Lockdown on Rikers by Mary E. Buser tells the shocking stories of abuse and injustice at New York's notorious jail (available September 29, 2015).
Mary Buser began her career at Rikers Island as a social work intern, brimming with ideas and eager to help incarcerated women find a better path. Her reassignment to a men's jail coincided with the dawn of the city's “stop-and-frisk” policy, a flood of unprecedented arrests, and the biggest jailhouse build-up in New York City history.
Committed to the possibility of growth for the scarred and tattooed masses who filed into her session booth, Buser was suddenly faced with black eyes, punched-out teeth, and frantic whispers of beatings by officers. Recognizing the greater danger of pointing a finger at one's captors, Buser attempted to help them, while also keeping them as well as herself, safe. Following her promotion to assistant chief, she was transferred to different jails, working in the Mental Health Center, and finally, at Rikers's notorious “jail within jail,” the dreaded solitary confinement unit, where she saw horrors she'd never imagined. Finally, it became too much to bear, forcing Buser to flee Rikers and never look back – until now.
On a gray September morning in 1991, I stood in front of Bloomingdale’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, eagerly waiting for my ride. As a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, I was beginning a yearlong internship at Rikers Island. I would report to New York City’s notorious correctional complex three days a week to provide emotional and psychiatric support to incarcerated women. While most people would balk at the mere thought of working with criminals, as soon as I learned about this assignment, I was intrigued. It incorporated my most important aspirations: to help the poor and underprivileged and to become a psychotherapist. The fact that the poor and underprivileged in this setting were also accused of crimes barely fazed me. Already in my mid-thirties, I had prior experience, not only with people in emotional distress, but with the incarcerated.
I grew up during the sixties in a middle-class family on suburban Long Island. My father was a lawyer, and my mother was a homemaker and, later, a high school English teacher. Altruism was encouraged, both at home and in the Catholic school I attended. Even though our primary exposure to crime and racial strife came by way of the evening news, we were taught that helping the less fortunate was our responsibility, an ideal I took to heart. But it wasn’t only inner-city turmoil that flashed across the TV screen. The whole country was grappling with waves of change during the sixties, and I remember being drawn to the grainy images of the civil rights marches. Even then, I felt strongly about justice and fairness, not yet realizing that years later, despite all the country’s strides forward, I would discover a world beyond the reach of the six o’clock news, where inhumanity had found a whole new mode of ugly expression.
As the oldest of seven children in a family that was as loving as it was dysfunctional, I often found myself in the role of listener and peacemaker. Sometimes at the kitchen table my mother would take off her glasses and rub her eyes, and I would listen as she told me how overwhelmed she felt by the day-to-day demands of raising a large family. Then she would replace her glasses, smile, and pat my arm. But I knew she felt a little better for having been heard. Everyone needs to be heard.
In school, I was the one friends brought their troubles to. Whether it was anxiety over grades, fear for a parent battling cancer, or boyfriend woes, I quietly listened, noticing that as my pals talked things through, they usually felt better. Early on, I discovered that simply being heard is a great soother of life’s intangible hurts and struggles.
After college, I volunteered at a Boston-based suicide prevention hotline called the Samaritans. No longer was I talking just with family and friends; now I was comforting total strangers. Whether it was an isolated elderly person who needed to talk or a distraught young man thinking about ending it all, I listened, allowing them to express their deepest levels of despair. And like a pipe releasing steam, more often than not their tears dried and their depression lifted. At least for the moment, they found the peace and relief that comes from being deeply heard by another. I couldn’t imagine being part of something more important.
And then I decided to take things a step further. The Samaritans operated several outreach programs, one of them being a novel jailhouse program. The program had come about when a rash of suicides at Boston’s Charles Street Jail prompted alarm among city officials, who turned to the Samaritans. The result was Lifeline, a program designed to teach a group of inmates the same suicide prevention techniques we used on the hotline. In a setting better known for prisoners yelling “Jump!” to a despondent inmate posturing to end his life, it was hard to imagine incarcerated men coming together like this. But they did. Not only that, but after the Lifeline intervention, the annual suicide rate, which had been approaching double digits, dropped to zero.
I found this astonishing—proof positive of the power of the human connection! I also knew I had to be part of it. The Lifeline team went into the jail every Wednesday night to support the Samaritan inmates, and on a cold winter evening I joined my fellow volunteers on the jailhouse steps for the first time. At twenty-three, I was the youngest in the crew. Nervous but eager, I followed along as guards led us through barred gates until we reached a room where five inmates sat behind a long table. As we took our place across from them, they did not seem particularly threatening but rather ordinary, save for the elaborate tattoos that decorated their forearms. After introductions were made, the Lifeline leader asked the men about their week as “jailhouse Samaritans.” They unfolded their crossed arms, and their hard faces softened as they took turns describing how they’d tried to comfort the despairing and suicidal in their own ranks. Of particular concern was a newly arrested inmate named Johnny, who was crying and leaving his food tray untouched. Anthony and Lamar, the most extroverted of the five, had approached him. “We asked him if he wanted to talk a little,” said Anthony, “you know—about how he was feeling and stuff.”
“He looked kinda surprised,” the ponytailed Lamar deadpanned.
“Yeah,” Anthony laughed, “to say the least. But he took us up on it, he talked, all right. Flat out told us he was thinking about stringing up a sheet. Then he lost it—cried like a baby. Told us he’d never been arrested before, that he’d lose his job, didn’t know how his family was going to get by, and was scared to death. And we just let him talk. We didn’t interrupt him.”
“And when he was done,” said Lamar, “we told him we’d be with him. And he kept on saying, ‘Thank you, Thank you.’ Later on, he called his wife and looked a little calmer when he got off. He may have even eaten a little. But we’re going to keep an eye on him.”
“Well done!” said the Lifeline leader. As the rest of us joined in, acknowledging their fine efforts, Anthony and Lamar were beaming. As the evening wore on, I melded into the conversation, and by the time the session ended, I’d almost forgotten where I was. After that night I became a Lifeline regular, and those Wednesday evening jailhouse visits were a cherished part of my week. Although I never did learn why those five men had been arrested, in terms of our particular mission, it didn’t matter. But what did matter to me was that I was supporting the goodness and humanity in the world—even in this unlikeliest of places.
My Samaritans experience was so profound that I moved back to New York and cofounded the Samaritans of New York. Without forms to fill out or payment to be negotiated, New Yorkers in emotional distress could call our hotline for a caring human connection. I became the hotline’s first executive director and expanded the operation to include a speakers’ bureau on suicide prevention and Safe Place, a group forum for those who’d lost a loved one to suicide. I was especially pleased to have assisted the NYPD in producing a suicide prevention film that was shown to all incoming cadets. Yet as fulfilled as I was, six years later I had grown weary of fund-raising, budgets, and board issues. From my paper-strewn desk, I watched our volunteers taking calls from phones that I hadn’t answered in years. Hard as it was to leave something I’d helped to create, I needed to get back to what made me feel most alive—working directly with people. But this time, instead of fleeting encounters with hotline callers, I wanted continuity with those in emotional distress. I wanted to see if I might facilitate lasting change.
It was on the heels of my departure from the hotline that I enrolled in the clinical track at Columbia’s School of Social Work. In preparation for our first field assignment, we were asked to rank our top three picks among a number of options. As I scanned the predictable list of settings, I spotted “Correctional Facility.” As soon as I saw it, I smiled, recalling those Wednesday nights in the Charles Street Jail. The years had done little to dim my memory of the Samaritan inmates. Had they been released? I wondered. If so, how were they faring? What if I was able to help inmates like them in a deeper way? While they may have committed crimes, the incarcerated were still people—people capable of growth and compassion—as the Samaritan inmates had demonstrated. What if I could sit down with them and really listen to their stories? Insightful therapy sessions could lead to change—change that would translate to happier, jail-free lives following release. A win-win for all!
I didn’t really need to think about it for long. In the box next to “Correctional Facility,” I inked in the number 1.
* * *
I was lost in thought, trying to imagine what the year ahead would bring, when a white Bonneville pulled up. Inside were three of my fellow students, all of whom I’d met during a series of orientations for this unusual assignment. Unlike me, they were none too pleased. In the back was Allison, freshly graduated from college. Allison had battled unsuccessfully for a transfer to a more conventional setting, and as I hopped in next to her, she stared ahead through steel-rimmed glasses, barely managing a smile. In the front was Maureen, a middle-aged woman with short, dark hair who’d raised her family and was fulfilling a lifelong dream of helping the impoverished. Although initially apprehensive about Rikers, once she learned her clientele would be female, Maureen was content. But our driver, Wendy, with a ginger-colored bob and a smattering of freckles, was not. “I never said anything about wanting to work in a jail!”
Wendy was outraged. “And those supervisors! I mean, come on! It’s one thing to be forced into this for school, but to choose it! Either they’re out of their minds or they’re loo–sers!”
“Yes,” Allison agreed, “losers!” Maureen chuckled, and I said nothing.
The supervisors they referred to were members of the Rikers Mental Health staff who had come up to school to meet us. Each of us had been paired off with one of these veterans who would oversee our work in the year ahead. My supervisor was a tall Black woman named Janet Waters. With a stately bearing and a quiet dignity, she smiled shyly when we shook hands. “I think you got yourself a good assignment, Mary,” she said in a soft drawl that hinted at her Alabama roots. I liked Janet immediately. Anything but a loser, here was someone with a sense of purpose—exactly what I’d hoped for in a supervisor! I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but meeting Janet felt like an affirmation that I was on the right track.
With the Manhattan skyline fading behind us, we crossed the Queensboro Bridge and drove through the tree-lined streets of Queens and its neat brick houses, a rather unlikely route to what was then the largest correctional facility in the nation. Yet not one sign hinted that the massive complex was nearby. With maps to guide us, we found our way to an intersection in the quiet neighborhood of East Elmhurst, where a billboard jutted out, announcing the Rikers entryway. Shields and emblems shaded in the Department of Correction’s colors of orange and royal blue flanked either side of the huge sign. Prominent city officials were listed at the top, and underneath were the names of ten jails—nine for men, one for women. Scrolled across the bottom was the Department of Correction’s proud motto: “New York’s Boldest!”
Around a corner, a long, narrow bridge stretched out over the gray water, guarded by a couple of security booths. A man in a navy blue uniform stepped out as we pulled up. “Good morning, Officer,” we chimed, holding up silver beaded chains with our newly issued ID badges attached. We were under strict orders to address correctional personnel as “Officer,” or “CO,” referring to their title of Correction Officer. Operating in the shadows of the touted NYPD, the jails’ keepers bristle at the word guard and gripe that they aren’t accorded due respect for patrolling New York City’s “toughest precinct,” especially since they don’t carry guns inside the jails. “Remember,” we were cautioned at the orientation, “You are guests in their house!”
The man did not respond to our friendliness; instead, he leaned into the car window, studying the IDs, carefully comparing our photos to our faces. There would be nothing cursory about this inspection. Without smiling, he stepped back and waved us on.
The narrow span rose up as we drove over the dark waters of the East River. Choppy waves slopped against the pilings, and seagulls cawed and hovered about the lampposts. In the heavy mist, the blinking lights of the runways at nearby LaGuardia Airport were so close that jets hurtling for takeoff appeared to be gunning right for us before angling up sharply and thundering overhead. As we pressed on, the car filled with a rank odor from a sewage treatment plant on the Queens shoreline. We gasped and ran up the windows, fast. “Geez,” said Maureen. “If the city was looking for a crummy place to put criminals, they sure found it!”
At the crest of the bridge, we fell silent as the island unfolded like a bland industrial plant. Municipal-type buildings were scattered about, connected by a maze of roadways, each one encircled with chain-link fencing topped with rolls of barbed wire. A belt-type road skirted the perimeter, where security jeeps, throwing off long yellow beams, patrolled the river’s edge.
Rikers Island was originally purchased by the city in 1884 from the Ryker family, descendants of seventeenth-century Dutch settlers. For most of its history, the island was little more than an overgrown forest. During the Civil War, it served as a training compound for African American regiments. After that, the island sat empty until 1933, when someone thought it would make an ideal spot to tuck away accused criminals, and the first jail, the House of Detention for Men, was built. For the next twenty years, the accused were ferried across the river to city courts to face their charges. In 1954, landfill enlarged the island from 87 to its present 415 acres. This expansion marked the beginning of Rikers’ development into a full correctional complex. In 1966, the three-lane, mile-long bridge was built, eliminating the need for ferries.
As we came off the bridge and onto the island, lines of exiting cars, trunks popped open, awaited inspection before crossing back to Queens. Correction officers in yellow rain slickers were crouched next to the cars, extending long poles with attached mirrors underneath each one, checking for an inmate desperate enough to cling to the undercarriage of a car to make it across the bridge—a grim reminder that this was no industrial plant.
We parked in a stadium-sized lot and walked to Control, a cavernous administrative building that visitors and workers must pass through before proceeding to the jail. Out in front, it was a chaotic scene as a city bus screeched to the curb and throngs of visitors exited, mostly dark-skinned women and frightened-looking children. One woman with a long braid looked up at me as she unfolded a flimsy stroller. With my pale skin and student backpack, I felt a little self-conscious. But she gave me a little smile, and I waved back. During our orientations, we had learned that Rikers is a jails complex. Unlike prisons, which house those convicted of crimes, jails house “detainees,” those who may well be innocent of their charges but cannot afford bail as they await trial. Since money is the sole factor in determining whether or not bail is attainable, by default Rikers houses the poor. In most cases, the bail amount is less than $1,000. Most of these women’s loved ones—primarily young Black and Hispanic males from New York City’s most impoverished neighborhoods—couldn’t scrape together even that.
The inside of Control was nothing more than a scattering of graffiti-scarred benches, a cement floor, and a few birds swooping through the rafters. Along the walls, ominous signs warned against cameras, recording devices, drugs, weapons, and other contraband with the threat of arrest for any violation. The idea that someone could be arrested while inside a jail complex struck me as a little funny, but no one here was amused. Long lines of tired visitors holding whimpering babies and lawyers in pinstriped suits waited at clerical windows for the necessary security passes. The four of us proceeded to rear turnstiles, where stone-faced COs once again compared our ID photos to our faces. With their grudging nods, we headed out to a bus depot and climbed aboard an orange-and-blue school bus bound for our destination, the Rose M. Singer Center.
The bus churned down the main roadway, and we pressed our faces to the windows for our first close-up view of this stark “campus.” Large brick buildings with strange little slits for windows were situated haphazardly. Some were tucked back amid groves of trees; others sat closer to the road, with long armlike annexes reaching out to the curb. Smaller roadways fanned out from the main artery, accessing jails that were out of view. Each of these jails was governed by its own warden who oversaw a staff of deputy wardens (deps), captains, and a battalion of correction officers. The original House of Detention for Men stood prominently along the curb. A throwback to another era, the dark-brick HDM featured a cement stoop and a little yellow light over the front entrance.
Around a bend, Department of Correction buses were parked inside maintenance garages. As we pressed on, the scent of leavening bread from the island’s bakery filled the damp, heavy air. An efficient world unto itself, the island was also strangely quiet, not an inmate in sight. We’d been told that recreation yards are contained within the interiors of the jails, meaning that inmates are never seen on the grounds. And since walking anywhere on the island was strictly forbidden for correctional personnel and civilians alike, the winding sidewalks and grassy lawns were eerily empty, save for flocks of grazing geese.
At an intersection, we waited while a parade of buses, their windows covered in steel mesh, lumbered up from smaller lanes, headed for the bridge. As the caravan swung around the corner, I could just make out the silhouettes of male inmates. Each day, a staggering one thousand detainees are shuttled to city courts for hearings and trials. However, despite high hopes of beating their charges and going home, for most this bleak island is simply the first stop on the way to an upstate prison. Alongside the jails, commercial buses were parked in wait. As cases are resolved, these coach buses travel up the New York State Thruway, delivering the newly convicted to Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, New York, a massive processing center. From there, they are farmed out to one of seventy prisons, where they will serve sentences ranging anywhere from a couple of years to life. And in capital cases, there were those on this island who potentially faced death row.
After the bus traffic cleared, we turned down a tree-lined road that paralleled the river. Through the leaves of the old oaks and maples, the water rippled. Across the way, the Queens shoreline looked small and distant.
The bus ground to a halt in front of a hulking rectangular building, the American flag fluttering high above. “Rose Singer!” shouted the driver. At the jail’s entryway, a female CO with fluorescent orange fingernails unlocked the door, checked our IDs, and admitted us into a bare-bones lobby furnished with a magnetometer and a small security desk. The yellow cinder-block walls were dominated by a framed portrait of Rose Singer, the jail’s namesake. With a wry smile and upswept gray hair, Rose Singer was a lifelong advocate for incarcerated women. At the jail’s dedication in 1988, she was quoted as saying that she hoped this facility would serve as “a place of hope and renewal for all the women who come here.” Although a curious sentiment for a jail, as I gazed up at her picture, I thought I would have liked Rose Singer, and took her wish as a good omen for my year ahead.
Copyright © 2015 Mary E. Buser
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Mary E. Buser worked in the Mental Health Department on Rikers Island from 1995 to 2000. She co-founded the Samaritans of New York suicide prevention hotline, and served as its first executive director. She is an outspoken advocate against the inhumane treatment of the incarcerated, especially the mentally ill, and those in solitary confinement. She has been published in The Washington Post and featured in The New York Times and the NY Daily News. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.