“Corrections should rehabilitate the inmates,” writes C. René West in Caught in the Struggle, “but who has the time. The officers are so busy trying to sift through all the confusion in the parking lots, locker rooms and in the corridors with all the animosity and foolishness that there is no time or consideration to assist the inmates with their issues.” West worked in the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) from 1991 to 2004, when she published Caught in the Struggle as an exposé of “The Real Rikers Island.” Robin Miller worked from 1983 until 2005, self-publishing Inside the Dark Underbelly of Rikers Island in 2016. Gary Heyward worked from 1997 until his arrest for drug smuggling in 2006, self-publishing Corruption Officer in 2011, which caught the eye of a major publisher and became a mass market paperback. These books form a trio of self-published memoirs by former New York City jail guards offering gritty, tell-all accounts of the sex, violence, and corruption that define the lives of guards at the City’s secluded Rikers Island jail complex. Rooted in the tradition of self-published “street lit,” these books are written in a straightforward, conversational tone meant to convey not only the dialect of the Rikers guards’ social universe, but also the values that animate it. “Though some of the language may not be considered proper English,” West writes, “it is my intention to keep it… true to the actual conversations and experiences that only those who have lived these experiences may truly understand or can actually relate.”
West, Miller, and Heyward paint Rikers as a place of widespread predation between inmates, routine guard brutality, and systematic cover-ups erasing these phenomena from the DOC’s statistical tables. The authors describe drugs, weapons, and other contraband circulating freely throughout the jail system, often brought in by the guards themselves. They depict the management of the inmate population as either accomplished by brutal guard violence or simply left to powerful inmates who extort and victimize the powerless, ruling by intimidation and violence with often explicit guard approval. Rikers emerges from these accounts as a place of danger and indignity for inmates, patrolled by “glorified babysitters,” in Heyward’s words, who are preoccupied with their own social universe and otherwise counting their days to retirement without even pretending to be correcting anything or anyone. In the process, a detailed picture emerges of day-to-day life for Rikers Island jail guards, providing a rare glimpse into a secretive and repressive world which nonetheless offers social mobility and considerable power and prestige for the working class New Yorkers who seek employment in the Department of Correction.
What follows is an attempt to reconstruct the social universe of Rikers Island jail guards as it emerges from these three books, relying heavily on direct, unedited, and sometimes lengthy quotations. While it is not my intention to fact-check particular details of the guards’ accounts, the skeptical reader should note that these books not only corroborate each other on most major themes, but are also largely corroborated by decades of investigative journalism and special investigations of the DOC and Rikers Island, especially a recent report from the Department of Justice detailing the island’s brutal “culture of violence,” defined by systematic intimidation and elaborate cover-ups, and two reports from the New York City Department of Investigation detailing the ease of staff smuggling and the widespread social proximity of guards to inmates conducive to smuggling and sexual relationships.
The Blue Collar Jackpot
City employment in New York has historically been a source of upward mobility for low-income people of color, and all three authors emphasize the prestige of a City job and the social mobility it afforded them. West claims that many of those who become guards escape lives defined by welfare, drug addiction, and sex work. West herself was hired at age 22, and found the salary and benefits impossible to pass up, no matter what Rikers threw at her: “Our pension slogan was ‘hired in my 20’s retired in my 40’s, can’t touch this.’” Miller agrees, and surmises that most guards do the job for a salary that places them in the “upper middle-class range.” Today guards start out making a $43k/year base salary, and within five and a half years are making nearly $100k, not including overtime, which is a major source of additional income that can more than double a guard’s total earnings. The immense change of fortune this job represents is especially salient given that like many guards, the authors all hail from low income communities of color. “In the ghetto,” writes Heyward, who grew up in the Polo Grounds projects in Harlem, “everybody knows that if you land a city or state job you hold onto that job, you do your twenty years and retire young.” Heyward is the most explicit about his change of fortune upon becoming a guard, attaining what he dubs “made man status”: “The made status goes as follows: 1) consistent money, never worrying when or where your next check is coming from; 2) consistent coochie, the chicks that would not give the ‘one step up from a summer job’ brother a look, are now constantly dropping the draws because of BEN-O-FITS; and 3) the perks, everybody in the hood will now know that nigga got a gun and a motherfuckin badge. Traffic stops—whip out the badge—BAM. Bouncer at the club—stop—BAM! Subway and bus—BAM! Chicks putting up a coochie stop sign—BAM! BAM! BAM! HA HA! I felt like Master P in the projects because the badge sometimes had NO LIMITS.” West is a bit more subdued but echoes Heyward in sentiment. “With excellent health benefits and a pension after twenty years of service, working as an officer is like hitting the blue collar jackpot.”
However, this newfound status comes at a high cost, inside and outside the island jail complex. Heyward describes his initial chagrin at a workplace that smells like “a combination of funky sweat, funky asses, and three-day-old cabbage that’s been sitting out.” West emphasizes the high rate of guard mortality due to stress, including heart attacks and suicide. Guards’ lives are quickly defined by bad diet, smoking, substance abuse, and the collapse of outside relationships including marriages, all of which seem to go hand and hand with the job. Drinking on the job is tolerated and sometimes encouraged by supervisors, some of whom send their subordinates on liquor runs. Heyward’s depicts himself and his colleagues drunk on the job for the better part of his nine year tenure. Often reeking of booze, they sip liquor in plain sight of inmates using water bottles, but “Poland Springs ain’t never made water that tastes like this.” The physical isolation of Rikers, the long hours, and the insularity of guard culture – reinforced by a commonality of experience that is surely unique, but also an “us against the world” siege mentality – combine to isolate the guards from their loved ones, destroy outside relationships, and relegate the their social lives to a sort of compulsory community rooted in self-destructive behavior, rampant and incestuous promiscuity, and shared complicity in covering up misdeeds that extend from slacking off on the job to horrendous acts of violence against inmates. When a new female guard says she’s spoken for, West writes, the male guards ask how her partner feels about her job. “If you say that he doesn’t like you working on Rikers… it will only be a matter of time before you’re on the available list.”
Guards’ complicity with the island’s repressive culture is reinforced by the constant threat of retaliatory transfer, suspension, or firing, which keeps them from challenging the status quo or bruising the egos of supervisors who wear “their fear of being proven incompetent on their sleeves.” West notes the toll that this complicity takes on the guards. “I couldn’t understand why, when others were being degraded, humiliated and totally disrespected by supervisors, they would act as if it was ok and it did not bother them. But soon I found out that those same officers were affected in a variety of ways either by an increase in cigarette smoking, drinking coffee, gaining weight, being abusive to inmates or using alcohol or drugs.” Whether or not guards speak up against the island’s status quo, they pay the price with their health, safety, and sanity.
As a most basic punishment, transfer can be effected arbitrarily, and robs the guard of their set schedule, as well as the seniority, comfort, and society of their established work station, which can also be the site of a sexual relationship, or a lucrative market for smuggling contraband. Outside the workplace, the loss of a steady schedule can be devastating to the health and family life of a guard, especially if it means a move from steady hours to the alternation of day and night shifts, which wreaks havoc on relationships but also health and sanity. Suspension and firing can result from gross misconduct, as ultimately befell Heyward, when he was fired and arrested for smuggling contraband into Rikers in an episode that grabbed headlines. But workplace penalties can also result from simply being unpopular enough to be singled out when someone must be held accountable for anything that embarrasses the correction administration, especially the death of an inmate, as befalls two of Heyward’s friends. Most commonly, however, transfer and other retaliation seem to result from pettiness, sexual jealousy, or outright sexual harassment.
Female guards are forced to either accept and flatter the sexual attention of male superiors, or face retaliation. Played off one other by male guards who dole out perks, women fight over preferential treatment on the schedule, vying for assignments where they can leave early, avoid inmate contact, or get outside food delivered. They also just fight over lovers. West warns that ranking female guards who are the jailhouse “girlfriends” of male guards will pick fights with new hires they find threatening, knowing that due to the probationary period they’ll get fired. This practice is called “get[ting] the bitch fired.” “I can literally count on one hand the female officers who never gave me a problem” Miller recounts. West scratches her head at female colleagues who fistfight over married men, or otherwise harm each other as much as possible, socially, professionally, and physically, just to gratify the egos and appetites of the men who rule what Miller dubs “the land of testosterone.” West seems a bit more understanding of a female colleague who cut a male guard on his face for manipulating her in a love triangle to serve his ego: “When you live foul, expect the same thing you dish out to return to you.”
West writes that complaints of racism or sexual harassment are met with retaliation. In this climate of violence and intimidation, most guards “just walk with the ‘herd’ and pray they are not the next victim” in West’s words. “This behavior is commonly referred to as ‘dodging bullets.’” And these “bullets” are not simply professional retaliation. Miller was assaulted by a senior guard for rejecting his advances, including sniffing her seat on the cross-island staff bus after she stood up. Like his harassment, the assault occurred publicly, this time in front of inmates, but was covered up by their superiors despite documented injuries. West was attacked in the parking lot of a retirement party by a woman guard jealous of her dancing with a captain, who anyway happened to be married, and being in her probationary period, she was lucky not to lose her job. Miller recalls a colleague who reported sexual harassment to administration: “Once she made a complaint, she stated the officers retaliated. I find that hard to believe, not my colleagues, they stick together. Just bullshitting, of course they retaliated.” Conversely, sexual relationships and sex appeal can be leveraged to gain preferred assignments, like the Control Room, which by West’s account is a cushy gig, air conditioned “unlike the smelly hot dorms,” doesn’t require much inmate contact, and serves as a hub for gossip. This assignment is often given to women either dating or pursued by male superiors, because “some of the male supervisors wanted a harem of women around them.”
The Playboy Mansion
“Many spouses worry about what their mates do after work,” West writes, “but they need to concern themselves with what happens at work, and with whom they are doing it…” The lion’s share of these books focuses on courtship and dating rituals between guards, and the attendant drama. The reader is halfway through Caught in the Struggle before much is said about inmates at all, and West is clear that “the struggle” is almost completely within the social world of the guards. “Working at Rikers was similar to being in the projects or back in high school” she writes. “There was no age limit to foolishness or the viciousness that was to be dealt with; and this came from all staff and your supervisors. All this drama and nonsense was before you even stepped foot in the housing area to face the inmates. Oh yeah, the inmates; that’s the reason we are there but that’s last on the list after dealing with all of the above.” Heyward refers to dormitory searches, the most disruptive possible occurrence in the daily life of inmates, as “when officers from one jail get to visit another jail and catch up with officers that they have not seen in a long time. Oh, and they come to wreak havoc and search the jail, too.” Miller agrees with West that almost all of her trouble came from her fellow guards, not the inmates: “Working in an all male prison was a walk in the park; literally. I grew up in the Brownsville housing projects, so for me, it was like walking down Stone Avenue.” West and Miller found their major problems to stem from the fraught sexual underground of the island’s institutional life, which seems to completely dominate its day to day functioning. The thousands of human lives under the DOC’s “care, custody, and control” are an afterthought.
“All you have is time” writes West, “and the one thing about being in jail is that there are many locked doors and secluded areas to handle whatever business you desire with whom you desire to handle it with.” Miller complains: “We are a quasi-military establishment and should be conducting ourselves in a professional manner. Instead some are gallivanting around wearing their sexuality on their sleeves participating in oral sex, sexual intercourse, orgies, ménage a trois and anal sex, at work, as though we are at the playboy mansion…” West describes used condoms littering the guards’ parking lot, or as Heyward calls it, the “cocking lot,” where West claims guards get “paid in full” for sex work. No sooner did new guards set foot on the Island, West writes, “[w]hether you did or did not want to participate, the race was on between the men and the women to be the first to fuck the new meat.” When not simply the product of aggressive sexual harassment by male superiors, courtship begins at lunch time, with the gifts of outside food – a coveted item due to the commonly held belief that inmates contaminate guards’ food with bodily fluids. In West’s experience, the gift of a turkey and cheese sandwich in the guards’ dining room is the most popular courtship ritual. Heyward calls the gift of a sandwich from a female to a male guard “the first telltale sign they’re fucking.”
Miller dedicates a chapter of The Dark Underbelly to “the elephant in the room”: her affair with a high-ranking and married DOC official named Eric M. Taylor, a famous Chief of Operations whose name today adorns the island’s C-76 facility, where, incidentally, they met, when he was her superior. Miller complains bitterly of Taylor’s childish behavior after she broke off their short-lived romance, including him bragging about their sexual relationship in the locker room and calling her “my woman” for years thereafter. Their three-month relationship, she writes, “would haunt me for the rest of my career.” “Most officers are proud to say their wife isn’t on the job, or they wouldn’t let their woman work a job like correction’s,” writes West, “but these are the same men who are quick to have affairs with the first female officer who gives them the chance.” This behavior is typical of West’s and Miller’s accounts of the conduct among male guards, complete with what West calls a “wall of shame” in men’s locker rooms, containing embarrassing information about female guards, which inmate cleaners can read and repeat back at the cell block. Heyward certainly offers no contestation of this in his graphic accounts of workplace sexual conquest and “running through the jails swinging my dick from left to right.”
Miller and West take pride in their own abilities to navigate this terrain with dignity and street smarts, and disdain the women who fail to do so. Miller implores her female colleagues to “Stop! being a door knob and letting your male colleagues take turns on you.” West is pragmatic in her approach to jailhouse dating: “My advice to women in corrections is to limit yourself, and control your lustful desires. The maximum number of guys women should date at work, if any at all, should be no more than two guys per jail. Any more than two who are in the same jail at the same time would be playing yourself.” Heyward’s claims to be the target of female co-workers who want to have his children just for the child support money many seem like braggadocio, but West completely agrees that the male guards are an easy mark for “the 17% trap,” her name for child support. She claims “one female officer is known to have four children by officers from various ranks within the department and is now living a life of luxury, not to mention her own $60,000 annual salary.” Miller decries this “jailhouse prostitution,” “the scam of sleeping with ranking officers just so you can take them to court for child support and double your salary.”
Miller and West never suggest that women are simply helpless prey in the sexual free-for-all of the Rikers Island guard culture, but the vastly unequal gender dynamic is palpable. “Women have to be extremely careful about whom they associate with at all times” writes West, “because their failed relationships tend to linger more often than the men’s and when they move up in rank, they look silly unlike the men whose sex life increases with each promotion.” Miller addresses an entire chapter to the men working in correction, who “assume the roles of predator and sexual abuser.” She writes: “You decide you want to have sex with us and make us comply, if we do not, you isolate and treat us as if we are yesterday’s trash and [you] will intentionally place our lives in danger… not every female officer is your property for the choosing. Our body parts do not belong to you. If we decline to become part of your harem, you go after our jobs and try to make our lives a living hell. Instead of focusing on care, custody and control, your primary focus is ego, vagina and who has the most testosterone.” Between the unwanted sexual attention of superiors, and supremely childish behavior of male guards in consensual sexual relationships, these passages leave the reader wondering if the widespread reckoning surrounding the “#MeToo” moment may be headed for the New York City Department of Correction.
The sexual free-for-all between the guards also extends to relations between guards and inmates, who are legally unable to give consent. West claims that sex with inmates is pervasive, “male officers with female inmates; female officers with male inmates; female officers with female inmates; male officers with male inmates. In other words, any combination it can come in, it happens and it gets done.” Heyward brags not simply of having sex on the job – and don’t worry, he’ll tell you exactly how it went down – but of serving as a pimp, negotiating sex between female guards and male inmates. West claims that some female guards target the sex-starved male inmates for amorous attention. Miller implores her female colleagues to “Stop! sleeping with inmates and stop being their illegal narcotics and weapons mules. These inmates do not give a damn about you. These inmates are not cute or you bae, or boo. If you are that insecure, go seek counseling to figure out why you falling for the oldest inmate trick in the book.” This conduct is unambiguously against the law, and it seems to be only the tip of the iceberg in the culture of illegality that defines the staff life of Rikers Island.
The Inmates are Not the Problem
“I’m often asked what it is like to work on Rikers surrounded by murderers, rapists, burglars, and the mentally ill” West reflects. “People are often surprised when I tell them that the inmates are not the problem on Rikers…it wasn’t an inmate who stole fur coats, money, and uniform equipment out of the locker rooms. Nor did an inmate scratch the paint off of brand new cars, break windows, steal radios, or flatten tires in the staff parking lot. When I was physically assaulted, robbed of my jewelry, and my life threatened, it was not at the hands of an inmate, but at the hands of my fellow officers.”
West recounts how guards who have made an enemy might return to the locker room at the end of their shift to find their lockers glued shut and the items inside soaked in bleach. In the guards’ parking lot, where the general public is not allowed, cars are keyed and spray-painted with race and gender slurs, windows are smashed, and valuables are stripped for resale. Thefts by guards range from basic supplies like jackets, flashlights, command insignias, and ties, stolen when left around the workplace, to jewelry, jackets, phones, credit cards, and cash stolen out of lockers by breaking the locks. Guards who die on the job have their lockers immediately sealed as a memorial, but Heyward recounts that even those are burglarized. “Security doesn’t even conduct an investigation” when these break-ins occur, West complains. “All people say is ‘that’s fucked up.’” Miller got her sister a job as a guard, only for her to be turned onto smoking crack by a coworker, who used it and sold it to the other guards.
West describes a spate of tax evasion schemes and other frauds promoted by her colleagues and marketed as a package service across the jails. One service offered to trick out cars with luxury parts somehow available at bargain prices. Some guards claimed to be pastors for the tax breaks, or encouraged their coworkers to simply claim ninety-nine dependents to receive their entire paycheck tax-free. Others operated a variety of pyramid schemes, which Heyward confirms were a lucrative source of revenue for guards. West documents a particularly bizarre episode in which a group of guards marketed a tax evasion service that changes the claimant’s address to “a country I couldn’t find on the map” and changes their last name to a variant of “Bey,” thereby somehow evading US taxation. West recalls a time when both the ninety-nine dependents scam and the “Bey” scam became popular simultaneously, especially after they actually worked on a number of consecutive paychecks – until quarterly salary figures were tallied. “The new cars started rolling in; the diamonds and furs started appearing everywhere. Everyone was living large until the bottom fell out and the jig was up.” Worse yet, the “Bey” scam threatened the unforeseen side effect of forfeiting one’s status as a civil servant along with US citizenship. West watched the demise of many of her colleagues with disdain. She never got involved with the scams because she knew their day of reckoning was coming. “Uncle Sam will seize your accounts to get his money and will set your shit out in the street” she warns. “I don’t play with him because I know he’s not trying to play with me.”
All three books were published before the most famous instance of Rikers guard corruption to date, the 2016 arrest of Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook for bribery and fraud surrounding his handling of COBA retirement funds. But with impressive prescience, Miller directly addresses not just corruption in COBA, but Seabrook himself: “Remember this Mr. Seabrook; all good things come to an end. What goes up must come down and judging on the history of COBA, I can almost guarantee a front-page scandal of you Norman Seabrook… For your sake, I hope you are squeaky clean, but who is, with that much power.”
Red Meat and Venom
Heyward, on the other hand, was too busy with smuggling drugs and cigarettes into the jails to concern himself with cheating on his taxes. Between his smuggling contraband, acting as a pimp for fellow guards, and even conducting armed robbery using his DOC issued weapon, the stories in Corruption Officer place Heyward in a league of his own, even by the standards of Rikers Island. But interspersed with his gritty noir tales of action and adventure are offhand references to belittling and beating inmates and denying them basic dignity. In one episode Heyward is drunk on the job and an inmate asks him for toilet paper. “I bark at him and say, ‘You ain’t getting shit! Go wipe yo ass with your hand!’” The inmate is incensed and launches into a tirade “ranting and raving about how we as officers use our power to take advantage of them and treat them like slaves but don’t realize that we are the real Uncle Toms doing the white man’s dirty work for him by oppressing our own people.” The conflict escalates and Heyward winds up viciously beating a man who had simply requested toilet paper. The story ends when a powerful inmate pressures the man Heyward had beaten, who Heyward derisively calls “Mandela,” and “our civil rights leader,” to not report the assault. The casual and largely anecdotal way Heyward narrates this and other stories of violence and indignity demonstrates what Rikers inmates already know, namely, that inmates are at the bottom of the guards’ list of priorities – if they’re lucky.
Miller recalls that guards are fed “red meat and venom from the door” of the Academy, setting the table for brutality and callousness against the inmate population. Any guards who speak against the assault and debasement of inmates are labeled “inmate lovers” and open to the consequences of breaking the island’s social contract. In the Academy, Heyward recalls, the “instructors told us point-blank that these individuals (the inmates) don’t care about you or your family. They don’t have anything to do all day but scheme on you. They focus on what they can get from you or what they can get you to do for them.” Heyward’s narrative of his own smuggling career relies heavily on this popular theory, in which inmates contaminate staff with contagious criminality disguised as basic requests for necessities or dignified human interaction. When inmates are not perceived as the enemy, they are simply understood in relation to the guards’ ability to either make their job easier, shirk their responsibilities, or avoid getting into trouble. West emphasizes the common guard fear that when an inmate dies overnight, the temperature of the body upon discovery could reveal that a guard was not making their regular rounds and was probably sleeping. “God forbid an inmate dies as you doze,” writes West, “with time of death down to science, that inmate’s body had better not be cold, or you will be left holding the bag.” She recalls one negligent guard who tried to warm up a dead inmate to modify the time of death, but just burned the dead flesh on the heater and was caught.
Heyward recalls that when he first began patrolling the dorms he followed procedure and tapped sleeping inmates to wake them up for a count. An inmate woke up and almost punched Heyward before realizing what was going on. The inmates yelled to the ranking guard to “call off your man Dudley Do-right. He walking around waking motherfuckas up.” The guard told Heyward to forget everything he’s learned in training, and soon enough, he was drunk on the job, “sleeping most of my second tour, letting whatever inmate had the most power run the housing area.” Heyward discovers another key to the staff management of inmate life when he is stationed in the Mental Observation area, “aka the Nut House”: “Right now these fools are jumping off the wall until they hear their favorite call, which is MEDICATION! Ah, right on time. They all line up at the front entrance of the housing area to receive their prescribed meds for the day and then, bam! It’s like the house has done a 360-degree turn. No more yelling at the television or nothing, just the walking dead.” Similarly West learns how complaint reports against inmates actually function, after she writes up an inmate for verbally abusing her, and is told by a senior guard to make reports more “juicy” so it will stick: “A small curse like ‘fuck you bitch’ turned into a threat to kill my mother, rape me or to visit me once he was released.” West describes being subsequently confronted by the inmate whose words she’d falsified, who asks her why she lied. Feeling ashamed, she vowed not to do it again. “I felt if his actual words couldn’t get him penalized for what he did or said, then that was the way it would be.”
Nowhere is the antagonism between inmate and staff interests more palpable than in incidents of so-called “use of force,” a euphemism for the violence staff use to maintain discipline. Heyward calls the “use of force” regulation “the right-to-kick-ass rule,” noting that in the Academy, “[m]any of the Caucasian recruits paid close attention to this lesson, foaming at the mouth and shit.” But soon enough Heyward learns how to hide cavalier cruelty behind “use of force” protocol, relying on the systematic fabrication of official reports to cover his actions. In one instance Heyward viciously beats a helpless inmate wearing “black leather gloves with metal plates sewn in them”. At the end of the beating Heyward threatens the inmate: “‘When you go to the clinic you know what to say.’ He nods and says, ‘The shower.’” The inmate will say he has fallen in the shower, and not only will Heyward avoid disciplinary action, but the “use of force” will stay off the official statistics.
Miller recalls the violence she witnessed as a rookie and the cover-ups that ensued: “I personally witnessed some of the most horrific beatings any human being should have to endure… I can still visualize and replay some of those beatings… and what surprises me is the inmates did not die.” “I would watch the beatings” she continues, “and the cover-up machine instituted immediately. A pen and a piece of paper goes a long way. The sad part is many of the superior officers assist in these cover-ups to avoid demotion and lawsuits.” While Miller is writing about the early 1980s, the recent DOJ report on violence at Rikers echoes much of her claims. Miller also casts doubt on the reforms that took place under a mayor she declines to name but who is almost certainly Rudolph Giuliani. “Under this Mayor’s leadership he equipped his appointees with enormous power to institute his Arnold Schwarzenegger crush kill destroy approach. His cohorts condoned and encouraged correction officers to use force and whatever means necessary to maintain order in the jails.” Under this mayor, Rikers “became worse, even though on paper, it appeared he was doing a terrific job.”
As a case study of sorts, Heyward describes in detail his education in the art of the cover-up. As an overzealous newjack, he led a group of guards in a vicious gang beating of an inmate accused of giving a female guard a bloody nose – which she claimed in the heat of the moment – but who turned out to have simply caused her stress that triggered the nosebleed. After the beating, word got around that “Big Heyward had put the work in,” earning commendation from his superiors, nods from the men, and lustful stares from some of the women. Big Heyward was riding high.
But a more experienced guard quickly burst his bubble, explaining to him that once he’d earned the reputation as an enforcer, he would be called upon as backup to settle guards’ scores against inmates whenever there’s a beating to be doled out. While this practice is part of the de facto institutional protocol, she warned him, an enforcer can only beat up so many inmates and write it up like he “slipped in the shower” before the hospital staff begins to wonder “how his jaw, ribs, and arm all got broken from one fall.” And “don’t let the inmate be smart enough to remember one of y’all’s badge numbers and name” she scolded. “You know some of y’all ain’t smart enough to take your shield off or at least cover it up before y’all get into some shit.” Once an investigation got rolling, she concluded, the enforcer can only hope “the inmate’s family may not have money for a lawyer”, but if they can, and a lawsuit follows, it becomes every man for himself, fighting alone to save their jobs and stay out of jail.
Heyward began to panic, but she consoled him: “Listen, if you get into some shit and you got a real muthafuckin’ supervisor, I mean one that came up through the ranks, that didn’t get put into position by way of a family member that has pull, that is an officer’s supervisor, your ass is good. That kind of supervisor will know what to tell you to write in your report. That kind will know who to get to sign off on anything that we say happened in an incident, use of force or whatever. We have the power to manipulate the system and can get away with just about anything up in here.” Heyward is also cautioned by many of his coworkers “not to start shit outside their jails, because when it comes down to writing reports and coming up with lies to cover your ass; you’d rather they come from officers from your jail that you have a bond with, that you trust.”
A chance detail of Heyward’s story adds an additional layer of complexity to the relationship between inmates and guards, who often hail from the same low-income communities of color, and often know each other from the streets. Eager to prove himself to his new colleagues, Heyward had rushed headlong into a skirmish and beaten a man with a hoodie pulled over his head. When the man’s face was revealed, Heyward recognized his victim as someone he knew from the projects. Heyward worried what would happen if word got back to his neighborhood that he had joined the other side, meaning that not only was he doing the job, but he was taking it seriously. In a striking passage, West reflects on the extensive overlap between the housing project and the jail: “It wasn’t until I worked in a jail setting that I realized the same paint colors on the walls were the same colors used in the hallways and stairwells in the projects: A color I would call institutional gray, drab yellow or drab yellow and orange… The floor areas in jails are very similar to the lobby areas in many of the projects apartment buildings; and the inmate’s housing areas have the same tiles on the floor, which is a almost beige and a not quite white color… When you look out of the jail windows, the view is basically the same as in the projects, with a slight view of grass or trees. You will see gates and bars; often you face a brick wall both in jail and in the projects… When you look in the institutional mirrors, you see a blurred vision of who you actually are since the mirrors are made of a scratched metal that is screwed into the walls just to give you an image but not a clear view. Could this be a coincidence or a way of subtly being told, ‘Welcome home.’”
What It Boils Down To
West finally quits after a guard drops dead in the staff dining hall. “Officer Wight was dead,” she recalls “and nothing stopped. The inmates wanted their soap and toilet paper as usual and they received their services on time as usual. One officer came to my post and just stared off into space mumbling that he didn’t want to die at work. I agreed with him. He said he didn’t want to die around people he worked with for over 17 years and were still complete strangers to him.” This story and countless others contained in these books could be set in just about any workplace. Across lines of work, people compelled to earn a wage struggle against immense inertia to attain basic control over the activity they have to spend most of their time doing. Hemmed in on all sides by coercive social relations they never asked to be born into, and faced with no clear prospects of advancing a common agenda of liberation with the people around them, the degrading effects of wage labor take their toll. Alcohol and drugs fill the longing for oneness denied by the objective constraints of a society defined by atomization and compulsory competition, predatory sex or vapid social rivalries provide meaning to the daily performance of activity for which no salvageable purpose exists. Men draw on their disproportionate social power to pursue sexual gratification, women do the best they can to empower themselves or else simply survive under these circumstances while getting some kicks of their own in the process. Amidst imposed competition and the debasement of human creative faculties, the most puerile pettiness one can drudge from the depths of the human spirt is allowed to reign supreme. Above all, most workers are left with a supreme contempt for any obstacles to an easy work day, demands for doing things “by the book,” or any other impediments to doing as little as possible and doing everything possible to make the time stolen from the worker by their employer into the worker’s own time – no matter the moral or ethical implications.
Like most workers, guards rebel against constraints placed on their labor and the general wasting of their time which the job represents. But this places them fundamentally at odds with the safety and dignity of inmates whose basic human rights interfere with the guards’ ability to stay out of trouble for doing whatever they please. And this says nothing of the predatory and violent relationships between workers that are found in many workplaces but seem to especially thrive in the uniquely hierarchical, paramilitary setting of a place like Rikers Island. While it is tempting to depict the participants in many of these stories as monsters – just as many would like to portray the people they guard – by all appearances the people on both sides of the bars at Rikers Island are pretty much just the people we ride the train with. These books describe ordinary human beings, a few of whom are utterly despicable, but most of whom are just struggling to keep their head above water, to make the best of their short lives amidst severe structural constraints, to support themselves and their families, and to gratify whatever desires they can along the way. It just so happens they are doing so in one the most notorious and repressive jail complexes in the world, and they, often carelessly, wield immense power over the lives of some of the City’s most powerless people. Ultimately these works suggest that while nobody in DOC employ seems to be a candidate for outstanding ethical citizenship, the real problem at Rikers Island is not the failing of the individual people guarding it, or even the “culture” of their workplace, but the fact that ordinary people are forced to do a job that simply shouldn’t exist.
Miller puts it a bit more bluntly: “think about everyone in your immediate workplace… Some of your coworkers are cool and some are idiots, some are book smart but lack common sense, lazy, gossipers, ass kisser, mean, hateful, always arriving to work late, complainers, stink, loose, whorish, and backstabbers… Picture them with badges and guns and ask yourself would you be okay if they worked in law enforcement, and if you or your family member were arrested and under their custody and supervision. Well that is… what it boils down to being a ‘Correction Officer.’”
Jarrod Shanahan is an editor of Hard Crackers. He is currently undertaking a comprehensive study of the social history of Rikers Island along with colleague Jayne Mooney.