In April, my partner and I, tired of arguing in our living room, opted to argue on foot while enjoying some fresh air in our Brooklyn neighborhood. A couple of miles from the house, I needed to use the restroom, so I stepped into a small grocery store, purchasing a seltzer as my ticket into the facilities. The toilet was closed as a safety precaution due to COVID, as was the gas station bathroom down the street, as were the public restrooms at parks we passed. I had to hold it.
Restaurants and coffee shops were still fully shuttered at that time, but even when they reopened later in the spring, many of them kept their bathrooms closed, handmade “For Employee Use ONLY,” signs stuck to their graffitied doors. The bathrooms at Strand are still closed, ditto Pret a Manger, ditto most public libraries. It was a chore to find a place to relieve oneself pre-COVID, and as the pandemic rolls on, it’s become increasingly impossible to find a public restroom.
For those of us who have housing, who have the privilege of complaining about being stuck inside our shelters, suffocated by partners, pets, and, if you’re like me, suicidal houseplants, the lack of such facilities is inconvenient. But for the 58,000 plus New Yorkers who live on the streets, it is something more akin to a crisis. All the old stand-by spots to take care of one’s basic digestive needs— including shelters, day-use centers, and even hospitals-- have closed or reduced their capacities, so our unsheltered neighbors have been forced to do their business outside. Business being living, breathing, eating, and, yes, defecating.
In an unfortunately banal show of bureaucratic brutality, the MTA spent time and money this September making official amendments to their code of conduct; specifically, they made it against the rules to defecate in the subway system. The offense carries a $100 fine. MTA’s governing body also took the time to add in provisions that impose time limits on “lingering” in stations, that require riders to exit trains at the end of the line, and that prohibit the presence of large carts. It is not difficult to discern who these rules are meant to manage.
“I don’t want to make broad generalizations here,” said Trevor Noah on the September 24th episode of The Daily Show, the place I first heard about this change, “but I’m willing to bet that if you’re taking a [expletive] on the subway, you don’t have $100.” Like Noah, I am confident that anyone “who has a toilet at home and who isn’t mentally ill” would prefer the privacy and convenience of an actual bathroom.
Most annoyingly, the MTA could already cite and fine riders for creating a “nuisance, hazard or unsanitary condition” before making these amendments. Rather than using precious administrative time and money to seek more abundant revenue streams— for example, by advocating for more equitable tax codes— or hiring more cleaning workers, or installing restrooms, or shoring up relationships with social services, they chose to futz around with their rule book. It seems the MTA made this meaningless change simply to create the illusion of meaningful action toward “cleaning up” the subways. This policy change is just one in a long series of attempts to scapegoat our admittedly stinky brethren, a public policy move that frankly bores me to death.
Or maybe it’s more truthful to say that I would be bored if I weren’t so brokenhearted. From slave-catchers to poll taxes to parking tickets, criminalizing BIPOC and the poor is a dear American tradition. When police murdered Michael Brown in 2014, the subsequent U.S. Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson Police Department rekindled dialogue about the age-old American practice of targeting minoritized communities with outlandish citations, fines, and fees. The movement to defund the police continues to beg the conversation. The end goal of these practices is to be rid of the underclasses, to banish them to jails, to fine them into oblivion. The profusion of means by which the state sanctions such cruelty makes me nauseous. If I throw up, will I get a ticket?
The MTA is just one of several American institutions that strip people of their power, money, and dignity by regulating their bodily functions specifically. For several years, I was a teacher in public high schools where I was charged with “managing” a classroom. This included lording over the bathroom pass, making and enforcing rules to regulate its use, an intolerable exercise that did nothing to advance the educational program.
Just like the teachers who are asked to hassle “problem” students by regulating their potty passes, it is the transit cops who are left to deal with people who are unwell by… writing them a ticket? As Noah pointed out, the MTA cannot possibly believe that they will collect on these fecal fees, not even after they tack on the maximum $50 delinquent payment penalty. What they can do, though, is banish folks in greater numbers from the subways, buses, and stations.
Aboveground, unsheltered New Yorkers will still be forced to live in the open, camped on sidewalks and in plazas. We will see more encampments. The homeless will pitch tents and build small shelters in neat rows next to the clear plastic bubbles that are supposed to save New York’s restaurant industry by enclosing diners in their own heated, rain-proof capsules this winter. These baubles are symbols of the tremendous will we have to preserve industry and luxury. If only we had the same will to protect the poor. But there are no bathrooms for the homeless this winter, and there will be no plastic bubbles.
Anyone who truly believes that more and better rules— about pooping on the subway or about police accountability-- will solve social problems is living in such a bubble. We have to stop acting as if rules and
those who enforce them will clean up our society. Until we do, we will keep stepping in it.
Rikers Island is one of the nation’s most notorious jails.
A lesser-known fact: It is also a landfill.
The original 87.5 acre slab of marshy land between North Queens and the South Bronx was purchased by New York City from a private owner in the late 1800s. The New York Commission of Charities and Corrections hoped to open a workhouse there to alleviate crowding on Welfare Island, now Roosevelt, another slice of waterlogged land just around the bend of the East River. Welfare Island hosted the city’s asylums, jails, and poorhouses at the time, and it was running out of room. The city needed another void into which it could flush all its forsaken souls. Rikers was it. The city used prison labor to build out the island with ash and other garbage until it spanned more than 400 acres. Landfilling continued until 1943, several years after the first inmates arrived.
In 1935, the first Rikers corrections facility opened amid a dozen mountains of flaming garbage. Frequent, sometimes spontaneous fires from coal ash and incineration practices sent filthy clouds of smoke and ash into the air. In order to save face for the 1939 World's Fair happening just across the water in Queens, the island was cleaned up a little. Most of NYC's garbage was subsequently rerouted to Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, but all that trash still lurks under its buckling brick buildings and grassy lawns.
Today, something like 11,000 people are incarcerated on Rikers. They’ve been thrown out of society, tossed onto the scrap heap in the middle of the water a dozen miles upstream from the Statue of Liberty.
The ground underneath Rikers is unstable. The trash rots and shifts, imperiling foundations and cracking water pipes. Water outages related to this shaky infrastructure can last a full day or longer during which time toilets and showers become inaccessible and drinking water is cut off. Sometimes sewage and draining backups flood bathrooms and cells.
So it stinks on Rikers. As the island’s waste layer decomposes, it emits noxious methane, which doesn’t just smell bad and ruin air quality. It is also a super-powerful greenhouse gas. Few of the facilities on Rikers are air-conditioned, and the extreme temperatures coupled with the gnarly air exacerbate chronic health issues like asthma that are common among the prison population.
“Rikers Island is a symbol of brutality and inhumanity and it is time for us to once and for all close Rikers Island,” said New York city council speaker, Corey Johnson, who led the successful campaign to close the Rikers jail complex. Rikers is slated to close by 2026, its residents shuttled around to four other jails scattered throughout the boroughs. That’s nice, but it isn’t a panacea. Rikers is not the only prison built on wasteland.
Pennsylvania’s maximum-security SCI Fayette prison abuts a dump site for toxic coal-ash from a nearby mine. Wind carries the dust into the prison’s structures and rain washes it into the groundwater. Richard Mosley was incarcerated at SCI Fayette for twelve years, and he spent the whole time sick with respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. Everyone around him was sick, too, with everything from runny noses to rashes. He blamed the coal ash. Scientists support him.
Mosley made a big fuss about the conditions and continued to do resistance work around the prison’s environmental problems long after his release. He explains how society’s garbage people end up sick and dying on its waste land with shimmering simplicity. “This is something that’s going on throughout the country,” he said in an interview with The Outline. Industries “extract all the good stuff from the land, then they sell it to waste companies that contaminate the land, and then they sell it to prisons. Then they start shipping inmates there, and people start getting sick.”
Paige Williams, a cartographer, mapped prisons’ proximity to EPA Superfund sites when she was a student at Humboldt State University. The Superfund designation denotes an area of land that is so contaminated by hazardous materials, it threatens public health. She found that 589 of the 1,821 federal and state prisons in the U.S. are within three miles of a Superfund site; 134 lie within one mile. Several of these same prisons and jails are used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain immigrants, including so-called “unaccompanied minors.” While cleanup efforts are underway at many of these sites, the important part of this equation is the correlation coefficient between wastepeople and wastelands, a cartography of cruelty that looks like bullet holes on a map, grouped effectively for a kill.
People who die in prison— as a result of homicide, suicide, illness or old age— are often buried in pauper’s graves, also known as potter’s fields. New York City’s largest potter’s field is also on an island and until recently, inmate laborers dug its graves and buried its dead.
Taking all this into consideration, prisons are among the most remarkable sites of waste on the planet. If we continue to waste people this way, we will also continue to waste land, air, and water.