In this excerpt from RIKERS: An Oral History by Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau, staff, visitors, and the incarcerated recount the horrors of their first visit to the New York jail complex.

YUSEF SALAAM, detained 1989 to 1994, Central Park 5 case: I can’t really describe in words this horror and this horrible feeling coupled with that horror, but it had a lot to do with the smell of the place. We’re talking about a place that smelled like death, vomit, urine, feces, and like the bad train stations in New York City all wrapped up in one. And one of the first encounters I had with somebody coming up to me while I was inside the holding cell, they were asking me to check out my watch, and I didn’t realize this, but they were trying to steal the watch from me.

And I remember [the Central Park 5 co-defendant] Antron [McCray] saying, “No, don’t let them check your watch out, man. You know what I’m saying? Like they’re trying to get you, this is a trick, you know?”

KATHY MORSE [detained, 2006]: I just remember how medieval the reception cells were. The toilet didn’t flush, but people were still using it. They were going to the bathroom or to vomit. It was just a mess. I don’t do drugs so I have never been exposed to that. There were women on the floor throwing up, getting violently sick because they were withdrawing. One woman in the cell had crack hidden in her hair, and it fell out. And they all scrambled around the floor, like it was a piñata that had been opened. That was the first time I had ever seen crack in my life. It was just a horrible experience. And the officers were trying to figure out who brought it into the cell. They did take away what they could, but they only got a portion.