Kristin Davis: Federal Prison Is Nothing Compared to the Inhumanity of Rikers

It does not surprise me that someone has now died at Rikers in the most inhumane way possible.
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Publish date:
February 11, 2015
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prison, women in prison, Kristin Davis

I have been in in Federal Prison Camp for a few weeks now.

However, this is not nearly as bad as my first jail experience which was in Rikers Island. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on that experience and it does help me to realize that this place is not so bad (in comparison).

Rikers Island is a place where I was routinely denied food, water and showers. I was subjected to illegal strip searches and held involuntarily in 23-hour lockdown. It is a place where the officers are trained to disregard human rights and operate as cruelly as possible. It is a place where another inmate recently died because of these conditions.

I'm lucky to have made it through with nothing but emotional scars.

In 2008, I spent four months in solitary confinement in Rikers Island (for a crime unrelated to the one I am in prison for now).

I had never been arrested before, so when the SWAT team, complete with full SWAT gear, guns and barricades, came to my door I was in shock.

My entire street in midtown Manhattan was shut down and there were over 70 police cars in front of my building and helicopters overhead. I was handcuffed, taken to the precinct, and thrown in a cell.

That night two officers tried three different times to take me to Rikers from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. They kept me handcuffed in the back of a truck where I was sitting on a steel bench in the freezing cold with no jacket. They did not have the proper paperwork as I had not even seen the judge, and Rikers would not accept me (I had not been arraigned yet, so this was a fear tactic on the part of the NYPD).

The next morning I saw the arraignment judge and my bail was set at $2 million dollars.

After arraignment, I was taken to the "tombs" to wait for my transport to Rikers. The "tombs" is the holding facility under 100 Centre Street in Manhattan (perhaps you have seen the steps of this building on "Law & Order"?). I sat here for eight hours until the bus came to transport us.

I was then handcuffed around the waist and handcuffed to another inmate. My ankles were also handcuffed.

The bus trip from Manhattan to Rikers took over an hour. When we got to Rikers we had to go through the "intake" area. This is the first destination for future residents of the island.

In intake, we were put in small cells that were built for 10 to 15 women. However, because of overcrowding, the cell I was in had 31 women in it. The cell had two small wooden benches and a toilet with no walls in the center of the room.

Most of the women in my cell were drug addicts and going through withdrawal. They were sweating, vomiting, convulsing, and even crying out in pain.

The one toilet in the room had not been cleaned and was filled with rotten food and vomit. There were flies coming off the top of this toilet; it was completely unusable.

I spent the night in that cell in intake, sleeping on the cold concrete floor with no blanket or jacket. The woman next to me was throwing up all night and peed on herself because she was dope sick.

I was not given any food or water. I tried on a number of occasions to get the officer's attention to ask for water and a bathroom. Not only were my pleas ignored, but I was also told to shut up (the mentality in Rikers is that inmates are not allowed to talk to officers).

By midday the next day, we were given cheese sandwiches, and water. But there was not enough to go around.

I chose not to eat or drink because there was still no access to a bathroom. Some of the women didn't care and peed in the maggot-filled toilet. Some peed in the corners of the cell.

By the evening, they started moving some inmates to their housing units. I had now been waiting in the intake area for 27 hours with very little food or water. I had no access to a phone to call my family or my attorney.

Before moving us to be housed, they took us to a big room and allowed us to use the shower and bathroom -- finally. It was now going on three days since my arrest and no shower. It was one big open room with three toilets and about five shower heads on the wall.

Rikers has a rule that all inmates must be housed within 24 hours of arriving (this rule is posted inside the cell I was in, but of course there is no phone to call if you're being abused). But there are ways of breaking this rule and manipulating the system.

I was taken to a housing unit where I was forced to sign in -- the time I signed in at was written in by an officer for some eight hours earlier than the actual time. I told them I would not sign because it was not correct and I wanted to note that I had been sitting in this awful cell with no food, water, or bathroom for over a day.

The officer told me I had no choice and they would put me back in intake for another 24 hours if I did not sign. So I signed.

I spent all of two minutes in my supposed housing unit and was moved right back into intake. However, this time I was in a single cell by myself.

I spent that night on a wooden bench. I was actually grateful because the cell had a toilet, even though there were no walls, it was still better then the maggot-filled toilet.

The next day I overheard the officers talking about me (they do not talk to inmates, but they enjoy talking about you loud enough for you to hear). Apparently I was on the cover of the newspapers and all over the news because of my connection to former Governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer. The officers were trying to figure out what to do with me.

Very close to 50 hours after my entering Rikers Island, I was finally taken to my housing unit in closed custody.

A captain led me to my room and locked me in. The small concrete cell had a steel door and was about eight feet by eight feet. My room had an ant infestation and there were hundreds of ants on the floor with residue from the ant spray everywhere. There was a steel toilet and sink combo, but the sink did not work (so no drinking water). The toilet was covered with maxi pads in what looked like a makeshift toilet seat cover. I'm sure the inmate before me was trying to create a clean sitting space since the toilet itself was disgustingly dirty and old. The pads had been there a good amount of time because they were disgustingly dirty, too. There was no mirror or window. Just the small window on my cell door to see the officers. I had a soiled mattress about two inches thick.

I was not given sheets, a pillow, nor a cup to drink from. Apparently, Rikers was pretty much out of everything they are supposed to give to the new inmates. I was given two small packets of shampoo and a small bar of soap.

I was so tired I passed out. The next morning I woke up with no food, water, and with no idea what time it was.

I was still in shock and scared. I had no clue how long I would be in this cell without access to a shower, water, or a phone.

At some point I realized the inmates in the surrounding cells were banging on the doors of their cells to get the officers' attention.

See, the officers sit in an office outside the actual unit. They have a TV and air conditioning in their comfortable office and don't like having to serve or help criminals.

So I started banging on my cell door, but I was still quite scared and my knocking was very timid. I did this for what must have been an hour and no one ever came.

Lucky for me the inmate in the cell next to me felt sorry for me and starting pounding on her cell door and yelling for an officer (thank you, Remy Ma). She directed them to me when they came.

I had to ask the officer for a shower and a phone (and some water). I was given a cordless phone through the slot in my cell door.

It took roughly three hours for the officer to take me to the shower.

Being taken to the shower means being handcuffed and walked to a cage with a shower built inside of it. They place you inside the cage, lock you in, and then undo your handcuffs. Then you can shower in private (there is a curtain). Then you have to get the officer's attention to handcuff you again and walk you back to your cell (a few dozen times I had to wait 45-plus minutes to get moved back because the officers were watching something interesting on TV).

At least the shower was in private. There are no mirrors in closed custody -- not in my cell and not in the shower. In a strange way, I was grateful for this because I know how awful I looked and didn't want to be reminded of this.

Meals in closed custody were dreadful. Because I was in closed custody, no other inmates are allowed to interact with us so the officers have to serve us food through the slots in our cell doors.

And again, officers don't like to serve inmates.

So there were many days I was not fed. I rarely got breakfast. Eighty percent of the time dinner was cold because it sat there for hours after arriving to our unit until the officers felt it was convenient for them to feed us. I never ever had a hot breakfast the entire time I was there, even though I knew that oatmeal and other hot cereal items were brought into our unit since I overheard the officers talking. They just didn't feel like taking it out of the container and putting it on our trays.

We were inmates -- we did not deserve hot food or to have officers serving us. Breakfast consisted of five pieces of awful bread (the Riker's Island water makes the bread taste like chemicals), milk, and a box of Bran Flakes. Occasionally we got a piece of fruit.

I was allowed outside for one hour a day of recreation time. This meant we were brought out of our cells and locked in a cage outside -- basically a large dog kennel built for people.

A lot of time I didn't even get that hour outside of my cell since the officers just didn't feel like coming around to do our rec time. They didn't feel like feeding us, letting us shower, or giving us water. Eventually I purchased some soda from commissary which came in a two liter and I would fill that up with water when I got out to shower.

Then came the strip searches.

Around 4:30 one morning I was jolted out of bed by a loud pounding on my cell wall. I looked out the peephole to see 15 officers in riot gear.

The officers stormed the unit and pounded on each inmate's's door ordering us to strip naked and stand in the middle of our cells with our hands behind our heads. We were not allowed to move or touch any of our stuff. We had to do what they said and strip immediately.

The team conducting the search consisted of both male and female officers.

I often wondered if this was legal, but when I left Rikers I just wanted to forget about the experience so I never looked into it.

Once we were standing naked with our hands behind our heads, the search would begin.

Well . . . that's not entirely correct.

The officers would often leave us standing in the middle of our cells naked for 10 to 20 minutes. They would walk up and down the halls making comments about our body parts to one another (even the male officers).

They left us standing there naked long enough to fully humiliate us and degrade us verbally. There was no other reason to do this but to make us feel like animals and to exert their power over us.

I have often thought this was psychosexual torture. After each search I would cry in my cell since I was thoroughly shaken to my core.

When we were fully humiliated, the officers would open our cell doors and search us. I would have to bend, squat and cough as part of a cavity search. The inside of my mouth, underneath my tongue and my hair were inspected.

Then they tore my cell apart. My pictures and letters would be trampled and torn. Any food I bought from commissary was rummaged through and sometimes thrown on the floor and destroyed.

Then the officers would leave. No contraband was ever found.

What did they expect to find?

We were on 23-hour lockdown with no interaction with other inmates. Our only interaction was with Riker's Island Officers (towards the end of my stay in Rikers there was a huge sting and forth officers were arrested for bringing in contraband).

These strip searches happened every other day. Again, I see no reason for this excessively abusive practice except to break our spirits and exert their power.

Perhaps that is also the reason why there is no air conditioning in solitary, and no working sinks with water.

I remember one week in June there was a heat wave in NYC.

The temperature outside was close to 100 degrees with humidity of at least 80%. The cells in solitary are concrete with steel doors and it's a good 10 degrees hotter inside the cell then it is outside.

It did not take more then an hour for my cell to heat up. I felt like I was in an oven, roasting to death.

Halfway through the first day of the heat wave, the officers attempted to keep the temperature down by bringing in a fan and opening the slots in our cells to circulate air. That did very little good because the slots are only about five inches high so not much air got through.

They also brought in water and ice. However, in order for us to get either of these things, the officers needed to bring them to us or let us out of our cells individually to get them.

Getting them to do this was difficult.

The first night of the heat wave I sat there covered in sweat. There was so much sweat that there was a pool of water underneath me. My sheet was soaked and I stuck to my mattress. It was far too hot to sleep.

By day two, the officers felt the heat and turned "our fan" to face their office. So we had absolutely no air coming toward us at all. They didn't even open the slots in our cells, so we were utterly trapped.

It was so hot in my cell that I started to overheat. I had a massive nose bleed (never had one of these before). There was so much blood I thought I was going to die. I banged on my cell door to try and get a doctor but the officers wouldn't come into the unit. Four hours later they finally came to check on us and I was taken to the doctor.

The heat wave lasted three days until it rained and cooled off.

Unfortunately, and heartbreakingly, this is common practice at Rikers. Last year an inmate died in solitary confinement at Riker's because of these conditions (he was found naked, covered in feces and had been locked in his cell for six days). He was left in his cell to die, no one cared and no one came to check on him. I am quite sure they ignored his pleas for help as they did mine.

I spent close to four months in this hell of solitary confinement. When I got out, even the air on my face felt scary to me.

The inhumanity I experienced in this facility and at the hands of Rikers officers is utterly sickening. Correctional officers engaged in abuse and perpetrated a complete and utter disregard for human rights. It is absolutely disgusting and it is system wide. They lie and break the rules and you have no way to stand up for yourself or to complain.

When I left Rikers I wanted to forget about it. But I couldn't.

I was plagued by nightmares and PTSD. There were times when I wouldn't leave my house for days because I was afraid and hadn't slept.

In 2010, I spoke publicly about the conditions on Rikers. That year, when I ran for Governor of NY, I asked our then Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo (now our Governor), to investigate the conditions at NYC's biggest jail.

But nothing ever gets done.

Why? Because the lives of criminals do not matter, even though you are still presumed innocent while at Rikers.

Perhaps now that a death has occurred the politicians in NY will start listening.