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05.17.11

Dominique Strauss-Kahn's Life in Jail at Rikers Island

Television producer Joe Halderman, who spent four months at Rikers Island after he pleaded guilty to blackmailing David Letterman, says Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s life in jail will be a far cry from his $3,000-a-night Sofitel Hotel suite.

Plus: the three women who will decide Strauss-Kahn's fate, Bernard-Henri Levy on why Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty, and Andrew Sullivan on the false moral certainty of defending the IMF chief.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn will not enjoy any luxuries on “The Rock.” He may be treated slightly better than the run-of-the-mill rape suspect—but not much. It is jail, not the Sofitel. No croissants, no café au lait.

After Judge Melissa Jackson denied his bail, Strauss-Kahn was, effectively, no longer the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and contender for the French presidency. He became property of New York City’s Department of Corrections. He left the “real world” and entered the system.

I know how this feels, because one year ago plus 12 days, I was also just another inmate being held by New York City’s Department of Corrections. Like Strauss-Kahn, I entered the system at Rikers. You probably remember the story, if not my name. I am the “Letterman guy,” which became my nickname on Rikers Island. A year ago May 4, I pleaded guilty to blackmailing David Letterman and was summarily sent to Rikers Island for four months. I will tell my story another day.

Last night, I would bet, was the worst night in Strauss-Kahn’s 62 years. Without question, the very worst night and day of a jail term is the first. And I don’t mean Strauss-Kahn’s weekend in a holding cell in Manhattan. Rikers is real jail.

My first night in Rikers, while brushing my teeth, I looked up and saw two guys sharing a homemade crack pipe.

The ride from downtown Manhattan to Rikers Island takes at least half an hour, depending on traffic. The highlight of the trip is crossing the 4,200-foot bridge from Queens to what some say is the largest penal colony on the planet. On any given day, the average inmate population on the island is about 14,000 men and a few hundred women. As you cross the bridge, you can see planes taking off and landing at La Guardia Airport, and boats heading to and from Long Island Sound (see map). It’s actually a captivating view; I remember thinking, “Very New York.”

When Strauss-Kahn crossed that bridge, he was delivered to Intake—or, as we inmates call it, “the bullpen.” It’s hours of excruciating tedium, endless processing, and bureaucratic shuffling that you can’t wait to be done with, except for the fact that when it’s over, you are officially in jail. Everyone must go through the bullpen. Everyone gets his picture taken, his fingers printed, his height and weight measured, and his urine sampled. The AIDS test is optional.

Strauss-Kahn would also have been strip-searched, having to turn his back to his jailers, squat, and lift the bottoms of his bare feet for inspection. (I never understood the foot thing.) Finally, hours after arriving on the island, the prisoner is led to his cell. Strauss-Kahn would have carried a thin gray blanket, two small white sheets, a small towel, a bar of prison-manufactured soap, a floppy plastic toothbrush, and some toilet paper. Welcome to jail.

According to New York City Department of Corrections spokesman Stephen Morello, Strauss-Kahn will be held in protective custody while at Rikers. This means he will be housed in a cell by himself, and when moving about the jail building he will be accompanied by a corrections officer. I declined protective custody during my “visit” on Rikers, but I was to be there for four months, and I didn’t like the idea of spending twenty-some hours a day alone in a cell. (If Strauss-Kahn were to be convicted and sent upstate, it would be very unlikely that he would get protective custody. Welcome to prison.)

Strauss-Kahn’s life at Rikers over the next few days will be simple, almost monastic. Breakfast is served early, between 5 and 6 a.m. On the menu: brown bread, sweet grape jelly, a carton of milk, and bran cereal. Some days you get Rice Krispies, or maybe warm Wheatena. Once a week or so, there’s a piece of fruit: an orange, an apple, or a plum. Lunch will be delivered to his cell—a 10- by eight-foot space—at around 11 a.m. Most likely it will be a sandwich of brown bread, bologna, and maybe some mustard. On the side, a dish of cold, wet pasta salad with pickle relish or some cold beans. Dinner, at 5 p.m., is a processed-meat patty, canned vegetables, and maybe cabbage salad. More brown bread. To drink, there’s a cup of weak Kool-Aid. There is no dessert in jail.

Strauss-Kahn will be allowed to shower at least once a day. If he wants exercise, he will also be given an hour a day in the yard.

By now, Strauss-Kahn has probably seen and heard things he’d likely never imagined. My first night in Rikers, while brushing my teeth, I looked up and saw two guys sharing a homemade crack pipe. (How they got the stuff in, you don’t want to know, but the place is lousy with drugs.)

Strauss-Kahn will be safe, but not alone. Even in protective custody, there is no solitude. There are cells on all sides of you, and the men inside them are restive. The place is always noisy, even after lights out, at 11 p.m. In fact, that is often the edgiest part of the day, with inmates shouting to each other, or singing, and sometimes screaming, well into the night.

Joe Halderman has been a journalist for more than 30 years. He was a producer-writer for CBS News' 48 Hours when he was arrested in 2009 in the Letterman case. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months on Rikers, serving four months with "good time." Halderman lives in Connecticut and is now a writer and teacher.