Photo via Flickr user bohemiandolls

A Former Social Worker Recalls the Horrors She Witnessed at Rikers

Mary Buser worked at Rikers' notorious solitary confinement unit during the 90s, where she encountered injustice and brutality firsthand. She talked with us about the failings of the criminal justice system.

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Sep 23 2015, 4:05pm

Photo via Flickr user bohemiandolls

VICE is looking inside America's prison system in the week leading up to our Special Report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, Sept. 27 at 9pm EST to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.

"If I yell for help, they'll hurt you—badly. Let go, Michael, let go," Mary Buser pleaded with a 22-year-old schizophrenic who had lunged at her for a kiss—not because she felt afraid for herself, but because she was scared for him.

She was afraid that if the Correctional Officers outside of the cell saw what Michael was doing, they would beat him severely. Mary knew that his medication hadn't had time to kick in yet; she also knew that the officers outside wouldn't care. A sudden noise brought Michael back to himself. "Startled, Michael released me and muttered apologies," Mary says. This was an average afternoon for Mary as a mental health care worker on Rikers Island.

Read More: Crocheted with Staples: A Look at the Emotional Artwork of Female Inmates

Mary Buser looks more like a sweet, mild mannered elementary school teacher than a jailhouse therapist. Her smile is comforting, and her eyes are warm. Sitting nestled in her cozy living room as her dog, Cha-Cha, happily plays by her feet, she recounts for me horror after horror from the eye-opening few years she spent as a social worker trying to help the forlorn and distressed detainees on Rikers Island.

Mary says that the first brutality she witnessed was a correctional officer getting retribution on an inmate. "This guy who had pins in his arm had complained about another officer. When he was transferred to our jail, the COs pointed him out. They said, 'That's the guy,' and I watched him dragged into a room. When he came out all the pins had been stomped out of his arm." The officers were usually very careful not to let what they called the "civilian staff" see the violence, but this time Mary was able to peek through a small window and catch the scene.

When I got to the top of the stairs on the very first day, there was a trail of blood on the floor.

What she'd seen at the Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC), the women's jail on Rikers, had disturbed her, but this was very different. "I had seen women get dragged down the hallway," she says. "That was disturbing, but I was still an intern then."

Mary had felt a sense of safety with the women at RMSC, but she was reluctant when offered a position at the George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC), another of the ten jails on the island: GMDC is a men's jail. "I didn't want to go," says Mary, "I felt comfortable with women. I knew men were charged with much more serious crimes, and I was a little concerned initially about my safety." Her old supervisor, Janet, a woman she looked up to, convinced her that the work was the same. "I was nervous. When we got to the top of the stairs on the very first day, there was a trail of blood on the floor. My supervisor just chuckled and said 'Welcome to GMDC.'"

Mary and a supervisor. Photo courtesy of Mary Buser.

By the time Mary was transferred again to the Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC), another jail on the island, she was already a veteran of mental health work. "What was downplayed was the fact that connected to OBCC was the five-story, 500-cell punitive segregation unit: the Bing," says Mary. She thought she could handle it since she was working under an experienced chief, but two weeks after she was transferred, the chief went out on medical leave and left Mary alone.

She worked in that building for about eight months, three of which she spent as the acting chief of mental health. "There were many things leading up to my resignation, but I would say that the final straw was solitary confinement. [That's] where I realized that there was nothing of value left for me to do and, in fact, I really couldn't be a part of this thing anymore."

I could no longer ignore the things that went on in these people's lives, or the brutality.

In her forthcoming book, Lockdown on Rikers, Mary paints a picture of famous jail during the late 1990s, when crime was going down along with the population at the jail. During that time period, Giuliani's broken windows policy meant Rikers was largely filled with people arrested for misdemeanors. For her, Mary says, one of the most telling things had been explaining to her family and friends the difference between a prison and a jail: The latter is where the accused are held until trial or for short sentences of less than a year, while prison is where one goes to serve any longer sentence. Mary had started to see what she called " the unfairness of all of it all. My focus was on my therapy, my work, but I could no longer ignore the things that went on in these people's lives, or the brutality."

"Before Rikers, I believed all the things I think most Americans believe, the principles we were taught at a very young age: Everyone is entitled to a fair trial by a jury of their peers, innocent until proven guilty, and a right to a speedy trial. I thought that with few exceptions that the masses were dealt with fairly." Because of what she witnessed, however, Mary became very cynical and would leave the room in social settings when people she knew were discussing criminal justice, Giuliani's reforms, or even a blip on the news about an incident at Rikers.

In a legal sense, these people were innocent. People could spend years waiting for their 'day in court'.

"I started to become very aware of the whole bail issue," Mary explains. "In a legal sense, these people were innocent. For lack of, in many cases, under $1000, people could spend years waiting for their 'day in court'." She began to understand why so many inmates "copped" to a plea or a reduced charge. "I knew many like Kalief Browder," she says, referring to a young man who spent three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of any crime, who died by suicide this summer. "Stuck on the island for some small thing, [stealing] a backpack or something like that, beaten, thrown into solitary. He was another one who was waiting for his day in court." She says she saw lawyers advising the inmates just to "cop" to any plea so they could just get out.

Mary says that the inmates would confide in her once they realized that their words were confidential with her. "Many of them would cry," she recalls, "even the ones that would posture the most in the hallways." It was during those sessions that she really learned about the brutality—not just from other inmates, but from the corrections officers as well. She was often begged by the imamates not to say a word: "Shh, shh, please Miss B, Please don't say anything, please." Mary could see their bruises and marks, but she stressed that not all the correctional officers, or even most of them, were criminal. "Many of [the COs] carried out their jobs honorably and with integrity and tried to do good by the inmates, but where they failed was not intervening with the brutish guards."

Some of Mary's badges. Photo by Alex Brook Lynn.

Mary would use a pay phone on the other side of the bridge, off the island, to phone in anonymous tips to the Board of Correction. "A colleague of mine—he was new—wrote down his frank impressions of some of the brutality he saw, and he was told by the deputy warden that he shouldn't consider himself safe anymore in that jail." The young doctor put in a transfer. "Of course, that's what he told me; it would only be considered hearsay."

Mary says that the officers could make life very difficult for someone they viewed as a threat. "You could wait a very long time for a door to get unlocked," she says. In a giant concrete box filled with locked doors, that could present a big problem in terms of safety and the ability to do one's job. Her supervisors told her that the mere presence of civilian workers there deterred a lot of the abuse and that they were doing good work there. However, the therapists and mental health workers had to keep their heads down if they wanted to help the inmates at all.

If [the inmates] had no mental issues beforehand, [solitary confinement] would induce it.

By the time Mary left, she was suffering from something called secondary trauma. "I always thought, 'What is secondary trauma compared to the primary trauma?'" But as time went on, Mary could hardly bear to hear of more horror. Her book opens with a scene in the Bing where she is trying to determine whether a young man who is banging his head against a wall is really in danger of killing himself or not. She was responsible for observing the suicidal inmates and figuring out who to pull out of solidary confinement and who to leave in. Mary's job was "to go to these cell doors where people were covered in feces, babbling incoherently, or standing and banging their heads," to ascertain how severe their psychosis had become. According to Mary, "If [the inmates] had no mental issues beforehand, [the Bing] would induce it."

Solitary confinement on Rikers was not only reserved for "the worst of the worst," Mary says. During her employment at Rikers, the jail was packed. "They ferried in barges to deal with the overflow." A corrections officer once casually said to her that they need more General Population beds, and his orders were to "fill up the Bing." When she questioned him he simply replied, "Orders are orders," and Mary was dumbfounded. The officer shrugged and said that he would find some "poor shmo," to write up for something. "I would say it was torture," Mary laments.

She began to jump at loud noises, expecting the worst, hearing shrieks where there were laughs. "I remember my first Christmas after I left," Mary says, "I no longer had a beeper attached to my hip..." But Mary couldn't forget what she had seen, especially in the Bing. "What happened was I kept getting so many flashbacks, conversations running thorough my head, the people, the faces... " She wasn't sure if she wanted to revisit all of it. "I needed a few years to decompress; no, that's not the right word... recover," she says, "I always thought in the back of my mind that I wouldn't forget this: I'm going to do right by [the inmates] someday, somehow. I can't right now, but someday I will."

I would say it was torture.

The population at Rikers has gone down since Mary left. But reports of abuses have become frequent news items: a "fight club" where guards made inmates battle each other for sport, stories of sexual abuse, and the ill treatment of transgender and juvenile detainees. Now, all of a sudden, New York cares. The heavily reported deaths of Andy Henriquez and Jerome Murdough—who both died due to lack of medical attention in solitary confinement—along with the suicide of Kalief Browder have stirred city denizens into action. In addition, Mayor De Blasio has vowed to clean up Rikers, unveiling a plan to allow low-level, nonviolent offenders to be placed under "supervised release," rather than to be jailed if they can't afford bail.

It has been fifteen years since Mary resigned from her position at New York's most notorious jail. She has been writing most of those years. "I have bins and bins downstairs of writing that didn't make it into the book." The political climate wasn't right for a book like this in 2000, she says. "Giuliani could do no wrong back then. Publishers didn't think it would sell, and the quality of my manuscript was probably pretty bad." Mary has learned how to tell a story in order to tell this one.

Wanting to get as far away from the criminal justice system as possible, Mary works as an administrative assistant. But with Lockdown on Rikers set to come out later this month, Mary will be a strong voice in the current call to put an end to solitary confinement and bail reform in New York City. She has thrown her hat back in the ring, but this time her hands aren't tied.