CEO Note: The Invisible Ones

I’ve continued to reflect on the news highlighted earlier this week across CASES communications channels: the death of a 17th person at Rikers Island this year, the most in a year since 2013, again with details all the more terrible for being so unsurprising: a 28-year-old man, reportedly with a history of serious mental illness and no prior convictions, in his 16th month awaiting resolution of an arrest in June 2021, found unresponsive in a Rikers mental health observation unit with a sheet wrapped around his neck. The man, Erick Tavira, joined 15 other Black and Brown men and one Black woman among the 17 people who have lost their lives at Rikers this year.  

In my early weeks as CASES CEO, I’ve also been reflecting on my own experience with people living with serious mental illnesses inside the criminal legal system. I had already been in prison for 14 years when I met John. I won’t say that I got to know him. It might be most accurate to say that we existed together for a year in the same prison dormitory. John had a bunk in a dorm that we both shared with approximately 30-40 other Black and Brown men. 

John, like so many living with mental illness in the criminal legal system existed but was invisible to most of those around him. I knew John was living with a mental illness because I would see him and a group of other men waiting on the long daily medication lines in the main corridor of the prison. Many of these men stared blankly into space and moved slowly and deliberately; others displayed exaggerated repetitive movements that I now know to be the extrapyramidal side effects associated with extensive use of older antipsychotics. But all patiently waited. Many of the other prisoners, myself included, would walk by on our way to the gym or during other coordinated facility movements and joke about the “7:30 med line.” But mostly we went about our daily routines as though these men did not exist. Many prison staff treated these men the same way but with a clearer tenor and tone of contempt for the men’s perceived inability to “cope.” 

John’s routine was simple. He would be one of the first prisoners up and ready for the daily three meals at the chow hall. He would return to the dorm after each meal, drink copious amounts of coffee, and smoke the rolled Tops tobacco cigarettes that prisoners smoked when they could not afford regular cigarettes. Very occasionally, he would be motioned by the CO on duty to the front desk to pick up a piece of mail, when it was handed out at the beginning of the 3-11 shift change. I remember this because we all waited eagerly for mail to be given out at the 3-11 shift change, so I always noticed when someone received mail who normally did not. John was one of them.   

John seemed as content as one could be in the mundane daily routine that defines so much of prison life, so it was jarring when we heard the crackle of chatter on the Correctional Officers’ walkie-talkies and the rush to shut the prison down one early afternoon. We were all rushed back to our dorms and made to stand in our cubicles and wait several hours. I could see the sergeants and other prison staff moving in and out of our dorm speaking in hushed tones with our assigned officers.  

Soon word spread among us that there was an “attempt” in the gym. We knew that to mean that someone had attempted to commit suicide. We learned later that evening when John returned to the unit that he had attempted to take his life. This was the first time that I really saw John. Some of us acknowledged him with a few words of encouragement and compassion when he returned to the dorm that night. But John hardly looked any different than he did when he left the dorm early that morning. Quiet, placid, and unreadable.  

In the ensuing days, John fell back into his daily routine—he was up early, out first for chow, smoked his cigarettes and drank his coffee. I even thought I saw him smile a bit more in those days. All was as all had been. We all went back to our own coping routines and John went back to existing. A week later, when we were locked down again and word had spread that another “attempt” had occurred, I felt a pang in my stomach when I learned that it was again John. This time he had succeeded. I later learned that John was found hanging from a makeshift noose in a side corridor located off the main gymnasium, not dissimilar to how I expect Erick Tavira was found last weekend at Rikers. 

I never learned the circumstances surrounding how John’s suicide occurred, but I felt both guilt for my lack of engagement and anger at how this could happen in a “correctional” facility where you could hardly move down the hallway without a written pass or being harassed by COs questioning where you were going. Also, ashamedly, I must also say that I am not certain that “John” was the man’s real name. It is the name I am giving him here to acknowledge both his personhood and his invisibility.  

The practice of this kind of invisibility is an obvious, essential component of the criminal legal system, the locking up of mostly Black and Brown men and women away from society, which with its acceptance of this invisibility abets the churning of some of the most vulnerable community members through jails like Rikers Island. Invisibility has been increasingly on my mind as I’ve reflected on the death of Erick Tavira at Rikers last weekend and the others that preceded him. There are many questions to be asked, but one I keep coming back to is: who saw Erick and all the others?  

I ask this not in connection with any pending investigation, but as a framing for what I’m seeing in my visits to CASES program teams across the city and my understanding of one of our organization’s absolute fundamental commitments: to build relationship with people otherwise at risk for invisibility, to know their names and their stories, to be with them in the day-to-day work of healing and recovery.