Part Two: Our Visit with Mark!
We were led to an old gymnasium, decorated with an odd juxtaposition of colorful murals of the NYC skyline – including a tragically ironic depiction of the Statue of Liberty – and plastic chairs arranged in neat rows, which were sorted by the number of seats for visitors. We were pointed to a set of three chairs across a round plastic table facing a lone seat – a setup designed to ensure our being physically separate from Mark. We were allowed to hold his hands (and did so – the entire time) but couldn’t move closer to him or sit on the floor near him.
We waited in anticipation for a few moments, and then, suddenly, there was the lovely, bearded man walking slowly across the room towards us, a wide smile breaking his somber face as he saw us. The three of us engulfed him in an amazing group hug (a corrections officer chuckled that we were going to suffocate him), and then long, lovely individual hugs before sitting down. His hugs are still super wonderful and feel as they always have – teddybearish, heartfelt, and huge. He looked a bit thinner (by, he later told us, about 8lbs), but bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked, and ostensibly healthy overall.
We started out conveying individual greetings and messages from a plethora of supporters who had asked us to give their regards. We told him about the solidarity actions outside Rector Coopers’ house and which are ongoing outside of Trinity Wall Street. We related the story of a comrade who had been turned away by corrections officers on a previous visit due to insufficient ID, and how a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles had left him so frustrated that he had three-quarters of the DMV pumping their fists in the air shouting “[expletive] the system!” And we talked about the amazing community meeting that empowered the Otter Solidarity Team to set up his visits, and all the collaborative organizing throughout the community that has gone into supporting him while he’s gone. He was especially moved by this: “That might make this all worthwhile, in some way,” he said.
And Mark shared quite a bit with us – in fact, he spoke about as much as the three of us did, combined. We’d gone in somewhat concerned that he would be withdrawn, but found him to be extremely present and coherent. What he told us, though, was at times difficult to hear. He described feeling that he had left part of himself behind when he was taken to jail, and explained that “in here, this isn’t the real Mark Adams.” He expressed some anxiety about being able to rejoin his full self upon release, but it felt to us like the stories we brought from the outside had already relit – at least, momentarily – Mark’s internal Roman-candle-in-waiting. He grinned when we assured him that the Mark we know and love is very much outside the barbed-wire fences, in our hearts and conversations and on our signs, and will be waiting for him along with the rest of us when he gets out.
He said that he knew our visit would leave him happy for the next few hours but then he would go back to how he usually is. He spends most of his time in his bunk, reading, doesn’t go outside and tries to keep to himself.
He’s received quite a bit of written correspondence – so much, in fact, that the corrections officers remarked to him that he was getting mail “like Lil Wayne did when he was in Rikers!” Some of the letters came from quite a distance, and Mark said he was particularly tickled by some childrens’ drawings of the D17 courtroom – a big round judge, and Mark sitting on a bench with a big beard. He again reiterated that he doesn’t often feel up to writing back, and we assured him that every time this statement from him has been passed along, everyone’s all “pssh” and that he shouldn’t feel any sense of obligation.
An interesting and useful bit that came up: he loves all of the books he has been receiving but he doesn’t know who any of them are from because the packages are opened and discarded before he receives the books. In the future, if you are sending him a book and want him to know it’s from you, write a note inside the cover for him. He also voiced some amused bafflement at the amount of communist literature he had received: “whoever keeps sending those books – I get it!” he told us grinningly. He stores the books in a large tupperware under his bed- it is completely full and he is trying to figure out what to do with the surplus books. There is no library at Rikers and if they get left around, books often wander off with the corrections officers.
Mark brought up his hunger strike, and how it has helped him bring his protest to Rikers. “I came to Occupy Wall Street to march and hold signs, and I can’t do that in here,” he explained. His hunger strike has brought him the power to fight back against the trauma and disempowerment of his sudden abduction, and to politicize his time in jail. The heightened medical attention he has received has brought him many people – doctors, counselors – with whom to discuss his politics and Occupy Wall Street. We shared some of the community’s concerns about his hunger strike – related to his well-being, the outside-jail politics of it, and the impact it may have on the OWS community – and he welcomed the “honest” feedback and promised to consider the concerns. “I’m not one of those comrades who won’t listen,” he promised, and we assured him that we already knew that about him.
Mark described his perception that officers at Rikers were somewhat taken by surprise by his adamant refusal to agree to any normal medical treatments given to inmates upon admittance (many of us already know of Mark’s avowed dislike of allopathy) and even more by his decision to pursue a hunger strike during his incarceration. One of the results is he sees a doctor twice a day, a different doctor each visit, which gives him many people to talk to about his statement. He is on some semblance of a juice fast, but the only juice available comes from powder – so, it’s basically flavored sugar water. The healthiest thing he has access to is three bottles of Powerade he’s allowed from the commissary each week. His sugar levels are being monitored by doctors to keep his glucose at healthy-ish levels. He told us of the awful food available to inmates, and even if he wasn’t on a hunger strike there wouldn’t be much for him to eat. All meals involve mostly meat dishes. There are two options- regular, and kosher/halal, but no vegetarian or vegan choices, and what few vegetables accompany the meal would not constitute appropriate nutrition on their own.
We tried to run the visiting schedule by him, but Mark has enjoyed the surprise of not knowing who is coming, and trusts our judgment. “I mean, you guys know who my friends are, right?” he said with a big old Mark Adams grin on his face. And he knows who his friends are, too, and feels very loved.
We were given no warnings as to how much time had passed during the course of our visit, and seemingly out of the blue, the C.O. who had led us in handed us back our boarding passes. We looked at him quizzically, not ready to understand what that signified. “Time to go,” he explained. And that was it. We took our time for another minute of loving squeezes, and watched Mark shuffle back to the door through which he came (we caught him making a goofy face at a C.O. on his way out), as we were escorted back out the door we had entered, out past security and onto the bus. For all the hours of waiting and negotiating the Rikers bureaucracy to see Mark for that one bittersweet hour, the exit was rapid and painless. By around 5:30 we were back on the city bus and headed off of the island.
The contrast was stark, and tragic: we returned to our lives of freedom and companionship; he to his of confinement and isolation. We decompress, together, in a comfortable living room, while Mark – along with 14,000 other Rikers inmates, and another 7 million across the country – are left alone to process the injustice and dehumanization perpetuated by mass incarceration.