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.
On the morning of the 21st we started talking about a strike. Before long, we were actually discussing the mechanics of one. I don’t remember who first floated the idea. I’d definitely mentioned it to a few people over the previous weeks, trying to plant the seed, but I can’t take credit for organizing it. “Sticking it up,” or refusing to cooperate with institutional policy, is just something that happens at Rikers. Sentenced inmates like us don’t stick it up much. We tend to behave, because we’re going home soon, unlike the detained inmates who form the bulk of the island’s population. All of us discussing striking knew that we could lose good time [reduced from a sentence for good behavior] or be sent to the Box, but the circumstances that we’d been forced into meant that they were risks we were willing to take.
At lunch, I made sure to find Star in the mess hall and talk to him. Star was a shot-caller, a high-ranking gang member who ran the other dorm on our floor, although you’d never know it. He was a down-to-earth guy, well-liked and well-respected. I’d known him since the start of my bid almost six months ago, and lived in his dorm for nearly half that time. We got along well, and his dorm had been through the same stuff as us lately, including the overcrowding. I told him we’d been talking about a strike, perhaps Monday or Tuesday. He nodded, without a moment’s hesitation: “If y’all stick it up on that side, we stickin’ it up with you.”
Our dorm didn’t really have any gang affiliation – there were a few scattered members of different gangs, but none of them were trying to take things over or beefing with each other – or really any leader to speak of at this point. There were the 20 of us that had been in the dorm for a while already, and those who’d been crammed in with us in the past week. Despite the occasional petty jail dispute, we got along pretty well. We had all agreed to share the phone when the bulk of the new guys had arrived on the 14th– the phones are often the first battleground in a dormitory power struggle – and had even organized ourselves into house cleaning crews when it had become apparent that the DOC wasn’t going to do anything of substance to slow the spread of the disease. Another one of the old crew named Harris and I had been reporting back to the newly-packed dorm after the Inmate Council, explaining that we’d essentially have to fend for ourselves, which meant, at a minimum, cleaning the dorm thoroughly, several times a day. A tall, bald guy with a prominent neck tat stepped up and said that the new guys would be happy to draw up a schedule with us. The very next day, we had worked it out, written it up on a piece of cardboard, and glued it to the wall with toothpaste. It was a simple scheme that everyone could live with, and people were actually pretty good about implementing it. So even though we didn’t have a rigid hierarchy and didn’t know each other well, we were able to arrive at a consensus and organize ourselves in our own self-interest. This experience, I think, was really essential in laying the groundwork for the strike.
Neck Tat and a few other people emerged as de facto spokespeople for the new guys; Harris, myself, and a few others for the old crew. Neck Tat and Harris occasionally butted heads, usually because Neck Tat imagined some sort of slight. His brain was kinda fried from his heavy use of K2, but his heart was in the right place. “It’s us against them,” he would say, pinching the collar of his standard-issue forest green DOC shirt and then jabbing a finger at the nearest CO. When I commented to him that the dorm was running all right without any real leaders or petty politics, he answered “Hell yeah, the dorm can run itself better on its own. We just gotta stick together,” before offering me a fist bump. Harris was a smart, funny and tough but unassuming guy that people respected, and who’d been fighting DOC’s institutional bullshit pretty much since he’d arrived. They were both, as they say in here, “for the people.”
I saw Star again at the yard on the afternoon of the 21st.
“Yo, my girl said she saw on Twitter that they’re doing a hunger strike in the Hudson County Jail. They want masks, tests, all that. We do that, we gonna have the deps, the warden down there in no time to prevent a lawsuit.”
I brought this suggestion back to the dorm and maybe a dozen of us kicked around our ideas; refuse to go to work, refuse to go to chow, or refuse to eat at all. A few guys were strongly advocating for a one or two-day hunger strike (“Some of y’all niggas need to stop eatin’ for a day!”), but most favored a milder form of protest. Many, fed up and recognizing that we had some momentum, were in favor of some sort of action, but were confused: “What’s the point? What are we gonna get?” I talked about how protest actions usually have a list of demands, and how it’s probably best to aim high, knowing you won’t get everything you want. I also promised them, as I’d promised Star at the yard earlier, that if we went on strike I would contact my activist friends on the outside immediately, who’d do their best to get the word out on social media and hopefully to the media as well. We loosely identified our demands and left it at that. If nothing else, we said, media or social media coverage of a strike might help convince people outside of what was going on in here. The impression we’d been getting was that most people thought it was “not that bad, like it’s no big deal” as one guy put it.
Later that afternoon, we ran out of a number of cleaning supplies and were told we’d have to wait until Monday to get them replaced. This left us with a few bars of hand soap, two week-old mop heads, one sponge, and no disinfectant for the entire dorm. Around 11PM that night, four of the eight inmates who’d been moved in at 5 that morning were hastily moved out; the DOC had tested them for Coronavirus because they’d been in contact with a confirmed case, but hadn’t waited for their test results. Now, after they’d spent nearly 24 hours beside us in the crowded dorm, it turned out that their results had come back positive, so they were being taken into quarantine. The anger at the DOC’s bungling was seething, palpable. None of us had masks, so we wrapped t-shirts or scraps of bedsheets around our faces and tried to sleep that way. The fire alarm went off at 3AM. This had been happening on and off for the past few months. Usually, it stopped for a few minutes, but this time the blinding flash and the ear-splitting siren continued for 20 minutes straight, waking us all from our tenuous sleep, fraying our tempers further.
Then came Sunday morning and the dead phone lines. When the captain on duty arrived for his hourly check at 9:30, he was swarmed by guys demanding an explanation. He told us that if we cleaned the dorm, the phones could come back on at 10:30. (Never mind the fact that we’d been cleaning the place three times a day.) We cleaned. The phones didn’t come back on at 10:30. Guys kept trying them. At 10:45, one guy picked up the phone only to hear the same cool, robotic female voice: “No calls are allowed at this time.” He slammed the phone down.
“Yo, fuck that!” someone cried, “We stickin’ it up for chow!”
“Man, It’s chicken day.”
“Some things are more important.”
“Man, fuck that chicken!”
“We stickin’ it up for chow! Anybody go to chow pack they ass up!” (“Packing someone up” is the act of forcing someone, sometimes with violence but usually just the threat of it, to pack their stuff into a trash bag and request an immediate transfer because they don’t feel safe.)
“No chow!” echoed up and down the dorm. To this was added the cry of “No work!”
“We stickin’ it up!”
“No work, no chow!”
I rushed into the bathroom, climbed onto the back of the toilet in stall 6, and yelled into the air vent for Star. The air vents between our two dorms are connected, and if you stand on the back of one of the toilets, you can even see the person you’re talking to on the other side. I swear, I don’t know who designs these places. Star’s face appeared a minute later.
“Yo, we stickin’ it up! It’s lit!” he said.
“Us too. Chow and no work.”
“Yup. We stayin’ right here, and we eatin’ outta our buckets [commissary food] and that’s it.”
I told him that as soon as the phones came back on – hoping they actually would – I’d call my friends on the outside and ask them to get the word out.
Back at my bed, my neighbor Dominicano turned to me and said “I’m stickin’ it up for you man, ‘cause I know what you’re about. And I like the unity that’s going on right now.”
He was one of the three guys who worked at the West Facility, where they make about $300 a week for their efforts, rather than the $40-$80 most of us make, so I was kind of surprised and a bit flattered to hear him say that. Normally they would have left for work early in the morning, but strangely, none of the work details had been picked up for the morning shift yet. It seemed the institutional schedule was starting to break down under the stress of its pivoting, however half-heartedly, to face the crisis. At any rate, this meant that we had two dorms full of striking workers, including guys who normally would have been at work already. Ironically, the three West Facility guys were actually the only ones to go to work that day. Their boss showed up a half hour later and threatened to fire them if they didn’t come out; I guess they weren’t ready for that level of repercussion. Dominicano and I shared a laugh about his change of heart as he was putting on his shoes. I jokingly accused him of selling out the revolution. In truth, I couldn’t be mad at him for breaking ranks. It actually is decent money by jail standards, and some of these guys have families to support. More importantly, it didn’t seem to affect our resolve. The rest of us were still determined not to go to work in the kitchen, or the warehouse, or the commissary, or on the sanitation crew, or to touch the chow.
“Yo, I’m chefin’ it up for all y’all nigas who ain’t got it to eat,” Neck Tat declared, holding a couple packs of fish and Ramen Noodles over his head. “If you got some extra, throw it right here.” Many of us chipped in, and soon he and a small crowd of jailhouse sous-chefs were busily preparing a massive lunch for the old crew and the new guys alike.
The phones came back on a short time later. With the inevitable rush, I had a long wait in front of me but I convinced a friend to let me jump in for a few minutes after I explained that I was trying to get word about our strike to the outside. I called a trusted activist friend who picked up right away. “You got a pen?” I asked. I spoke quickly in case the phones were cut off again.
“Two dorms of 45 inmates at Rikers are refusing to leave our dorms for work duties or for meals. We must take these actions in protest of the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies provided to inmates, the crowded living conditions imposed on us prior to the pandemic and made worse by the daily addition of new inmates from other facilities, some of whom are highly likely to have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus, and the arbitrary disconnection of our phones for three hours on the morning of March 22nd. We demand the same calls issued by the Board of Correction, that all inmates over 50 with parole violations, at high risk due to health conditions, and with less than a year of sentenced time be immediately released.” Then, on the spot, I added: “and this is in solidarity with the hunger strikers in the Hudson County Jail.” Usually I prefer to operate by consensus, so I felt a bit weird about unilaterally speaking for both dorms, but then, it was pretty much what we talked about, just cleaned up, and that task likely would have been delegated to me anyway.
“And that’s for wide distribution?”
“As wide as possible, my friend.”
A few more guys were called out to work. They all stood firm: “We’re not coming out today.” It was a good sign, but the first true test of our stick-up didn’t come until a bit later, when the CO posted to our dorm called “Walkin’ out for chow!”
The response was swift and unanimous:
“You eat it!”
“We ain’t goin’!”
“We’re not hungry!”
The COs tried to convince us to just walk down to the mess hall and back so that, on paper at least, they could say we had gone to chow. This, too, we refused:
“We stickin’ it up!”
The same captain who had bullshitted us about the phones earlier came back. He wasn’t scheduled to check on the dorm again for another hour, which meant we had their attention. Inmates notice these sorts of things. The dorm, usually buzzing with noise and activity, was quiet. All eyes were on him.
“What do you hope to gain by refusing chow?” he asked.
“Well,” said a young Trinitario from Bushwick, “it’s our way of peaceful protest.” He had participated in the strike discussions, and he seemed pretty pleased with his answer. A few guys mumbled their agreement.
The captain asked what we were protesting, was promptly bombarded with a loud litany of complaints from all corners of the room, and left.
This was around noon. Around 1PM, the phones were cut off again. This time it was very clear to us that we were being punished. The captain came back with the deputy warden, or “dep.” At first, we took this as a sign of progress – our demands had moved up the chain. Perhaps, even without a full-blown hunger strike, we’d get the warden himself down here to negotiate with us next.
“The ignorance here is astonishing,” Dep. Rothwell began in a chiding tone, before stating, with astonishing ignorance, “Coronavirus is just a common cold. That’s it!”
Some guys seemed cowed by her attack, others bristled.
“Ma’am that’s just not true,” I responded. “The news is saying –”
She cut me off. “Do you believe everything you hear on the news?” She called us all ignorant again.
“People are dying!” someone said. Someone else asked why COs weren’t being tested before coming to work, and why they weren’t wearing masks.
“My COs don’t have to do anything they don’t want to,” she snapped like a petulant child. “They can do anything they want.” Our demands for PPE, hand sanitizer, and cleaning products were rudely nixed. We complained that they were overcrowding us, and moving people they knew were likely infected into the dorm.
“Well, where do you want us to put them?” she asked.
“Not our problem.”
“OK then, so it’s not my problem either” she shot back, her eyes flashing. We demanded to speak to the warden.
“I’m running the jail right now,” she said, “No one else. Me.” She was getting more flustered by the second, and her hands were beginning to shake. She brushed a lock of hair from her forehead and started trying to tell us that all we needed to do was cover our coughs, wash our hands –
“And stay six feet apart!” someone interjected angrily. There had naturally been a bit of people talking over each other, with 40 inmates crowded around her, but in general we’d been polite and respectful up to that point. Now, that began to fall apart.
“What do you want?” she asked coldly.
Through gritted teeth: “Try again.” Her eyes darted around angrily. She stuffed a hand in a pocket to hide its tremors and backed away, calling us ignorant one last time. “We’re just gonna hafta move them, split them up,” she said to the captain.
The atmosphere in the room turned gloomy. It seemed like we’d run up against a wall and won nothing except the hassle of a transfer, which is a huge pain, even if it isn’t to the box. I set aside the books I wanted to take with me, and exchanged contact information with a few guys.
The captain came back with a CO holding a camcorder behind him (they’re big on video records in here) and asked us if we wanted chow. Everyone shouted “No!” in unison. It was a beautiful sight, but to me it felt like a last hurrah, like an act of fuck-you defiance more than a protest. He came back with the camera again and asked if we’d eat the food if they brought it to us. The response was muddled. A line of COs holding lunch trays appeared at the door. A small crowd formed, glancing at each other. There was a moment’s hesitation, and a hasty and half-assed debate. About 15 guys gave in and ate the chicken. It seemed like we’d lost some momentum. Still, I wasn’t mad – it was less than half the total in our dorm, which was only half the strike, and in any case, we’d forced them to bring it to us. That in itself was already a pretty remarkable achievement. Perhaps that was all we’d get, perhaps it was over, but at least we’d tried.
Star called me to the vent and we spoke again. He was pissed about the guys on my side that had eaten the chicken, but I managed to talk him down. He told me about their meeting with Dep. Rothwell had gone about as well as ours. He was elated when I told him I’d managed to contact my friend on the outside and give him our demands.
“That’s what’s up!”
The phones stayed dead all afternoon, and the air in the room seemed to match. Guys laid on their beds or crammed into the dayroom to watch TV. Work details came to pick us up; we all refused to go. People snacked on stuff they’d bought at the commissary. Two OGs on opposite sides of the room sat grumbling on and off for hours to whoever would listen – one about how he’d been at Attica and we needed to start lighting our bedsheets on fire, the other about how our stick-up was “corny as hell. Ain’t nothin’ gonna change.”
Around 4PM, Mayor de Blasio held one of his live Coronavirus press conferences. During the Q & A, a reporter asked him if he could confirm reports of two dorms of 45 people each on Rikers Island refusing to go to work or meals. Everyone froze. We held our breath until de Blasio finished answering, just in case he said something that mattered to us, and then the dayroom exploded – guys jumped out of their seats, cheering, laughing, jumping up and down, bumping fists and slapping backs.
“I’ve never been a part of something like that,” an avowedly apolitical friend told me, “making a difference. And it happened so fast!” He looked like he couldn’t believe it himself. “This thing’s got legs now.” Someone had heard us.
At 5:45PM, we unanimously refused dinner. To be fair, it was everyone’s least favorite meal, baloney sandwiches, but it felt like we’d gotten back whatever spark we’d lost. A new captain came in and tried to talk us out of it. At first, he tried the same line about the common cold (were they using a script?), but once he saw that we weren’t going to budge, he listened patiently to our demands, and then told us he’d do “everything in [his] power” to meet them, although he admitted release was “above [his] paygrade.”
A few minutes later, the phones came back on. I rushed over to one and called my friend again. It seemed our strike had indeed gotten a pretty wide distribution: from the activists (mostly anarchists and abolitionists) it had spread to journalists, and finally politicians. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez had mentioned us in her fireside chat, and of course de Blasio had been asked about us on live TV. By 6PM, we saw COs unloading boxes upon boxes of sponges, mop heads, hand soap and disinfectant, and piling their contents high. The second came back with a doctor in surgical gear and an assistant wheeling a medical stand to screen us for symptoms and answer and questions we had about Coronavirus. One of the first things they told us was that it was definitely not the common cold.
They took our temperatures, asked us if we had symptoms, and gave us each a surgical mask. The masks, they said, would be given out once a week; the screenings would happen once a day. I had my doubts, but beneath my crisp new cotton mask, I couldn’t help but smile. In one day, we had forced them to the bargaining table, and had actually won concessions. A few dozen thieves and crackheads, dealers and brawlers, gangbangers and check-forgers had put their collective foot down and demanded that the DOC live up to their rhetoric and treat us as dignified human beings.
There was talk of continuing the stick-up into Monday, but we woke to find ourselves in “quarantine” because of our exposure to the four inmates who’d tested positive. This effectively hamstrung us, as we weren’t allowed to leave the dorm for work or meals anyway. On Wednesday night, three-quarters of the sentenced inmates on the island were released, including the overwhelming majority of the guys in our two dorms. Star, Neck Tat, and Dominicano all went home. Harris and I are still here, along with about ten others, all of us hoping to be released soon. It took us about three weeks to get new masks. The screenings became less and less frequent and then stopped. Cleaning supplies, while not as difficult to procure as they were before, are being treated as a luxury by COs again. At least, I guess, we never got transferred.
Things are bad in here, and the future is uncertain. But for my part, I think our strike had a direct role in getting all those sentenced inmates – and now, more than a thousand detainees – released, and that makes me happy. Maybe we only accelerated something that would have begun soon anyway, but we did it. We took a risk, we told the outside world that it was not “not that bad” in here. It only lasted one day – hell, less than that – but we did it because we really felt we had no other choice, and we did it together, and amazingly, it kind of worked.