Within any brutal and isolated institution, new language tends to form, like scar tissue. In the 1990s, Rikers Island—New York City’s largest jail, encircled by the East River—was no exception. Corrections officers, mental health workers, and administrators had a special name for inmates in solitary confinement whom they believed faked suicidal tendencies in order to be placed under mental observation: “bing monsters.” “Bing,” a common word on the inside for solitary confinement, evokes the feeling of a brain clouding and sanity suddenly snapping—bing! “Monster” because for many jail staffers there was nothing worse than a malingering inmate who used up precious prison resources by feigning madness.
In her new memoir, Lockdown on Rikers, Mary Buser recounts how, during a decade-long career in healthcare at Rikers Island, she went from a chipper, idealistic mental health counselor to a disillusioned administrator (always with a cigarette handy in the later days). Her professional stint at the jail began in 1991 as a part-time intern, while she was a graduate student at Columbia University’s School for Social Work, and ended with her practically running the mental health department of the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, the complex that houses Rikers’ Punitive Segregation Unit.