian. When she glanced at his badge number, she says, he slammed his body into hers and shouted a sexual slur at her.
At her lawyer’s advice, McMillan didn’t file a complaint due to the fear of retaliation.
The alleged sexual slur wasn’t the only demeaning comment from corrections officers, she told Columbia Journalism School professor Todd Gitlin in a recent interview in The New Yorker. One allegedly addressed her as “Vagina,” and another responded to her request for her ADHD medication by saying, “Oh, you want your crazy pills!” she said.
McMillan says she routinely witnessed inmates being denied medical treatment. A friend was ignored for hours even though she was sobbing and covered in vomit, then died shortly after, McMillan wrote in The Times. Staff allegedly denied requests from another friend to get a lump in her throat checked for more than a month up to McMillan’s release, despite fears the lump was a recurrence of cancer.
Searches of the female dormitories were unnecessarily long and humiliating, according to McMillan. Those checks reportedly began with around a dozen staff members entering in full riot gear with masks and wooden bats. After each inmate stripped naked for a female officer, they were ordered to put their clothes back on and stand facing a wall, sometimes for hours at a time, as a work detail of inmates threw away nonthreatening contraband like fruit and blankets.
McMillan is not the first person to bring attention to alleged brutality at Rikers Island.
In an 11-month period last year, 129 Rikers inmates suffered injuries from altercations with correction department staff that were too serious for the doctors at Rikers clinics to treat, The New York Times reported earlier this month, citing an internal study completed by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Of those 129 inmates, 77% had been diagnosed with a mental illness and a majority reported they were beaten after they had been handcuffed.
New York City’s newly appointed Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte recently told The New York Times that correction officers who engaged in brutality were in the minority. “We really don’t have a culture of violence,” he said. “We have problems and we’re working to address those.”
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