As an inmate who was moved from the federal lockup in downtown Manhattan—where I got to know both Paul Manafort and Jeffrey Epstein—to Rikers Island just three months ago, I have a pretty fair idea what Harvey Weinstein is in for.
I suspect the shock of being found guily of rape in the third degree and sexual assault in the first degree Monday and immediately cuffed and taken into custody by court officers is what led to the heart palpitations that caused the ambulance transporting him to Rikers to be diverted to the prison ward of Bellevue Hospital. Weinstein, who’d avoided any time behind bars until now, should steel himself; there are more shocks to come once he recovers from his post-conviction fit of the vapors.
When I left the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) for Rikers, I was handcuffed, shackled at the ankles, and placed in a tiny, claustrophobic plastic cubicle in the back of a Ford van to bump and bruise my way to the inmate island. He should hope he’s tied to his seat and not given a rough ride like I was.
Intake at Rikers is not fun. Initially, the process seems civilized: I suspect Weinstein will see a doctor quickly, and even be screened for what meds he might need during his stay. Rikers really is attentive to inmate medical needs, in my experience. After that, his celebrity profile may spare him from the shared holding facility where arrestees might sit and wait for hours or days.
When I suffered this indignity, one man whose walker resembled Weinstein’s complained of having been left in that holding cell for over a day, the result of his needing to be housed in the hospital unit. Watching him hobble over to the partially open urinal to relieve himself was not a pretty sight. He was in distress. And it wasn’t fake.
After intake, Weinstein—who has a hired a “prison consultant” to advise him on how to handle life on the inside even as his lawyers fight to get him out on bail ahead of his sentencing and to appeal his conviction—is expected to end up in in a private cell in the NIC (North Infirmary Command) facility for infirm inmates, in the building that houses up to 263 patients "who require extreme protective custody because of their notoriety or nature of their cases, or for inmates with HIV or AIDS-related conditions."
If he leaves the NIC, there’s no chance that he’ll be placed in general population. Instead, the felled mogul would likely end up in the protective custody unit, which, coincidentally, was situated right next to where I was housed initially.
Protective custody at Rikers is not as bad as what Jeffrey Epstein or Michael Avenatti experienced at MCC federal, where it housed many of the worst-behaved prisoners. On the island, the PC unit is comprised mostly of sex offenders, gay men, trans people, and snitches, along with infamous gangbangers and the occasional high-profile inmate. The chosen few are locked in their own unit at all times with the exception of rec time, when they can go to the yard for an hour with the general population early in the morning.
Weinstein would still have his own cell there, that he would be locked into at night (usually from 9:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.) and for at least some of the day. He would be fed in the unit (as opposed to most other inmates, who walk to the cafeteria), which means he’d be eating lukewarm-at-best food that is decidedly subpar with respect to quantity and quality. I found myself eating meals I would never have touched on the outside simply to fill my belly.
Inside of MCC and the Tombs—the notorious downtown Manhattan jail—an inmate could live comfortably enough without commissary items. But not so much at Rikers. I bought a ton of trail mix to have something healthy to fill in with.
While at Rikers, Weinstein will have a lot of time to think about his life — past, present and future. He’d better have people to bring him reading material; in my 18 days at Rikers, I do not remember one inmate ever going to the library. Personally, I was deprived of my reading glasses and simply could not see well enough to read. So to make a request in that arena would have been a waste of breath.
While calls for rec and medical were sparsely attended, key time (when inmates received their methadone) saw the unit virtually empty out. There were a lot of heroin addicts on Rikers Island. With respect to recreational drugs in the jail, I was invited to smoke pot in the bathroom within 30 minutes of my arrival. And inmates hunted around to see who’d been prescribed Lyrica, hoping to score a few tabs that they would then crush and snort to get high.
With respect to his safety, Weinstein should manage to avoid physical intimidation. While there might be a few predators in protective custody, officers are on the lookout for that kind of activity. One CO whom I befriended told me that when he drew duty in that unit, the officer was diligent in his effort to prevent predators from preying on weak individuals. And of course, when you spend most of your time alone in a single cell, nobody can get near you to exercise that predation.
Like Epstein, Weinstein might go into a depression and end up in a suicide cell where, as I understand it, one inmate watches many suicidal brothers with the help of an attending officer. The one-on-one approach used in federal facilities is not the program at Rikers. There’s no indication that Weinstein is a suicidal man. But that could change after he faces the realities of incarceration on Rikers Island.
Rikers isn’t the Ritz, and Weinstein is in for a rude awakening.