At 6:30 in the morning on Saturday, we met at the Queens Q100 bus stop moments before the heat struck. The bus comes frequently about every 20 minutes, but usually earlier than the scheduled time. We piled on with a group of predominantly female-presenting people carrying coffee, newspapers, and magazines with some children tagging along. It was an easy 20-minute drive out through Queens. We took the time to check in with one another, preparing mentally and emotionally for what we expected to be terribly oppressive conditions, and also to learn a song with which we serenaded Mark.
The theme park-style signs surprised us with retro lettering inviting us to “Enjoy your visit to Rikers!” which is situated just a few meters from LaGuardia Airport. The idea of people flying freely around the world right over the heads of 14,000 trapped individuals seemed like torture. Another sign read: “Bullying or intimidation of any kind by anyone of any age will not be tolerated. Period.”
The atmosphere going in was unexpectedly positive, complete with some smiling corrections officers; the first locker room was an open atrium, sunshine pouring in. We needed quarters to deposit our things in the locker and surprisingly we got them back at the end. We went through the first security check like standard airport scans, removing shoes, nothing metal permitted. Unfortunately, the harmonica we brought was not allowed in as a gift.
There are several boarding gates for the various housing centers of the prison complex, each with roughly 35 seats and 1 TV. The one to go to Mark is EMTC, and Fox News was on. We must have our photos taken and fingerprints scanned for our passport for the day before boarding a shuttle bus, so we tracked down a check-in desk with attending corrections officers, since the one in our gate was unattended. They asked each of us our relationship to Mark. We told them definitively, “Friend.” We went back to our gate, and waited for not even 10 minutes, boarded the bus to the Eric M. Taylor Center, the second stop.
We noted the spools of barbed wire atop the relatively flimsy chain-link fence lining all the grey buildings. All the female-presenting visitors, predominantly of color, were very chatty and upbeat, laughing with the officers, making bunny ears on the bus driver. Children played with the security trays on their heads. A few sitting nearby in the same waiting room asked us if it was our first time and made jokes about the different officers who check the inmate packages. They were going to visit partners, sons, husbands, and were very familiar with the system. It all felt oddly normalized. They said, “Saturday morning is the best time to visit, you just breeze right through.”
We went through another security check and then individual checks in a private room, asked to pull our socks down, unzip and lower our pants, run our fingers along our underwear and pull our pockets inside-out. Female-assigned visitors should know that it is a requirement to wear a bra, though underwire will set off the metal detectors. One visitor told us a story of one time forgetting to wear theirs when visiting their son and consequently forced to meet in a room separated by glass.
We waited in another room, this time similar to a hospital waiting room, for about 20 minutes facing a large TV blaring pop news about Tom Cruise. Those who had visited many times told us, “No matter how early you get here, they never bring them out until 9:00 a.m. on Saturdays.”
Soon enough we were all called and led into a colorful basketball gym with rows of plastic chairs in every Crayola color. There was a caged children’s corner with an impressive mural of characters like Dora the Explorer and Big Bird, of Super Grover holding up an NYPD badge in the sky. Next to the officer surveillance booth which sits behind a tinted window, was a mural of the Manhattan skyline with the Twin Towers still intact.
A CO (corrections officer) shouted, “Go home everyone! It’s too hot!” to the laughter and mock defiance of some visitors and indifference of others.
Then, solemn men in grey DOC jumpsuits began to file in and there was our Mark, not looking up to see us until about 20 feet away and then the beard slowly revealed a smile. We pulled him into massive loving hugs but were quickly told we had to sit down. We grasped his hands across the tiny round table for the entire visit. At first Mark seemed very small, he kept his head down and tears streamed from his eyes while he expressed his sense of loss to us. He said he doesn’t like who he is in here – that he feels he lost something the day he was taken to prison. He said he has not discovered anything good about himself from being here, that “Nothing good should live in here.” He wants to leave this feeling behind when he comes out. It was very hard to see his obvious pain but we were encouraged by Mark’s awareness of his emotions and his openness to share with us, both the dark and the light. We discussed what skills he has developed to survive and get through this time and we assured him that he will find the old Mark again, and that he won’t have to bear the weight by himself, that he will have all his friends to hug any last bit of sadness out of him when he is free. We promised all the support, rehabilitation and love he may need when he rejoins us.
We sensed that he really wanted to talk so we mainly listened and chimed in when it felt right. He quickly perked up and started to make eye contact again, his face still holding a healthy glow and the twinkle in his eyes has not faded. He talked a lot about being hungry and looking forward to eating again but he is dedicated to his hunger strike, sharing his food with other inmates at mealtimes. The doctors are attentive and concerned so he has two visits with them a day and is being well looked-after. He has the support of one doctor in particular who sympathizes with the symbolic meaning of the strike and tells Mark it will help him get rid of toxins. He has lost some weight, about 8-10 lbs but said he gains some of it back in water weight quickly. He mostly keeps to himself, stays inside reading and sleeping. He avoids going out to the yard for exercise because of some dangerous fights after which he has witnessed people come back bloodied with injuries. Although, we were very happy to hear he has a bunch of people looking out for him through individual OWS members’ connections with gang members and skinheads. There is a team of unlikely guardians watching his back.
Mark did describe concerns with his cellmate who has been transferred with him several times, even though inmates are usually transferred individually. He described him as being very inquisitive, asking for Mark’s phone number and email so they can be in touch when they get out. He asks lots of questions about Mark’s activities and politics. Mark chooses to remain quiet and keep to himself.
He is getting a reputation for the amount of letters he receives from all around the country – Texas and Alabama and Oklahoma – and even books from Vancouver, Canada. One CO cheered him on once he found out he was from Occupy Wall Street. Mark loves getting letters and he even received a lock of hair from Diego and relished its softness but he discourages others from sending hair. Rather, he encourages everyone to grow their hair out as he hopes to grow his beard out to reach his navel like in its glory days when he lived in Virginia.
He has received so many books that his small plastic bin is now full, but is very thankful for what everyone has given although he had hoped for more Anarchist theory rather than Communist. He is currently reading a book about the Spanish Civil War and made jokes about how the anarchists are criticized by the author for sitting in circles and talking too much rather than fighting the war. Mark is disappointed at the lack of a library at Rikers. He was hoping he could leave his books there when finished, and when he leaves. He noted that books left around are thrown away by COs and staff rather than shared with inmates.
He is starting to write back, primarily to strangers from across the country who are writing him. He would like to get more envelopes but hopes no one will be disappointed if they don’t hear back from him. We assured him that no one expects anything in return.
He was very curious to hear about what’s going on with OWS, and loved to hear about the protests at Trinity and the sleep-ins. We told him how everyone’s Facebook profile photos and Twitter avatars are now mostly either his face or red squares. He was delighted and surprised to hear his Facebook page is still active and that it’s filled with messages of love and solidarity. Keep posting on there so he can read through them all when he gets out!
He hates to be away from OWS and plans to jump right back into actions with his “family” although he hopes he can contribute without getting arrested. He is very worried about his open court cases where he will face the same DA and judge who sentenced him. He has gone to court for 1 case already while in prison and he described it as a painful 13-hour long process that he does not want to endure again.
Overall, Mark was extremely optimistic about getting out, and brightly announced he’s already done 15 days, already talking about the party he wants to have – full of food (though we reminded him he should probably carefully ease back into eating,) his friends, and Care Bears. He misses his bicycle but was relieved to hear that it was rescued by TimesUp! and looks forward to riding again. He spoke fondly of his going-away party at the Living Theatre and joked how the theater people there were confused by an anarchist party where people dance to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. He is so thankful for this night and thinks back on it with much joy. He loved that there is an Otter Solidarity Group coordinating support efforts and laughed after hearing about the detailed forms people had to fill out to be able to visit him.
There will be little way of knowing when or where he will be released – which, if all goes well, will be on the 15th of July. From what Mark has heard, releases usually happen after the 5pm dinner, sometime in the middle of the night, after having to sit in an extremely cramped transfer cell for several hours. Meg, his lawyer, has promised to be on-call 24/7 to track his whereabouts so we can all be present to shower him with love.
There are no clocks in the room and we were not allowed watches unless it was for an inmate so we couldn’t discern how much time we had with Mark. We went in shortly after 9:00 and had our watches back on by 10:15. It seemed to go by so quickly.
We sang Mark this song (to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelejuah”):
They say Mark Adams ain’t free
but that just doesn’t ring true to me
’cause everywhere I go I see Mark Adams
They locked him up and it wasn’t fair
but he kept his spirit and he kept his beard hair
and everywhere the people rise for Mark Adams!
We love Mark Adams
We love Mark Adams
We love Mark Adams
We love Mark Adams
(repeat as long as needed)
Mark was clearly moved and said no one had ever written him a song before. He smiled from ear to ear and thanked us.
Like the thoughtful, caring being he is, Mark summoned the energy to be a gracious host. He thanked us for going through the process to visit him and took the time to ask us each how we were doing and wanted to hear about our lives as well. He remembered that each of has been out of town recently and wanted to hear about our trips.
Before we knew it, we were asked to finish up. We asked if there is anything he wants us to do, to bring. He does need some envelopes for writing letters because he’s only allowed one trip a week to the commissary and can only buy so many. Also, he could use white underwear (boxer-briefs) because all inmates wear underwear in the shower. White is the only color accepted by the DOC. He looks forward to the surprise of his guests each time and trusts his solidarity network with decision-making.
We embraced him once more telling him we loved him and that we’ll see him soon when he is free! He walked through the gym without looking back. His face began to cloud over again as he stepped further and further away. By the end of our visit, it felt so familiar with us all laughing and talking about the future, it seemed like he would just walk out with us and head straight to a protest.
Saying goodbye left a sharp pain. We got our things from the locker in silence and then hugged each other. One friendly visitor from before asked how our friend was and they shared that their son was fine but the brightness of their earlier mood was now darkened. The bus ride back was much quieter as we all gazed at those grey impassive walls barring us from our loved ones. We took time afterwards to meet and process our visit, what we noticed about Mark, what we remembered, our own feelings and thoughts about freedom. We schemed designs for Mark Adams t-shirts and how we could construct a Care Bear-covered vehicle to collect him in and deliver him to the love and freedom that await him.
Keep the letters and the love coming! He feels it and sends it back with every fiber in his body.
With solidarity and rage,