The rough prison that greeted Dominique Strauss-Kahnby David McConnell / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
When the rap star Lil Wayne was sent to Rikers Island correctional facility last year on a gun possession charge, his fans, many of them familiar with the etiquette of prisons, lit up the internet with commentary: “At least he didn’t bitch out and ask for ad seg,” observed one. “Ad seg” is “administrative segregation”: a term that refers to any inmate’s separation from the general prison population. Prisoners in ad seg have all sorts of reasons for being there, including illness, violent tendencies and fame—the last being, presumably, the reason Dominique Strauss-Kahn was placed in a one-man cell on the island after he was denied bail on 16th May. The rap fan’s remark makes plain the macho scorn prison adepts feel for those in ad seg. It’s considered a place for the vulnerable.
Most people, even incurious New Yorkers, talk about Rikers Island as if it’s just a prison. It’s actually a little village, a baleful version of Disney’s planned community: Celebration, Florida. John Bunyan might aptly have named it “Drear.” Ramshackle buses with grated windows ply its curving streets, dropping visitors, corrections officers, teachers and administrators at their appointed stops. The place has an odd feeling of vacancy because, of course, no one strolls or lounges under the few big maple trees. The work of the cheerless garbage handlers and lawn crews is strictly timed and monitored. If you were allowed to wander, you’d easily get lost amid the densely built cell blocks, the white Quonset huts and gated access roads. Only the playing fields are open, surrounded by no man’s land and razor-wire fences, grassy but sad, lonely-seeming even when a game is in progress and the far-off shouts of grown men sound like birdcalls compared to the roar of jets taking off from LaGuardia Airport.
The island is home to a satellite of the New York public schools, a church and chapels, shops, a vast laundry, medical clinics, a car wash and ten separate prisons with dreary bureaucratic names like the Eric M Taylor Centre or the Robert N Davoren Complex. It is reached by a long causeway from Queens.
It’s a distinctly unhappy village. The usual cynical weariness of an anonymous metropolis like New York has been distilled into something malefic. The banter between corrections officers is mean or snide or mocking, and the prisoners oppress themselves with their own meanness, snideness and mockery or…