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Can Cecily McMillan Be a Representative for Prisoners?

The activist leaves Rikers with horror stories from within. Her message illustrates how others are silenced.

by Natasha Lennard
Jul 3 2014, 10:45am

Drawing by Molly Crabapple

Cecily McMillan served 58 days in Rikers Island prison. During that short sentence, she saw too much; it was 58 days too long.

The activist and New School grad student returned to freedom (relative freedom — she still faces five more years probation) with a set of horror stories from inside. They were all the more terrible, McMillan stressed, because on Rikers Island, they were commonplace.

“On the inside, I discovered a world where words like ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ don’t even exist,” she told press.

One of the friends McMillan made while in prison, an inmate known as "Jack," died in the hospital after allegedly being denied treatment for a day as she coughed up blood and chunks of her liver, having suffered from chronic illness and being given a very high dose of methadone. It was, according to McMillan, "a clear case of medical malpractice." Another fellow inmate had a tumor on her neck grow without treatment, and yet another fell in the shower and suffered a concussion after she was denied medical care.

McMillan is admirably using the attention garnered by her case — one of a few felony trials to emerge from Occupy Wall Street — to make public the plight of prisoners. The student has aptly acknowledged that her platform and privilege is rare for prisoners. She left Rikers with a list of demands from fellow inmates, including better access to medical care.

No one, least of all McMillan, sees her punishment as among the US justice system's most egregious, unjust as her treatment has been (she was convicted of assaulting an NYPD officer after she swung round and knocked him in the head in response to him grabbing her breast from behind).

We should join McMillan in the fight against a system that imprisons more people than any other country in the world, per se and per capita. We should help McMillan shine a light on the harsh realities of caged life. But we should be careful, too, not to lionize the young woman. While 2.5 million are currently behind bars, this is a time for collective action, not heroes. McMillan told press on her release, "I walked in with one movement, and return to you a representative of another." And while in solidarity with McMillan's sentiment, I urge caution on this point.

It may be a semantic point, but it's an important one. McMillan's work as a vessel for messages from inside, all too often silenced, is crucial. But she is not "representative" — she is a young white woman with a wealth of support and media attention. This is not representative of the vast majority of people inside.

McMillan serves her friends inside as an ally and a platform. "Representative" is problematic. But perhaps the term is sadly apt in this case; McMillan can speak where other inmates are silenced and caged. "Speak, if you can, speak," my favorite poet George Oppen reminds us. McMillan can speak, so she speaks for those who cannot. If only she didn't have to.

Cecily McMillan's Guilt: Injustice at Its Most Basic. Read more here.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter @natashalennard

Occupy Wall Street
prison reform
police misconduct
Cecily McMillan
Prisoners' rights
US Justice System