A 22 -year-old, blonde, transgender woman is having breakfast on a Tuesday morning. On her left sits a rapist, to her right sits a bank robber and there, right across from her, a sex trafficker. Breakfast consists of oatmeal and stale bread, but on the menu it has a far more appealing name: chow.
The trans woman is me, Linux, and the restaurant is an intimate cafeteria just outside Manhattan. There are six tables, each with four seats. In total there's about 20 of us. Our food is served on styrofoam lunch trays. Anything sturdier is prohibited as it could be used as a weapon. Forks and spoons are made from cheap plastic, and the napkins we use are fashioned out of the toilet paper from our cells.
Welcome to Q2L, a secluded unit in Rikers Island's men's prison.
Q2L is a protective custody house where they send trans girls and the men caught having sex with each other. Before I was housed here, I was in a holding cell at Rosie's, the women's prison. After 24 hours and a lengthy medical examination, I was sent here to be one of the boys.
I am one of four trans girls at Q2L.
Sharika is 28 years old and black. She's in jail for armed robbery and in this specific jail unit because she got into a fight at the jail where she was previously being held. I ask her if that's how she got the bruise on her cheek, but she laughs and tells me the other girl didn't get a single punch in; the mark on her cheek is a result of the separation of silicone she injected into her face a few years back in an attempt to look more "girlish." It won't be there for long though because she has lawsuit money on the way from when she did a purposeful "slip and fall" in the shower of her former housing unit at Rikers. With the money she plans to get the silicone scraped and get 780 cc's put into her chest from the infamous surgeon "Dr. Miami."
"He does ALL the girls," she says.
Then there's Orchid, a heavier black girl, also in jail for robbery. She speaks entirely through the verbiage of the documentary Paris Is Burning. Everything is "OVA," and "FIERCE." And everything was a read, down house boots!
I've never seen Orchid's hair; she always has it wrapped in bedsheets. And she's always listening to music on her jail-provided portable radio. Her greatest talent was the ability to have full in-depth conversations while having both headphones in on full volume. That being said, when "Lucid Dreams" by Juice WRLD came on, all conversations were put on hold so that she could run around the prison screaming the words in the loudest voice possible. It's her boyfriend's favorite song. He doesn't have a cell phone, so until she's released from Rikers, their love for each other will have to be summed up in a three minute song that seems to play four times a day on Hot 97.
The third girl I meet is Candy, who's in for possession of Crystal Meth. She isn't on hormones, so for now she's a 26-year-old white crossdresser. Candy was born in Ireland and her second biggest fear is being deported back to her country. Her first biggest fear is losing the love of her prissy boyfriend, Tinny. Tinny had been in Q2L with Candy for a month, but had just this morning been transferred to Rikers Brooklyn. Candy and Tinny were planning to marry once they were both free.
On Friday, September 7, 2018, I was spending my day as I often do. I was running errands around the city shopping for the look I was about to turn at one of my favorite parties to host, Ty Sunderland's Heaven On Earth. I host nightlife events all around the world as a New York nightlife star. I received a voicemail from an NYPD Detective. He informed me that the Chanel bag I had reported stolen some time back had been found. My bag and belongings had been forcefully taken from me in a traumatizing assault on Christmas Eve in 2016. I was raped and mugged, and the attack left me bloody and beaten. That night, from my hospital bed, I spoke with a detective and filed a report. I never entertained any hope that the person would be found, so you can imagine how gagged I was to get this call informing me that the rapist had finally been apprehended — that all of my belongings were found in his possession.
As requested, I quickly went to the police station to speak with the detective. But as soon as I stepped foot into the precinct, I was arrested. It had all been a trick.
I was taken into custody based on a felony warrant out of Miami, Florida for an event that was falsely reported a day prior. I was stuck in jail with a $90,000 bond until it came time to be extradited back to Miami to plead my case. Extradition takes 45-90 days. It didn't matter that the name on the warrant wasn't mine, or that the date of birth on the warrant wasn't mine. Yes, they literally had an incorrect name and birthday on my warrant. They thought I was almost 50 years old. I tried to explain that this all was a mistake, but nobody listens to someone they think is a criminal.
"There was no shower, no bed, and only stale bread to eat [...] I created a makeshift bed with towels and the sheet I had gotten."
I spent the next two days in a holding cell. There was no shower, no bed, and only stale bread to eat. I had no way to brush my teeth and the only water I could drink was sink water from the palms of my hands. They kept me in the clothes I walked into the police station wearing: short shorts, a crop top, and sandals.
I didn't know tears never stopped. For some reason I thought if you kept crying for a full day, eventually your body would just give up and stop making tears. Unfortunately that's not the case, and after 48 hours straight of hysterical crying, my eyes and face were still drenched. On my Rikers island ID card there is a photo of me unable to hold back tears, next to a name and birthdate that aren't mine. In fact, the date of birth listed would make put my age at somewhere around 50, but apparently none of this mattered to anyone but me.
Before being moved to Q2L I was strip searched by a group of three men, all laughing and making comments as I was forced to expose my ass and cough. I was given beige inmate clothing that looked like it was from Yeezy's newest collection, and escorted to my cell. It was like being taken from one episode of the Twilight Zone to another. The other inmates were already locked into their cells for the night. Walking down the hall, I could see their eyes as they peeked between the bars to see who the newest body was in Q2L.
I sat in my cell for the first time and started to cry again. At this point I felt tears on my cheeks more than I felt water in my mouth. There was a toilet, sink, window, and metal bed frame, no mattress. The officer said he would try to get me one, but we both knew that wasn't going to happen. I created a makeshift bed with towels and the sheet I had gotten and attempted to try to sleep.
Not long later the hallway lights turned on and voices began shouting: "Detox! Detox!"
Immediately the other cells opened. I got up to look out of my cell's doorway to see everyone running to the gate that separated Q2L from the rest of the prison. A medic was on the other side of the gate handing out mini dixie cups to anyone who held their hands out. A few inmates would pocket whatever was being given, do a lap, and then come back to the medic for seconds. Two guys whispered and ran to the cell across the hall from mine. I watched as they crushed the pills, carved them into lines, and began snorting them. When they turned around and saw me looking I quickly ran back to my bed. The house filled up with chants and choruses of "I'm sooo high!" and "Let's do more!" I was speechless.
A latino man appeared at my cell and asked me my name. I decided to stick with the false name I'd been incarcerated under. He told me his name was Tattoo. He stepped back to reveal that he was wearing a wife beater and that all of his exposed skin was covered in ink. The name fit. Tattoo went on to tell me how beautiful I was, and that I should be careful around here because the inmates on Rikers never see pretty blonde white girls like me. When I told him my age, he called me a baby. I heard men in the hallway screaming, "I call dibs on 11 cell! She's mine! Back the fuck away from her!" Tattoo told them to shut up, said something in Spanish and looked back at me. He took a glance at my empty cell, told me to give him a second, and came back with a bucket.
"Goodies," he said, handing me the bucket through the cell opening.
A toothbrush, toothpaste, a bar of soap, a pillow, an apple, and a fork labeled "comb!" I had struck gold. At the bottom of the bucket was one of the mini dixie cups with a few pills in it.
"You never done Suboxone before?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"They give it to us for our heroin withdrawals. Take it, it fucks you up. I have extras," he said.
I pretended to take it and told him thanks but goodnight, I was tired. Once I was alone I spit out the pill and flushed it down the toilet. For the first time in 48 hours, I felt the slightest glimmer of hope. I had made a friend.
After my first full day I began to develop a sense of the schedule.
At 5 AM we were woken by screams of "Chow!" After breakfast we'd go back to sleep until around 10 AM when we were allowed to shower. For some reason, they're always short on razors, so if you're a sister that plans on going to prison, I suggest getting your laser hair removal ASAP, or you'll risk having a beard once you're forced to go "up to 30 days without shaving privileges due to occasional shortages."
After showering we'd go back to our cells and try to make our prison clothes cute and unique compared to the day before. This is when I'd give myself my daily affirmation: "If Paris Hilton could do this for 30 days so can you!" (Besides imagining Paris, the other trick I'd use to get through the day is pretending that I was a journalist who was only there to research a new book).
From 12 PM - 1 PM we hung out in the rec room, talking, playing checkers and card games, listening to music, and watching TV. Lunch was at 1 PM. At 3 PM we locked into our cells while the officers switched shifts, and then at 4 PM the shifts were switched so we could get out of our cells and hang out again. 6 PM was dinner, and 8 PM was detox time, so everybody got wasted on heroin pills. Then 10 PM we were locked in our cells until the next morning.
It didn't take long for me to notice what I had gotten myself into when I let Tattoo fill my cell with "goodies." I quickly found out that all the girls have one man that claims them, looks out for them, and waits on them. At first I gagged at how chivalrous the boys were. That was before I realized that you gotta fuck someone for a toothbrush.
Orchid and Sharika each had their men as well; Sharika had her brother, and Orchid had Manny, a pimp and drug dealer in jail for neither. He had gotten busted burglarizing a jewelry store in Chinatown four years ago and had two years left at Q2L. His arms were covered in tattoos, all given to him in prison.
He told me how he got each tattoo. "You melt down plastic you find, like chess pieces or playing cards, and then shove the melted plastic into your skin with something pointy, like a pen or a bobby pin." Fucking insanity.
"At first I gagged at how chivalrous the boys were. That was before I realized that you gotta fuck someone for a toothbrush."
Once Tattoo started very publicly making my life in jail easier, any guys that had been trying to claim me on my first night stopped... at least in public. I began receiving letters under my cell door from secret admirers in all different handwriting. When I showed them to Tattoo he became extremely angry and punched a wall. This was the first of many times that I caught a glimpse of a much darker side to him.
He would guard my showers. At I first thought it was for my protection, later realizing it to be jealousy. At lunch one day a guy was whispering to his friend about my "pink pussy." Without hesitation, Tattoo punched him in his face and the two battled it out in the cafeteria until an officer stepped in and pepper sprayed not only them but all the other inmates there. We ran back to our cells where we spent a full hour coughing and rubbing burning tears from our eyes. For the rest of my stay at Q2L, the food and tables reeked of pepper spray.
Although I was shocked at the cards life had dealt me this week, none of the inmates seemed surprised at all that I was incarcerated for something I didn't do. Apparently all first timers say they're innocent. What did shock them was the fact that it was my first time there. The idea that it was anybody's first time at Rikers was a foreign concept. Even officers were taken by surprise when I told them it was my first time in prison. I was the only first timer at Q2L. Everyone else was on their third, fourth, or even fifth time in jail. Some people I met had even had multiple five-year sentences in their lives (*Cough* Tattoo *Cough*).
Why did they keep coming back? I asked around.
Some were no longer afraid of prison. They had not only survived but thrived in a place that is supposed to be Hell on Earth. When you're no longer afraid of Hell, why not keep sinning? Others' lives were ruined by prison. They first went to jail for petty crimes, got bored or depressed and tried Suboxone from another inmate, then once they were released immediately craved heroin. A drug designed to get you off Heroin was bringing sober people to it.
Most were simply not learning their lesson, but how could they? There was no one there to teach them. In my prison experience (never thought I'd ever say that!) the attempt at inmate rehabilitation was nonexistent. Convicted drug dealers lived alongside convicted burglars, and together they would make plans to do joint projects once they were both released.
I did manage to smile with the inmates I met, more than a few times. The girls and I would kiki about the boys; we'd gossip like we were in high school. It made time go by faster. The most memorable happy time was one evening after dinner. In my cell we put the headphone radio at full volume and placed it inside a cup inside a bucket. The volume multiplied. Cardi B's "I Like It" came on, a favorite song of my friend group outside of jail. Orchid was dancing on my bed when Sharika screamed, "Pop the Hooch!"
Manny and Tattoo ran to Manny's cell and returned with a giant plastic garbage bag full of chunky orange liquid. This was my first time learning about Hooch.
Hooch is jail moonshine. At meals, inmates pocket bread, fruits, and sugar. Then they put it in a clear plastic garbage bag, fill it with water (leaving an equal part air at the top of the bag) and tie it tight with a knot on top. In three days, the fruit rots and bacteria grows. Three days after, the fruit produces alcohol to fight off the bacteria. By the seventh day, you have more than a gallon of liquor that tastes like Four Loko.
For the full experience, drink it with fruit chunks. If you're "super white" like everyone called me in jail, borrow a hairnet from an inmate that works in the kitchen and drain out the solids until it's a smooth, pulp-free cocktail.
I sat on my bed pretending to drink hooch as Sharika gave me cornrows, Orchid and Candy danced, and Manny and Tattoo argued in Spanish. This was my life... all for research purposes, of course.
We got 12 minutes to call our loved ones every three hours. The minutes didn't roll over, so every three hours you made! that! call! If the call went to voicemail, you had to wait another three hours for a second chance.
In order to make a phone call, an officer had to take you to a computer to set up your calling account. Since literally nobody at Rikers Island has any interest in doing their job, I didn't get my account set up until September 11, which meant I had gone 96 hours (four days) without being able to make a single phone call. This wasn't the only time officers were beyond incapable of performing their duties. The male officers were more focused on feeding me their dicks than feeding me meals, while female officers were more focused on asking if I had a dick than if I had a meal.
"The situation itself revealed to me what true freedom really was."
When I finally got to hear my boyfriend's voice on the phone, I broke down. For days I had been living in a separate dimension from the reality I had created for myself. I had grown so accustomed to being smack dab in the middle of NYC nightlife. Fabulosity and freedom were my default mode. I had built a support system of best friends, employers, and social media followers. I felt like I was thriving at the center of the universe. I felt unstoppable. However, being in Rikers Island managed to break me down and render me defeated like I had never been defeated before.
My boyfriend told me how everyone had stopped everything to save me. My friends were getting me lawyers and pooling their life savings to pay my bond. Nightlife icons I've looked up to since childhood wrote letters to New York Courts, vouching that I was responsible and rich in benevolence — that I was not a flight risk.
The second time I called my boyfriend, he put me on speaker phone so that I could hear that he was with all of my friends. They had gathered at the court to attend a hearing regarding my release, to show that I was a valued member of the community.
This support is entirely what kept me going.
On Saturday, September 15, a week after my arrest, I stepped foot onto a New York City sidewalk for what felt like the first time in my life. Wearing the same shorts and crop top I was arrested in, I felt reborn.
My fight was far from over. I now had 48 hours to turn myself in to Florida state. I had to drive because the ankle bracelet, which insurance required I wear, would explode on a plane. The people I love most had spent their life savings to get me out of jail. I had expenses from prison, lost wages, travel, and two separate bonds totaling up to more than $100,000. But I had newfound knowledge, compassion, appreciation, and all around love that I wouldn't have discovered had the previous week not happened.
Before I was incarcerated, I had made sure that my life was the epitome of freedom. In the blink of an eye, for seemingly no reason, everything I held so close to my heart and depended on for happiness was taken away from me.
The first few days, I was so gobsmacked by the severity of injustice I was enduring that I didn't see a light at the end of the tunnel. Would I be here for life? Could that actually happen?
But in the end, It wasn't being released that made me feel free. It was having everything I've ever worked for and wanted taken away from me in the blink of an eye and still realizing that I could, and would, make it. It was realizing that I would live another day even under the most extreme circumstances. The situation itself revealed to me what true freedom really was.
On Thursday, November 8, I am throwing a party to raise funds for both myself, and other trans women I continue to meet everyday who are victims to a correctional system that refuses to acknowledge their identity. If you cannot make it to the event, we have created a GoFundMe where you can also donate. If money is an issue, please share this story on any social media platforms you have. Anything helps — we are in this together.
Flyer by David Good Design
Photos courtesy of Linux