To get to Rikers Island from my house, you take the B62 bus north and transfer to the Q100, helpfully labeled “To Rikers Island.” It seems odd that a normal city bus takes you to the world’s largest penal colony. The place seems so distant, ethereal. How could you just pay $2.25 and arrive to such a hellish place—an island—only 30 minutes later?
I was going to Rikers to see Ellis (aka Robert Nilon, aka Comrade El), who at that point had been in prison for about three weeks. Ellis and I had worked together on a few episodes of OWS Radio on WBAI, a community-supported radio station based in lower Manhattan. Even though we weren't very close, I figured he'd appreciate some company after being locked up for weeks.
I'd also been trying to track down another Rikers inmate, a man I met while we were both being held at Manhattan’s 7th precinct. I had been arrested on an Occupy Wall Street-related charge (I was held for 37 hours), and he had been arrested for criminal possession of 16 crack rocks. I didn't have his real name, just an alias—Diablo—and the arrest date. Turns out it's very difficult to get the county clerk's office to give you any information when you tell them, “I'm looking for Diablo.”
Ellis, he was easier to find. He was arrested at an Occupy-affiliated party in Williamsburg and charged with two felony counts: attempt to incite a riot and attempted assault of an officer. If convicted, he was facing seven years. Three others were charged with the same counts, but Ellis had been denied bail due to an unresolved case in Pennsylvania, where he used to live.
The bus pulled up to a big welcome sign, the kind you might see when you’re driving into a new state. “Is this where visitors get out?” I asked the bus driver. He shook his head and mumbled, “Last stop.” I went back to reading The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a book I thought would be a good present for Ellis, conditions permitting.
My bus finally arrived at a small one-story building that could have been a welcome center for some kind of arboretum. The other 50 or so visitors rushed toward several rows of lockers lining the outside of the building, into which we were supposed to put our bags, backpacks, the stuff people normally carry that they can’t bring into jail.
“Fifty cents, fifty cents, fifty cents,” an officer shouted over the din of the crowd, informing us of the lockers’ price.
“I don't have fifty cents,” I said to no one in particular. I walked over to a guard and repeated, “I don't have fifty cents.” If he cared, he wasn't letting on. Eventually a smiley teenage girl appeared from behind the guard. “Here ya go!” she said in a thick Long Island accent, reaching over a chain-link fence to hand me two quarters. I was the only person left outside. I thanked her and threw my stuff in one of the lockers as she rushed to catch up with her two friends.
Another quick bus ride and two metal detectors later, and I was staring down a new set of lockers, this time inside what looked like a Greyhound terminal, complete with vending machines in the corner and five rows of plastic chairs connected by a metal beam. At that point, about 45 minutes into the screening procedure, I was starting to get re-accustomed to the New York Department of Corrections’ way of conducting business: You do what they tell you to do, when they tell you to do it. In a way it was comforting—like the inevitability of death.
I borrowed another quarter from someone for the new set of lockers and stashed my winter coat, my watch, my wallet, my belt, and my shoes, then I got in line to pass through yet another metal detector.
“You know you don't have to put your shoes in there,” the young black woman standing behind me said. I looked down at my threadbare socks.
“Must be someone's first time,” said an older black man toward the front of the line.
That third metal detector screening included a thorough frisk as well. “Pull your shirt up.” “Flip the top of your pants down.” “Take off your socks to the ball of your foot.” “Lift up your tongue.” After my frisking I went into another waiting room, the final barrier before being allowed to see the inmates. It looked like a community center imagined by John Wayne Gacy. On one wall, painted over a familiar two-tone elementary school color scheme, was a crazed Daffy Duck, pupils dilated to different sizes, clinging to a street sign that read “Visitors.” Daffy always looks like a lunatic, but in prison his mania takes on a sinister quality. On the other wall was a giant painting of Pikachu, his wet eyes watching over us like a warden. A mother chased her three year old across the room.
“Oy, oy, oy oy oy,” the mother sighed.
“Oy, oy, oy oy oy,” the child repeated.
When I finally got into the visiting area, a spacious room filled with primary-color chairs and tables, I sat down and tried not to stare at anyone. A minute later, Ellis bounded up with a big smile on his face, and we hugged. His already scraggly beard had grown tremendously. He made Ted Kaczynski look like Don Draper. “Sometimes they call me Teen Wolf!” he laughed. “Wait, search for listening devices,” he joked as he sat down, running his fingers along the underside of the table.
Over the next hour and a half we talked about politics and daily life in prison. He'd recently come to the conclusion that the poorest 40 percent of Americans need to become the Occupy base. He talked about how ready the prisoners he'd spoken with were to be radicalized. He lit up when he talked about the Marxist study groups he'd established. “These guys love it, man,” he said. “A lot of them have stopped going to Bible study.”
According to Ellis, the guards saw he was organizing and wanted to put a stop to it. Ellis had recently been jumped by another inmate in the stairway, one of the few places in the complex not under video surveillance, and he believed the guards had put him up to it. Ellis was able to fight the guy off, and later in the cellblock, when a group of prisoners threatened to rip his attacker apart for consorting with the guards, Ellis intervened on his behalf, yelling, “Stop! I'm a pacifist!” He said they stopped.
The harassment didn't end there, though. The guards also moved him from cell block to cell block—Ellis called it “the wheel”—in an attempt to disrupt his efforts to organize. But wherever they put him, he started a new study group, like a Marxist Johnny Appleseed.
Occupy Wall Street was paying his commissary fees, which he mostly used to buy cans of tuna fish. Since being sent to Rikers, he'd put on weight, stopped drinking, and stopped smoking cigarettes, though he said all that stuff was easy to get. He told me he was doing well, and even though he seemed sincere, I knew he was giving me the version of prison with the most political benefit—“It's not the end of the world” and “You can handle it.” Like many protesters, Ellis believes that mayors throughout the country will begin escalating their crackdown on dissent, which could result in more felony charges and possibly prison time.
“If they keep me here for seven years, I'm going to be seeing a lot more familiar faces,” he said, voice thick with gallows humor.
When it was time to go, Ellis and I hugged again. “I’ll see you—” I said, and stopped. I was about to say, “I'll see you soon,” but I had no idea if that was true. Instead, I just repeated, “I'll see you.”
The only other people still in the room were a young black couple 15 feet away. The man stood up, dropping his wife or girlfriend's hand, and began walking toward the metal door that led back to his cell. “Tell my son I love him,” he said. “I love you, baby. Tell my son I love him. Tell my son I love him.”
The wife or girlfriend and I walked back to the batshit YMCA room and I thought about asking her how she was doing, but I didn't.
Several days after my visit, a judge granted Ellis bail.
The bus ride back from the visiting room to the intake area was packed to capacity, full of young women laughing and shouting. My terrifying experience was, for them, banal. Prisoners screamed out the windows of one of the nearby dorms, informing the women on board exactly how hard and in what capacity they would fuck them. One of the women did a parade wave and exclaimed, “I'm queen of the prison pageant!”
That America uses so many islands to house inmates is a metaphor so on the nose it's painful. The prison-industrial complex in this country is a national shame, one that we attempt to hide away, off the mainland, with no evacuation plan. It is a purposeful system. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, to which America has replied, “Then we'll turn our prison system into one.
I walked back to the locker that held my backpack, anxious to get on the Q100.