Nonfiction NYC

Visiting Rikers Island (II).

Clear partitions divided the building into small waiting rooms, each decorated with dark plastic chairs bolted to the ground. The cinder block walls were painted a dull shade of yellow. Posters advertising social services and drug rehabilitation were plastered in each waiting room. Vending machines, selling chips, candy, and sugary drinks, were near the bathrooms. In the middle of the building was a small enclosed cubicle that resembled a movie ticket booth.

“Who you want to see?” the woman behind the plastic partition asked. She was one of the few people working at the jail who was not wearing a police uniform.

“The Person,” he answered.

“Lemme see your IDs,” she said.

Into the DOS computer she entered our names, our addresses, and our birthdates. After stamping two large white cards, she handed them, along with a half sheet of paper, back to us.

“Fill those out completely and go to area B.”

Area B was facing the back of the building. Windows looked out at the parking spaces in the back. Several buses, empty, sat in the lot. These buses resemble school buses in shape and size, except they are white in color and the words “DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS” are plastered in blue across the sides. There was a queue in Area B leading to a police officer standing behind a counter. She looked annoyed. There were close to ten people ahead of us.

“Why she so slow?” someone behind us mumbled. “A bus gonna come and we won’t get it.”

Several single men sat in chairs in the corners. A baby, maybe eight months old, kicked his legs in his stroller and cooed. An older woman pushed her way through the crowd and demanded, “Is this the line?”

“Yeah,” a young woman with large hoop earrings said. “We’re all in line. All of us.” She pointed at the group of people who had tired of standing and had taken seats.

“Okay,” the older woman said. “This is my spot.”

The group in the chairs glanced at each other and stifled giggles.

Twenty minutes passed. My companion and I each took a free copy of the 2010 Rikers Island Visitors Guide, which included information like:

  • “… on an average day, about 13,500 City residents are detained in our facilities…”
  • “… we also host as many as 1,500 visitors daily.”
  • “Sentenced inmates may receive visits two (2) times per week.”
  • “Provocative attire is NOT acceptable.”
  • “There are several ‘amnesty boxes’ in which you may deposit any illegal substances or items you may have in your possession, no questions asked.”

Ah, I thought.

I reviewed the rules for visits:

During visits:

  • You must remain seated with hands above the table.
  • You are permitted to kiss and hold hands with the person you are visiting.
  • You are not permitted to exchange any items with the person you are visiting or anyone else.
  • The person you are visiting may hold children who are visiting throughout the visit.
  • At the completion of the visit, you must remain seated until the person you are visiting has departed the area.

I also skimmed the acceptable jewelry restrictions:

Although we discourage inmates from receiving and possessing jewelry, inmates may receive the following items of jewelry.

  • One (1) watch (date and time functions only — maximum value $50)
  • One (1) wedding band (no stones or protrusions — maximum value $150)
  • One (1) religious medal (no stones, pins, or protrusions) if worn around neck, a thin chain no longer than 26 inches may be worn (maximum value $50)

Another fifteen minutes passed.

“I’m going to use the bathroom,” I told my companion.

In my experience working in a variety of city, county, and state hospitals, the conditions of the bathrooms can serve as a measure of money, pride, and care that the institution has for the people it serves. The jail thus far looked like any other aging institution.

Two of the five toilets in the bathroom were clogged with toilet paper and excrement. Most of the doors lacked working locks. There was toilet paper in the stall I used, though no trash contraption within the stall. Generic, thin, pink soap was present in the dispensers and the sinks drained well. There were no paper towels, but hot air hand dryers were mounted on the walls.

I felt sad that I wasn’t surprised with the conditions of the bathroom.

After another five to ten minutes of waiting, a bus roared up to the lot and stopped in front of Area B.

“YAY!” one of the younger women squealed. “About time!”

“Show your white cards as you exit,” the police officer shouted at us as we fell into an orderly line at the door. By now, I had grown accustomed to police officers shouting. The driver pulled the bus door open and motioned us to go inside.

My companion and I were one of the last people to board the bus and we found seats in the back. No one on the bus was white.

(Read Part I here.)