David Campbell: Stick-up on Rikers Island

Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life, May 1, 2020

It started with the phones. A few minutes before 9:30 on Saturday morning, mid-conversation with wives, children, friends, and lawyers, the lines all went dead. This was March 22nd. Visits had been suspended a week prior, so the phones had become our only real link to the outside world. Of course, the underlying frustration had been building for weeks, ever since the pandemic had hit NYC. The news from outside was eerie; it seemed like everyone was panicking, like the world was shutting down. We knew that once Coronavirus got into Rikers things would get ugly, fast. Our fears were confirmed when people in our building began to get sick and the Department of Correction (DOC) staff showed themselves to be largely indifferent. The three guys in our dorm who worked at West Facility, the island’s medical center, started bringing us disturbing updates every evening, including the actual, unreported number of inmates in quarantine, which was growing faster than the medical staff could keep up with. When we heard the news that Ohio and L.A. – and even places with more despotic systems than our own, like Iran – were releasing prisoners, we knew our situation was serious, but also that we had a real shot at getting out. More than that, it actually made sense for a lot of us to get out – but would the people who made those decisions see it that way?

Knowing that incompetent people who don’t care about you have your life in their hands is enough to make anyone anxious, but the true extent of the danger became apparent at a small number of specially-convened Inmate Councils in the week before the strike, and it set the whole building on edge. Inmate Councils are a theoretically-democratic meeting between delegates from each housing unit and the deputy wardens for the building, at which exactly nothing gets accomplished. Those last few councils before the pandemic took over were even more pointless than usual, except to make it clear that we were on our own. The DOC refused to test inmates or staff for Coronavirus or take their temperatures, refused to issue personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer or better cleaning products, and berated us for getting out of line when we tried to correct things they said that were flat-out untrue and dangerous, like “you can’t spread it if you don’t have the symptoms.” 

To make matters worse, the population of our dorm had roughly doubled from 20 to 40 in a matter of minutes on Saturday, March 14th. On Saturday, March 21st, the day before the strike, eight more people were moved in around 5AM, making us a fully-occupied 48-bed dorm – all this while posters recommending that we stay six feet apart were popping up all over the building. (Our beds are 2½ feet apart.) When we brought up overcrowding at Inmate Council, we were told that it was a gathering of less than 50 people, so it was OK, and advised to drink green tea. 

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