Cecily McMillan, a New York activist, who was sentenced to ninety days in prison for “felony assault of a police officer” after an incident at an Occupy Wall Street event, was released from prison. She delivered a statement to the press and took the opportunity to read a statement that she and the women of Rikers Island drafted together.
“Incarceration is meant to prevent crime,” McMillan asserted. “Its purpose is to penalize and then return us to the outside world ready to start anew. The world I saw at Rikers isn’t concerned with that. Many of the tactics employed are aimed at simple dehumanization.
“In the interests of returning the facility to its mission and restoring dignity to its inmates, we, the women of Rikers, have several demands that will make this system more functional. These were collectively drafted for me to read before you today.”
She said that the women of Rikers demand “adequate, safe and timely healthcare at all times,” including mental health care services. They also would like to not have to wait “up to 12 hours a day for a simple clinic visit” as well as the ability to request a female doctor “if desired.”
According to the women still imprisoned, there is a “special sense of urgency” to this demand:
…About a week ago, our friend Judith died as a result of inadequate medical care. Judith had been in RSMC for a while, but was transferred to our dorm 4 East A, where I was housed, only a few days before her death. She had recently been in the infirmary for a back problem, and had been prescribed methadone pills for the pain for quite a while. A few days before she died, they decided to change the medicine to liquid despite her dissent. They gave her a dosage of 190mg, which any doctor will tell you is a dangerous dosage, far higher than what anyone should be taking unless it is a serious emergency. Judith was not allowed to turn down the medicine or visit the clinic to get the dosage adjusted.
After three days on that dosage, Judith could no longer remember who or where she was and had begun coughing up blood, accompanied with what we believe were chunks of her liver. We attempted unsuccessfully to get her medical treatment for the entire day, at one point being told that this was “not an emergency,” despite the fact that Judith was covered in blood. That night they finally removed her to the hospital, where she remained in critical condition before passing away a few days later.
“This was a clear case of medical malpractice, both with the ridiculously high dosage of methadone and the refusal of adequate treatment. Stories like this are far too common in Rikers Island, and we demand that no more of our sisters be lost to sickness and disease as a result of inadequate medical care,” the women added.
They also demand that corrections officers be required to follow protocols and that the process for filing grievances be improved so any grievances filed will be taken seriously.
“Recently my friend Alejandra went to file a grievance about being denied access to medical treatment for a concussion until she awoke one morning unable to move. When she met with the captain after filing the grievance, she was presented with a different sheet and a different complaint than the one she had provided and was forced to sign it,” McMillan shared.
The women also demanded “rehabilitative and educational services” for healing addictions and gaining news skills, which could make it easier to achieve employment after release from prison. They noted that this might lower “re-incarceration rates.”
“Many women who come through here are addicts, and many women are imprisoned here because they are addicts,” the women explained. “That’s the area in which reentry rates seems to be the highest. This is likely a direct result of the failure of the meager programs that we are given. Thus, it seems only logical that serious and effective drug rehabilitation programs be provided to those who need them, assuming that the Department of Corrections would like to help work to achieve a better, healthier society and keep as many people as possible out of jail.”
McMillan informed the press that working with her sisters to organize for change “in the confines of jail” had strengthened her “belief in participatory democracy and collective action.”
“I am inspired by the resilient community I have encountered in a system that is stacked against us. The only difference between people we call ‘law-abiding’ citizens and the women I served time with is the unequal access to resources.”
Her activism before prison had been about fighting for freedom and rights. Within the walls of Rikers Island, she said “words like freedom and rights don’t even exist in the first place.”
She also stated, “Crossing the bridge I am compelled to reach back and recognize the two worlds as undivided. The court sent me here to frighten me and others into silencing our dissent, but I am proud to walk out saying that the 99% is, in fact, stronger than ever. We will continue to fight until we gain all the rights we deserve as citizens of this earth.”
The incident that ultimately ended with her incarceration involved an NYPD officer named Grantley Bovell grabbing her right breast and leaving a bruise in the shape of a hand print. Officers joined Bovell and forcefully restrained her leaving more markings on her. The rough treatment led to McMillan having seizures while she was being arrested. The police took their time getting her medical attention.
Though it is a travesty of justice that McMillan served time in prison, like a number of politically-minded people who experience the prison system in this country, she seems to have walked out a much stronger and much more enlightened activist.
Incarceration exposed her to a new struggle that she can fight and help vulnerable people in Rikers Island wage. And, potentially, groups that previously organized under the banner of Occupy will be convinced to join in being a part of this struggle too.
*Watch Cecily McMillan read her full statement in this video recorded by Jeff Durkin [at the 6:00 mark]: