Prison For Cecily

Rikers Island

Rikers Island Jail, New York City (Wikimedia Commons)

What Others Have Written

This is not the post I set out to write. I set out to write the story of Cecily McMillan’s arrest, trial and conviction. I found out that this story has been written by many others.1 See for example Funkhouser (The Nation), Swaine (The Guardian) and McKinley (New York Times). People are also trying to make sense of McMillan’s conviction. Macare (Truth Out) introduces the metaphor of “who breaks a butterfly upon the wheel?” and looks at the power disparity between the accused and the state. Zeese (interviewed on The Real News) names the conviction an “attack on dissent.” Finally, and importantly, Arnade (The Guardian) compares McMillan’s trial, with its publicity and lawyers, to the case of a homeless woman facing a similar charge with far fewer resources.

What I Will Write

McMillan faced to up to seven years in prison, and was sentenced to 90 days. In the days leading up to her sentencing on Monday, May 19, 2014, I became interested in what awaited her in prison. This is the post I will write.

I will present McMillan’s experience of her first few days in incarceration in her own words. I will then look at the stories of two other women like McMillan who have been incarcerated, released and made their experiences public. I will look briefly at the issue of solitary confinement, a real and dangerous threat, and then draw everything together in an attempt to predict what jail time might mean for McMillan.

Incarceration In McMillan’s Words

Upon conviction on Monday, May 5, 2014, McMillan was remanded without bail to Rikers Island, NY to await sentencing. She has written from Rikers, and some of her writing as been published on the internet. These writings document her experiences and reflections from the first few days of her incarceration, before her sentencing. The website2 Justice for Cecily published an excerpt of a hand written letter from McMillan. It reads, in part,

…(P)lease don’t worry about my safety – it is difficult in here, but people (especially the inmates but also many of the corrections officers) have been very kind; several women (re-incarcerates) have taken me under their wing, giving me tea, sugar extra milk and the paper…

Occupy Wall Street offers a longer missive from McMillan. She describes her day, starting with 4:30 am breakfast and ending with lights out. She says, in part,

Packed into a room with 45 other women – often restricted to my cot – I’ve had nothing but time to measure the strength of my beliefs alongside that ambiguous concept – “freedom.”…

Unlike my peers, I have a hell of a lawyer…I also have a gifted team of friends and organizers – ‪#‎Justice4Cecily‬ – that continue to provide around-the-clock care and mobilize public support. Finally, I’m incredibly lucky to have a vast and very much alive movement at my side, sending me “Occupy Love” from across the world.

Despite how obscenely unbalanced our circumstances are, my new-found friends – who have quickly become my comrades – are outraged by my story and resolve to do their part to keep me out of prison. After lunch, they spend their free time writing letters to Judge Zweibel, defending my character and pleading for leniency…

At the close of the night, I smile and shut my eyes. As I drift off, “Somehow,” I think, “this is all a part of the plan.”

Rock Stars

There are two rock stars in McMillan’s demographic: young, white, middle class women who spent time in jail and went on to capitalize on their experience. Jennifer Wilkov was a Certified Financial Planner who became entangled in a real estate scam. She maintains her innocence, insisting she was a victim, not a perpetrator. However, on her lawyer’s advice, which she also now refutes, she pleaded to a charge of felony fraud and served four months at Rikers. She has gone on to become a Speaker, Author, Spokesperson and Business Consultant. Piper Kerman, at the behest of her “impossibly stylish and cool” lesbian lover, boarded a plane to Belgium with a suitcase full of money intended for a West African drug lord. She left that life shortly thereafter, but the law caught up with her eleven years later. She spent a year at the Federal Correctional Institution, Danbury, CT. She went on to write a book about her experiences, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which has been turned into a Netflix original series. In addition to other work, she now serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association.

Jennifer Wilkov’s Story

Jennifer Wilkov tells Pesta (MSN Living) about her first day at Rikers. She describes the difficulty of just getting a dozen “loud-mouthed, drugged-out, furious female convicts” onto the bus to begin the journey. Upon arrival at Rikers, “the indignities begin promptly.” She is strip searched, scanned with a Body Orifice Security Scanner, and undergoes medical tests for tuberculosis, HIV, etc. Finally, she is given a dark green jumpsuit and taken to a private cell. After about a week, she is transferred to a dorm with 50 other women. This appears similar to the situation McMillan describes.

After her transfer to the dorm, Wilkov describes “regular confrontations.” These range from a woman trying to pick a fight with Wilkov in front of the guards, to an all out fist fight between three women, to a thwarted rape attempt in the showers. Nighttime she describes as “a cacophony of raucous arguments.”

Wilkov describes the days as highly regimented, with regular counts to ensure all prisoners are present. There is a TV in a common room, and religious services are popular. All of the prisoners are given jobs.

Finally, Wilkov talks about coping with her ordeal. She mentions two things about the day she arrives at Rikers. The first is realizing that she is surrounded by people who know the system and how to work it, while she knows nothing. The second is telling herself that “maybe someone in this prison needs me; perhaps that’s the reason life has thrown me this curveball.” Note the similarity to McMillan’s statement “Somehow, this is all a part of the plan.” Wilkov comes back to this idea at the end of her incarceration: “I manage to teach a woman from Trinidad to read, and I show others how to do yoga. I hold poetry readings with the woman who bunks next to me, an African-American Muslim who has been homeless at times. When I describe how I’d once heard someone calling for help, she says it was her.”

Piper Kerman’s Story

Piper Kerman was interviewed by Gross (NPR). (See also an interview by Levintova (Mother Jones).) The interview was in conjunction with the Netflix series.

Kerman begins by describing the conditions of incarceration. She says Danbury is “a heavily fortified building with a vicious-looking, razor-wire fence around it…The building itself sort of looks like a 1970s elementary school.” Speaking of prisons in general (she has visited others since her release), she goes on to describe the cinderblock construction, grey or beige paint, and linoleum floors. The spaces are incredibly drab, and loud.

Kerman says she feared violence going in, but, unlike Wilkov, did not experience it. This may have been due to Danbury being a minimum security prison, whereas Rikers is maximum security. She talks about a very steep learning curve, for both the formal rules of the institution – those enforced by the guards and the warden – and the informal rules of the women. Softening the edge a little bit, she also describes a “Welcome Wagon,” other white women who offered her things she might need, like shower shoes. Compare to McMillan’s statement that “several women (re-incarcerates) have taken me under their wing…” Kerman says that race is very important up front, but fitting in is ultimately “very much about you as an individual, and what do you have actually to contribute to this community.”

Gross asks about being frisked. Kerman replies that most of the women she knew experienced “that really simple and straightforward groping, which is a total violation. It’s really low-level sexual abuse.” She continues,

Sexual abuse within women’s prisons is very, very pervasive and happens in probably just about every single women’s prison or jail in this country, sometimes in much more extreme and horrible and violent ways than what I experienced. The truth of the matter is, prisoners have a very low level of confidence that their concerns will be addressed…Prisoners fear retribution if they make an accusation against a prison staffer or a guard. And one of the things that’s really frightening, that can happen if you say that you’ve been sexually abused, is that you’ll be put in solitary (confinement)…allegedly for your protection.

As for healthy sexual relations, Kerman observes that there is a lot of diversity. There are women who come in lesbian or bisexual, and those who come in straight but go “gay for the stay.” (She does not mention straight women who stay straight.) She promotes the importance of sexual relationships given the harsh and dehumanizing conditions, but warns of the danger because sex is against the rules. Once again there is the danger of being placed in solitary.

Finally, she talks about getting out of prison. She was incredibly lucky. She had a safe and stable place to live, and she had a job waiting for her. “I can’t overstate how important access to work is for folks to be successful coming home from prison and to live a legal life.” Of course, the overwhelming majority of people coming out of prison do not have these benefits.

Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement is a big issue. In 2011, Méndez, a United Nations expert on torture, called for “all countries to ban the solitary confinement of prisoners except in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, with an absolute prohibition in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities.” Yet solitary confinement remains in extensive use in the US. Solitary Watch states that “Far from being a last-resort measure reserved for the ‘worst of the worst,’ solitary confinement has become a control strategy of first resort in many prisons.” Ridgeway and Casella (Mother Jones) report the building of more solitary cells on Rikers Island since 2012. For any US prisoner, male or female, at Rikers or elsewhere, solitary confinement is a real and present danger.

Conclusion

What are the take-aways of all this for Cecily McMillan?

  • She will have to quickly learn the formal rules of Rikers.
  • She will also have to learn the social rules.
  • Her entry may be softened by a “Welcome Wagon.”
  • She can expect to receive an arbitrary job assignment.
  • She will have to make her own place in prison society.
  • Unfortunately, she will probably experience some form of violence.
  • Ditto sexual abuse.
  • She will have to find her own way for healthy sexuality.
  • The threat of solitary confinement will be an ever-present danger.
  • The #Justice4Cecily team should be working to ensure she has good, stable housing and a job upon release.

Epilogue

I wish Cecily all the best. I do not think she had a fair trial, and thus do not think her incarceration is just. Unfortunately, the state holds most of the cards here. I hope her experience in prison is benign, and that once it is over she can close that chapter of her life and move on.

My heart also goes out to all those, nameless and faceless, who have been chewed up by the US “Justice” system. I hope that one day we can move towards true justice for all.


  1. For an extensive list of articles, see http://justiceforcecily.com/media/ 
  2. Link leads to an archive of the page as it appeared on May 10, 2014. 
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