‘Club Fed it ain’t’: Former inmate shares his experience on Rikers Island

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Island living: Rikers style

Rikers has housed Harvey Weinstein, Tupac Shakur, Sid Vicious, Son of Sam — and Miss Maxwell maybe has similar accommodations in federal lockup. Rikers grad William Mersey, the former cellmate of the former Jeffrey Epstein, giftwraps the place as follows:

Mersey: “Welcome to Rikers Island. Club Fed it ain’t.

“Many inmates get prosecuted in more than one jurisdiction for essentially the same crime. Ferried between jailhouses to serve another term on different but related arrests is a s - - t show.

“One day before my out date at MCC [Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Epstein was held] I was sent to Rikers. The routine: strip to your birthday suit, lift your [ahem], squat and cough. I was handcuffed, ankle-chained, walked to a vehicle.

“After five hours in a holding cell it was carry the usual bedroll, mini toothbrush, overused towel. My rectangular space was among 84 single bunks, no partitions. The bathroom, 10 johns along the wall. Sinks several yards long. Multiple faucets. Five shower heads, no partitions. Windows stuck open. My first night was winter’s coldest. Everybody wrapped in blankets. Towels used like turbans.

“I had to sweep and mop the unit and bathroom. In terms of bodily functions, it was a pain in the ass (no pun intended). Johns with no doors. We’d drape sheets over the 4-foot partitions between. To curb homosexuality or friction from guys checking out each others’ junk, we had to shower in our underwear. Constant thrum of overhead heaters drowned out anyone’s flatulence.

“My permanent gang-banging unit was a floor below where, conversely, the facility actually dispensed razors to inmates. A Rikers prisoner must request a shaver during morning hours only, and return it within 15 minutes. Why prisoners can have razors — who knows — while the battery cover in a radio is removed because that, too, could become a shiv.

Mersey claims that Rikers is not “Club Fed.”
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Dental floss. Not available at Rikers. Because of a broken tooth, I slid sugar packets or pill packaging edges to remove whatever was stuck. They asked, ‘This your first time in jail?’ One dug around the cuff of his khakis and extracted a long thread which he handed me with ‘Here’s how we do it at Rikers.’ I carefully kept that string. Inmates learn to make do with nothing.

“It’s a rough group. Once two guys showering with a grate separating them from the hallway shouted ‘Yo! You bangin’?!’ meaning was I a gang member. Later, up walked a young Hispanic with ‘Yo! Rape anybody? You a sex offender?’ It was Welcome to the Unit. Guys who’d asked the questions turned out to be Trinitarian gang members.

“While I was being led through there were inmates who’d apparently had a little history with my escort officer, so they shouted something disrespectful. The insult rolled off his back but it didn’t with a few of his jailhouse colleagues. I heard a scuffle and two seconds later a female officer fired an order my way: ‘Don’t turn around!’ I got the message. The cellblock didn’t need a witness to what was going on with the inmate who’d shouted the insult.

“And my new celly turned out to be that guy!

Mersey was sent to Rikers Island from Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Mersey was sent to Rikers Island from Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Rikers officers understood some need to be lenient. Good reason. If one irritated an inmate by being overly disciplinary, he could severely be eff’d up before help arrived. Some guy from Howard Beach, wanting to deliver a message, looked to tangle with one escorting officer by yelling, ‘Think it’s time for us to be on the news?’ The officer managed a weak smile.

“Rikers had an availability of drugs,” Mersey said. “At MCC, guys did K2 and suboxone, commonly called deuce and chinita, and a barrel of home-brewed hooch. Rikers was marijuana and Lyrica, a fibromyalgia med, which inmates ground up and snorted to get high. Marijuana was ubiquitous. Rikers had serious druggies. When the officer called ‘key’ (which meant line up for your methadone) almost the entire unit queued.

“Federal prisons do not give detainees sugar. Authorities don’t want the boys brewing hooch, which requires sugar. That’s the rule. But the reality is that doesn’t stop them.” 

Part 2 tomorrow.

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