Nonfiction NYC

Visiting Rikers Island (III).

We were seated over a rear wheel. The bus was probably older than me and any shock absorption it may have had in the past was now completely gone.

The bus pulled away from the building and lurched onto the main road on the expansive grounds of the jail. We passed open fields surrounded by tall chain-linked fences that were wrapped in concertina wire. Canadian geese sat on the grass, their necks tucked into their bodies. There were structures that looked like mobile homes on the outer perimeter; some of them had signs that suggested that they were legal centers. Most of the cars in the parking lots were neither fancy nor wrecks: trucks, vans, sedans, and coupes. An identical bus, half filled with people, roared past us in the opposite direction.

There was the view of Laguardia again, and then a view of the island of Manhattan. The skyscrapers looked like dollhouse structures from that distance.

The bus halted in front of a cement building and some people began to get up. We glanced at the stamped initials on our notecards, then at the name of the building. They matched.

A police officer, big, burly, and bilious, opened the door of the structure as we walked up. An automated voice—that of a young woman—filled the small foyer. She repeated instructions about what items were permitted in the jail and what were not. The police officer then began to talk over the automated voice, barking instructions to remove your shoes, no jewelry is allowed, take our your ID, put everything in a bin, put your items in a locker, the other officer will write the number on the back….

In the window were Polaroid photographs. Several were of men whose hands were handcuffed together, dark rectangular bars over their eyes. “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU TRY TO BRING ILLEGAL ITEMS INTO THE JAIL.” In other photographs were men seated on examining tables, their torsos, arms, and legs severed open and oozing blood. “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU GIVE RAZOR BLADES TO INMATES.”

Most of us quietly took a plastic bin and began to remove our jewelry. A man—tall, older, with dark skin—began to vent his frustration: “We pay taxes, you know. They can’t treat us like this. We’re citizens. We’re not under arrest. We have rights.”

“Put your stuff in a bin,” the police officer sternly said to him.

The man sighed irritably, pulled off his belt, and tried to shove it quickly into the bin. He began to walk through the metal detector with shoes still on his feet.

“TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF,” the police officer shouted. “I said that before. You need to listen.”

The man walked backwards, pulled off his sneakers, put them on the conveyor belt, and walked through the metal detector. Another officer, a woman with her hair tightly pulled back away from her face, looked at the screen attached to the conveyor belt. She nodded once.

The man retrieved his shoes and began to put them on.

“Take the bin off of the machine,” the police officer ordered. The man stifled a comment and grabbed the bin.

The metal detector beeped when I walked through. The disgruntled police officer took a wand. We stood, arms at our sides, facing each other.

“Move your—” he said, clearly annoyed, moving his arms apart. Realizing what I was supposed to do, I lifted my arms. He floated the wand over my chest and abdomen.

“Turn around,” he muttered. After finishing the task, he mumbled, “You’re fine. Take your bin.”

I slid my feet back into my shoes and then put my bag inside a locker. My companion and I had our IDs in our hands. The female officer saw us clutching our IDs and sighed impatiently. “You gotta put your IDs in the lockers. None of y’all are listening today.”

My companion blurted, “I thought that’s what he said—” I shook my head. Don’t complain, don’t explain.

We had only our clothes and shoes on after we stowed our IDs. The female officer scanned the group and then began pointing at several women.

“You, you, you, and you,” she said, pointing at me last. “Come with me, ladies.”

We were directed behind a curtain. I was probably the oldest person there. The youngest looked like she was in her late teens. She was flicking the rod in her tongue piercing over her teeth.

The cops allow that…?

“Sit down,” the officer ordered. We immediately settled down into the hard plastic chairs.

“Take off your shoes and socks.”

Standing with her arms crossed in front of her chest, she scanned our bare feet. She and I were about the same height, though I had no doubt that she could throw me into a wall. Maybe I could run faster than her. Maybe.

“Put them back on.”

“Stand up.”

“Put your hands in your pockets and then turn them inside out.”

Her eyes looked at our pockets. One woman had something glistening in her fingers.

“What is that?”

“Candy wrapper.”

“Throw that away.”

The officer nodded, tacitly instructing us to put our pockets back into our pants.

“Put your thumbs inside the waist of your pants and run them around your entire waist.”

A woman in the group clearly had gone through this routine before. Unsure of what the officer wanted, I sneaked a glance at this woman before following the instructions. She pulled the waistband away from her skin. If anything was lodged there, it would have fallen to the floor.

We all pulled our pants away from our waists.

“Turn around.”

The officer walked to the other side of the spontaneous circle we had formed.

“Lift up your shirts, lean forward, and shake.”


I again sneaked a glance at the returning visitor. Through her shirt, she had hooked her fingers underneath her bra, leaned forward, and shimmied. This was meant to dislodge anything we might have hidden in our bras.


We all opened our mouths. The officer looked.

“Why do you have that in there?” the officer asked the young woman with the tongue piercing. “You can’t have that here. You either go out and remove it or give it up.”

The young woman frowned, indecision on her face.

“You either go out or give it up. Ladies, the rest of you can go.”

We were directed to a second waiting room outside of the sally port. I waited for my companion to undergo his inspection. He and I exchanged wordless glances of relief when he joined me.

Over two hours had passed since we had first arrived at the jail. We now looked at the sally port, wondering when it would open.

(Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.)