Prisons, poverty & socialism: An interview with Cecily McMillan
Following the trial, nine of the 12 jurors who convicted her, urged the judge not to send McMillan to prison. Huge demonstrations supporting her took place in New York City and across the country.
On May 19, McMillan was sentenced to three months in prison, becoming Occupy Wall Street’s most prominent political prisoners. Accounts of her various court appearances and other exploits have filled the pages of the New York Times, New York Daily News, New York Post and the Guardian.
After sitting in the courtroom and observing her trial from the press section, I had intended to interview McMillan from within Riker’s Island Correctional Facility, where she served her sentence. The NYC Department of Corrections was uncooperative, and despite a date being tentatively scheduled, an interview from within the prison’s walls did not take place.
It was on a sunny afternoon in August that I was finally able met up with Cecily McMillan, who is out of jail, though she has another case pending and could soon return. We sat down on the back patio of a coffee shop in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, where she sat across from me with a nervous smile. She told me of her journey from graduate school, to a tent in Zuccotti Park, to one of the most infamous prisons in the United States.
‘No Day is Normal’ on Riker’s Island
I began our conversation by asking what a typical day in prison at Riker’s Island is like.
“No day is normal.” She said. Then she described how within the prison there are no real rules or procedures, making every day a mess of confusion, especially after first arriving. “You don’t really have any orientation. You have an inmate handbook that hasn’t been updated since 2007, so nothing is right.
“It was really psychotic in there. Most people just try to suspend their belief in an outside world. I decided to actively hold on to it.”
She described the difficulty she had accessing medication, and how like all prisoners, each of her days was spent confusedly waiting for some service or other, not knowing what to expect.
“The biggest off-putting factor is instability, the waiting… up to eight weeks to see an optometrist, another eight weeks to get the glasses if you happen to be legally blind. Why won’t they let your prescription glasses in? It says to in the inmate handbook.”
McMillan described how seemingly meaningless things suddenly became very important in the lives of prisoners, as they struggle to maintain some level of dignity.
“Most people get really obsessed with food. Everyone has their processes of attempting to remain human. Most people’s process is food. Food is your only choice in jail.” She said. “For me food was sustenance, my choice was exercise. Running throughout the day. Exercising to release my anxiety. Most people gain weight, I lost weight.”
McMillan described how prisoners barter with each other for essential things: “The sugar packets are the first form of money. You try to save them up in whatever capacity, and you more or less can buy favors or buy information, trade your sugar packets for beans, coffee or whatever.”
She described how the women in the Rose M. Singer Center where she was held within the Riker’s Facility looked after each other.
“The women in there provide humanity to the inhumanity that is every day.” She spoke of playing cards late into the night with her cellmates, who guided her navigating what she calls “the controlled chaos.”
In addition to the confusion, McMillan described the very harsh treatment the prisoners are subjected to. She confirmed that people are routinely sprayed in the face with mace.
“I witnessed the pulling out of pepper spray weekly. I saw people being pepper sprayed… If you are any part maladjusted, you get pepper sprayed, thrown in the bing [solitary confinement]… and that is protocol.” She reported that being pepper sprayed in the face and sent to solitary confinement is a routine punishment for seemingly trivial offenses, such as “raising your voice, refusing to stop raising your voice.”
She described the degrading strip searches she wrote about in the New York Times, claiming that since her release this particular form of degrading treatment has become worse.
“There are up to five searches in two weeks. All these exposés are not helping.” She also spoke of how in every aspect of prisoners’ lives they are humiliated and made to feel subhuman. She described being frequently cursed at, in one instance called a “smug a-- white b----“ by a Corrections Officer.
“I got remmed [sic] my first week or two there for standing with my hands on my hips, as a sign of disrespect. It’s a power sign.” She said her social background made prison life especially difficult for her. “I did not know how to be subservient. Who I was came off as backhanded disrespect. I got rushed and slammed against the wall by a CO [corrections officer] for being polite.”
She said that many of the inmates assumed she was wealthy because she was white: “People don’t seem to know that poor white people exist, but that's where I grew up.” McMillan spent much of her childhood living in a trailer park in Texas with her mother. Her brother, who struggled with substance abuse, has also been locked up.
“Riker’s is a third world. It is a state within a state. The people inside are stateless people.” McMillan went on to describe how the prisons, with over 2.5 million people currently inside, are absorbing the growing number of people who seem to no longer have any other place in US society. “If you don’t have money to buy things, you lose your value as a citizen, you get put in prison.”
The future of the 99%
McMillan said that while she was locked up, she thought a lot about the Occupy Wall Street movement, and what is next.
“One the big problems with Occupy Wall Street was that it was primarily white, upper-middle class, educated people. I was always talking about how we are not the 99 percent….really only 10 percent, maybe 13 percent.”
She reflected on the growing economic crisis in the United States, and how it is linked growing rate of imprisonment: “All of our jobs have been outsourced. There’s not really a middle class anymore.
“Who is being put in prison? It’s the poor people who are not citizens anymore because they cannot consume.” She said. “What does that say about all the kids with student debt, who can’t find jobs, and are fighting over Starbucks managerial positions? Does that mean that we are going to go to prison sometime soon?”
McMillan says the hypocrisy of the United States regarding issues like protest and free speech should be apparent to everyone: “The United States can be like ‘We love Pussy Riot,’ but then squash Occupy.”
She’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization formed in the 1980s that includes prominent left-wing academics like Cornel West and Gloria Steinem. Though she no longer holds an official position within the organization, McMillan maintains an essentially Marxist outlook. She described a long-term perspective for the growing protest movement in the United States.
“I think we need to begin building toward a social movement that is as inclusive of as many different classes and cultures, races, and genders, at the outset, to address the problems we have now.”
While she foresees some kind of eventual revolutionary change, she emphasized that she believes a massive armed revolt or civil war is highly unlikely to occur: “I just don’t see violent revolution or guerrilla warfare.
“We at least have to get to the same level as the rest of the West from a conversational standpoint. I think we need universal healthcare. I think we need to address our medieval prison industrial complex. From there I would like to see Communism, Socialism… a collapse of any sort of established centralized body, less want and need. Anarcho-Syndicalism.”
McMillan says her hero is civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, and she shares his admiration for Western European social-democracy, pacifism, and gradual transformation of society.
“If we don’t even get to a process of democratic socialism, then there is no hope for changing this country. If we as a society cannot reach that ideal, it’s a lost cause.”
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.