“I was in a battered relationship with the New York City Department of Correction.” That’s how Robin Miller describes her twenty-year career as a correctional officer in the city’s jail system. In 1983, Miller was a 21-year-old earning $11,000 a year at an office job. Then she saw an ad for correctional officers, a job with a starting salary of $21,000 plus benefits. “I had no idea what that [job] was,” she recalled. She applied, was accepted, and began working at Rikers the following year.
During those twenty years, Miller says she saw flagrant violence, not only at Rikers but throughout the city’s jail system. Much of the abuse she describes came at the hands of her fellow officers and their higher-ups. She retired in 2005 and, traumatized by what she’d seen and experienced, turned her Queens apartment into her own form of solitary confinement.
Now, Miller is ready to break the blue wall of silence with her memoir, Inside the Dark Underbelly of Rikers Island. She’s also penned a script entitled Rock Island: Destruction of Corruption, which explores ways to stop violence and corruption on the island-jail complex.
The Voice spoke with Miller about her time as an officer, the violence she witnessed and experienced, and why she believes closing Rikers won’t solve these issues.
Rikers is known for having a culture of violence. On Monday, a federal monitor reported that violence continues at an “alarming rate.” What did you witness and experience during your two decades as a correctional officer?
It wasn’t the prisoners that I had a problem with or had a problem with me. It was my colleagues.
[If you were an inmate], officers would slap you just cuz you looking at them or ask them a question. “Officer, can I have toilet paper?” And here come the curse words. Then, pow.
During my first year, I was taking the adolescent inmates, we used to have to take them at five o’clock in the morning to chow, to the big mess hall. They was quiet. I had my rules — we go in the hallway, be quiet, keep your shirts in your pants, keep your hands outta your pants, let’s just go get this breakfast, eat, let’s come back to the housing area.
There was a couple of officers standing off to the side. They pulled an inmate off my line. His name was Dead Eye. He was a problem child, he made you want to pop him off every now and then, but this particular morning, he didn’t do anything. They pulled him off the line. Next thing I know, I see them beating him. Boom! Boom! Boom! I see him on the floor, I see him going like this [Miller raises her hands as if to protect her face and head]. We used to carry long black metal flashlights. [One officer] was taking his flashlight and banging him on the top of his head. Now I’m seeing blood gushing from the top of his head and I’m just standing there like . . . That was it for me. After that, I warned them, “When we go out, don’t say nothing. Don’t even look at them.” I just hoped I’d never see that again.
You’d see things, [correction officers] pulling people in the hallway and the C.O.s jumping in and kicking them. The rules and regulations state, “Once they retreat, that’s it.” The way the rules and regulations are set up, an inmate can punch you in the face, then hold his hands up, and you can’t do nothing. But of course they don’t follow those rules.
Did you personally experience violence or abuse from your colleagues?
They used to always put me on the undesirable posts. They call it “being on the burn.” I was on the burn. They were trying to get back at me cuz I wasn’t going along with the program. I’m not giving up the sex, I’m not hanging out, going to the parties. I’m not doing that.
When I first came on the job, you had to get on the bus from C76 [now the Eric M. Taylor Center] to the central building. When you get to the central building, you either get on the bus [off the island] or you get in your car.
After work one day, when I was getting ready to get off the bus, everybody’s laughing. I turn around and look to see why everyone’s laughing. The seat that I just got out of, [an officer] was sniffing. Yes, that nasty seat. I looked at him and said, “You’re disgusting.” That’s where it started. He kept trying to make little moves here and there, but that’s where it started. The way I looked at him and I said, “That’s disgusting.”
Not too soon after that, I was six hours into my tour. I was waiting for relief [an officer to relieve her so that she could take a break].
I kept calling the captain, “Where’s my relief?” Then this guy comes. I said, “You my relief?” I was happy. He laughed and walked back up the stairs. He said, “Let the inmates relieve you.” I said, “Let your mother relieve you,” which I never should have said. He ran back down the gate. I was on the phone calling the captain, telling him I needed relief, I had an hour left to go. He snatched the phone, hit me with the phone. Everything went black. I just stood there. I remember him yelling at me after that. The outcome was [a] fractured finger and blood on my face.
I’ve never been a battered woman, but I went right into battered mode because the only thing I was concerned about was losing my job. Mind you, I didn’t hit him. I was just beat up by him. Because I said something back to the officer, that was “actions unbecoming of an officer” and I had to work three days for free. After that day, I would never argue or have words with any officer. Period.
What happened to Kalief Browder has raised the profile about violence at Rikers. How common is a case like his?
They always slap the adolescents up. They call them “animalescents.” They’ve been beating them for years. And my thing is, they’re still fragile. Adolescents are still fragile. They’re still growing, mentally. They’re destroying them. And when you put them in solitary confinement, you’re messing with their mental health.
Kalief Browder was my nephew at 16. They locked my nephew up at Rikers for a year and a half. Bail was $10,000; they said he robbed somebody. Other guys admitted they did it, they were on their way upstate. I had letters saying that my nephew didn’t do it. I threatened to go to Al Sharpton and the media. Next thing I know, they brought my nephew back to court and wanted him to cop out to time served. And he copped out, he wanted to get out. He was in there 18 months.
I used to work at the courts and hear how Legal Aid [attorneys] would tell 16-, 17-year-olds to cop out to ten years, seven years, for a first offense. They told them to cop out and if he don’t, he’s gonna get 25 to life. And the kid is so scared, he’s copping out. It’s like, Where’s your parent?
It’s the court system too. And Kalief said it himself, “I’m not the only one.” You got a bunch of Kalief Browders all over Rikers Island. It took that one reporter to do the article and get the attention, and his lawyer to press it. And now everybody wanna listen.
The City is talking about taking adolescents off the island—
Yeah, I think they should. You gotta give them something to do. Not just school. You put ’em in school and you tie ’em to a chair. What the hell? Would you do that to your kid? I know these ain’t your children, but that’s somebody else’s child.
So you think they shouldn’t be on Rikers?
No. I don’t think so.
You gotta give them something to do. Otherwise, they’re gonna fight. Those are your slashers. Those are the first ones to slice your face up.
Solitary confinement has been hitting headlines across the nation. In New York City, Commissioner Ponte has been reducing the numbers of people in segregation, while the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has claimed that violence has increased on the island. What are your thoughts on solitary?
It’s inhumane and it’s used as punishment. It’s used as a tool by some correction officers to get back at the inmates. If an inmate is hitting an officer, he’s got mental health problems and needs help, not solitary confinement.
At the end of the day, you’re not fixing the problem. You put them in, take them out, but you’re not giving them nothing to do. You’re still putting in a bunch of people in a confined area with nothing to do.
What needs to happen?
Stop blaming [Mayor] de Blasio and Ponte. This has been going on since the ’80s. This ain’t just started.
For starters, fix the administration. Put in plants and have a separate department that the commissioner and nobody knows who they are. You’ve gotta start with the administration first. Then when you get to the jails, it’s the warden on down. The division chiefs under the commissioner. You wanna know how that officer got his face slashed? His partner brought the scalpels in. That’s what happened with the 17 [officers] that got arrested. You got another officer bringing in all these drugs, now he wanna capitalize it in a book. Meanwhile, you got officers that got hurt.
The mayor recently announced his support for closing Rikers. That’s also the recommendation of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. As someone who worked at both Rikers and the borough jails, do you think shuttering Rikers would stem the violence and abuse in the system?
To me, it seems political. It seems like people are just jumping on the bandwagon. Why would you close Rikers Island, unleash these people on the street with no jobs, no place to live, and messed up in the head and no plan? I don’t think that the people making these decisions to close Rikers should be in the position to make the decision when they have never stood in the prison, in uniform, with a key in their hand locking the gate, sitting amidst a bunch of inmates.
I see everybody blaming Rikers Island for Kalief Browder, but Kalief Browder should never have been arrested.
They should not close Rikers. They should take that money that they want to [use to] close Rikers and invest it back into the community with some jobs and some housing. It doesn’t make sense.
Where are they gonna put people? Open up a jail inside or behind Gracie Mansion? That might work, right?
So you’re saying that closing Rikers isn’t going to stop the culture of violence?
It’s the entire judicial system. You get a new building, you’re gonna bring the same mess to the new building.