Within any brutal and isolated institution, new language tends to form, like scar tissue. In the 1990s, Rikers Island — New York City’s largest jail, encircled by the East River—was no exception. Corrections officers, mental health workers, and administrators had a special name for inmates in solitary confinement whom they believed faked suicidal tendencies in order to be placed under mental observation: “bing monsters.” “Bing,” a common word on the inside for solitary confinement, evokes the feeling of a brain clouding and sanity suddenly snapping — bing! “Monster” because for many jail staffers there was nothing worse than a malingering inmate who used up precious prison resources by feigning madness.
In her new memoir, Lockdown on Rikers, Mary Buser recounts how, during a decade-long career in health care at Rikers Island, she went from a chipper, idealistic mental health counselor to a disillusioned administrator (always with a cigarette handy in the later days). Her professional stint at the jail began in 1991 as a part-time intern, while she was a graduate student at Columbia University’s School for Social Work, and ended with her practically running the mental health department of the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, the complex that houses Rikers’ Punitive Segregation Unit.
Throughout her plainspoken, harrowing memoir Buser is sensitive to how word choice can mask and manage the horrors of prison life, and of solitary confinement in particular. Her linguistic flexibility was, after all, a talent she was selected for as a counselor, the ability to make a potentially life-changing connection with every inmate she encountered. But by the end of her time at Rikers words like “rehabilitate” and “therapy” lose out to “stabilize” and “contain.” Buser’s memoir demonstrates how mental health workers, supposedly the peaceful, civilian presence in a correctional center, can end up perpetrating institutional violence themselves. Even those as conscientious as Buser.
The mid-1990s marked the peak of Rikers’ incarcerated population, when the complex held some 24,000 inmates. This swell in the non-violent prison population was part of a national crusade against drug offenders. In New York, the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws introduced dramatic mandatory minimums (15 years to life for being caught trafficking as little as 4 ounces of drugs). These weren’t scaled down until the Drug Law Reform Act of 2004 — even then, mandatory sentences for crimes of the same stature were eight to 20 years. Buser witnessed how the famed “drug sweeps” got low-level drug traffickers, many of them women, mired in the criminal justice system for decades. The mid-to-late 1990s was also the heyday of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s tough-on-crime strategies that choked the city’s jails. His portrait hung in the lobby at Otis Bantum.
Buser refers to most of these prisoners as “detainees” since Rikers Island is, then as now, largely a holding center for people who are awaiting trial but can’t make bail or have been remanded to custody. Of course most of these cases never make it to trial, resulting in plea bargains instead. Today, though the jail’s total population is about half what it was in Buser’s time, little else about it has changed — 90 percent of inmates at Rikers Island are black or Latino; about 85 percent have not been convicted of a crime; 40 percent have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
And no part of the jail is more brutal than the solitary confinement units.
“I can’t help but feel that [solitary confinement] has all the earmarks of torture,” Buser muses.
In this particular scene she’s reacting to the case of inmate Troy Jackson, who’s beaten his head bloody against his cell wall. Buser can see clear to his skull. Her orders as mental health administrator are to keep him alive and keep other inmates from duplicating his actions, nothing more.
“When you call someone a monster, or a skel, or a body, then it suddenly becomes okay to do whatever you want to them because they’re not really human beings,” Buser writes. This is how you get doctor-certified torture at a black site just a land-bridge away from one of the wealthiest cities in the country. First “people” become “bodies” then “torture” becomes “segregation.” The dirty secret is locked behind a wall of semantics.
Buser’s anecdotes from Rikers, where few stories ever get out to the general public, are much needed today. Two years ago the U.N. published a report by its Special Rapporteur on Torture, stating that solitary confinement of 15 days or more is torture. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of solitary confinement cells in Rikers increased by 60 percent. In 2014 the stories of Kalief Browder, who began three years at Rikers, much of it in solitary, at the age of 16, only to have all charges against him dropped, and Jerome Murdough, a homeless veteran who baked to death in one of the jail’s mental health units, brought fresh attention to harsh confinement conditions.
In April 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio hired a new Department of Corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, a veteran of private prison administration who has been touted by the government and media alike as a proven criminal justice “reformer.” Ponte vowed to “end the culture of excessive solitary confinement.” Integral to his plan was the construction of a new Enhanced Security Housing unit, which he was adamant would be a non-punitive, “therapeutic” alternative to solitary confinement.
Yet two months after the ESH unit opened in February, the Board of Corrections released its first report—and it was scathing, noting that there had been several violent incidents and that many inmates felt unsafe. “Several ESH inmates have expressed to BOC staff they prefer being confined in punitive segregation than being housed in ESH,” the report reads. “They know that a punitive segregation sentence is for a fixed period of time; the duration of a stay in ESH is uncertain.”
Dostoevsky famously wrote that “A society can be judged by the condition of its jails.” This proverb, Buser notes, is inscribed above the entryway to the George Motchan Detention Center, one of the largest of Rikers Island’s jails. In a way, it’s the perfect institutional phrase, morally compelling yet sanitized of standards. It’s a potentially radical message, at least in America: Jails aren’t the social exception, they are the social rule. When a jail as depraved as Rikers openly proclaims this, it doesn’t realize or can’t admit how sick it really is.
Hannah K. Gold is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.
Caption: The door of an EHS unit inside Rikers Island in New York, Thursday, March 12, 2015.