NEW YORK — To get to Rikers Island, visitors must catch the Q100 bus, which winds through Queens and makes its final stop near the base of the heavily guarded Rikers Island Bridge. The jail, which sits in the East River, a stone’s hurl from the LaGuardia Airport runway, is technically part of the Bronx.
When you step off the Q100 bus on Rikers Island, the scent of saltwater hangs in the air, at least in warm-weather months. Within a few feet, however, you’re staring at cement on cement and inhaling some combination of cigarettes, steaming blacktop and too many people.
I went to Rikers Island eight times between August and October and successfully visited Ruben Rodriguez five times at three different houses: Robert N. Davoren Complex, the juvenile house; George Motchan Detention Center, an adult house; and Otis Bantum Correctional Center, which has Rikers’ largest punitive segregation unit, the Central Punitive Segregation Unit.
Ruben is one of two teenagers accused of fatally assaulting 28-year-old Luis Melendez with wooden poles, according to the criminal complaint. Melendez was found bleeding with injuries to his head, face and torso, records show. He was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
While visiting and writing to Ruben and his parents over the past few months, I saw Ruben ricochet between different mindsets. Sometimes he seemed like a budding young adult starting to grasp consequences, appreciate education and, for the first time, question his addiction to trouble.
Other times, he came off as a kid trained to prevail in gang warfare but decreasingly able to understand, let alone live in, any other reality. Coming of age on Rikers Island can be lonely and bloody. But what may be even harder for Rikers-reared teens is managing to thrive or even survive anywhere else.
Inmate visits last one hour, usually measured to the minute by correction officers, generally called “COs.” The entry process — from getting off the Q100 bus to sitting down with an inmate — took between an hour and a half and all day.
Here’s what happens: You put your personal belongings in a locker. You line up for a correction officer to check your ID. You get on the first security line. If you set off the metal detector, you repeat the security process and get a pat down. Then you go to the registration area corresponding to your inmate’s house. You wait for a whitewashed, weather-beaten clunker of a Correction Department bus to take you to that house.
Once there, you go through another metal detector and take a seat in a waiting room until you’re told to line up for another pat down; this time, everyone gets one. During this waiting period, you lock up any items you still have, including your key from the first locker. If you have a package for your inmate, you wait in line for a CO to inspect its contents. After your pat down, you may get sent to another, intermediary waiting room. Then you walk upstairs, stick your left hand under a black-light scanner and enter the visitors’ room.
Your visit should start soon.
As one might expect, security at Rikers is extensive
To get through security as quickly as possible, it’s best to wear all cotton — no underwire bras, metal-tipped drawstrings, decorative grommets or stray bobby pins. I waited on weekend security lines that varied between slow and standstill, though I’ve heard the pace picks up on weekdays. Expect finicky metal detectors, COs and drug-sniffing chocolate Labradors, whom you may not pet, to search your body and your belongings for contraband.
Contraband refers to illegal substances and legal but banned items including electronic devices, alcohol, cigarettes and over-the-counter or prescription drugs. No hair elastics, no fruit. If Rikers Island COs hammer home any message, it is this: Visitors caught with contraband will be arrested and detained on Rikers Island, a threat that inspires more fear with every passing hour in the enormous jailing complex’s largely clockless and windowless visiting quarters.
There are several red amnesty mailboxes where visitors can ditch contraband without consequence. I never saw anyone use the boxes, but perhaps more people should. Every time I visited, a CO claimed that visitors had been arrested that day for contraband possession.
I only witnessed one person get arrested — a young woman who tried to hand off pot to an inmate under the table at GMDC. On the way back from GMDC, the woman sharing my bus seat said she didn’t know if it was more surprising that the visitor-turned-detainee got so far with drugs or that she tried to pass them to an inmate in full view of so many COs.
“I’m not gonna lie,” said my bus buddy. “I smoke weed. What if one of those dogs smelled residue on me and I had to stay here. Could you think of anything worse?”
As a visitor, I tried to be cooperative, friendly and efficient. In return, most COs were at least neutral toward me. But regardless of how you act, some COs bark orders, mutter insults and liberally threaten detention. I encountered the first CO of this breed during a pat down.
When it was my turn, I handed her my pat down consent form and stood, arms at my side, behind a privacy curtain.
“Open that,” said the CO gruffly, tapping on my pants zipper.
I took her direction too literally and unzipped my pants without unbuttoning them. The CO yelled at me and sighed derisively as I unbuttoned. Then she told me to raise and lower my arms as I spun around with my waistband folded down, during which time I apparently scratched her outstretched arm.
She screamed that I “fucking nailed” her, and complained about me to another CO, while dressing her wound as though a rabid raccoon had bit her. I did not think I could have done much damage but apologized profusely. She ignored me and criticized what I wrote on the consent form. The City of New York Department of Correction refused to comment for this story.
I did not find an 'average' Rikers visitor
There were single parents holding fussy infants and grandparents fanning themselves with visitation schedules. There were teen boys who’d been inmates themselves and those who only knew Rikers from the news. There were antsy kids climbing on railings and fear-stricken kids fighting off tears. There were non-English speakers berated for flouting the rules and strangers who stepped in to translate the rules for them. There were people, like me, who asked to borrow change for the lockers and people who asked to borrow spare white T-shirts to meet the dress code. There were mothers who compulsively tried to help other parents, like Ruben’s dad, who wished he could chat with his son anywhere but Rikers Island.
I heard the same complaints. Visitors called the process degrading and a waste of time. They said the rules didn’t make sense. Some described the hours of unexplained waiting as agonizing.
Among the chief sources of upset seemed to be the feeling of guilt by association. Visitors consistently said they felt like inmates. Pat downs triggered more outrage than any other security measure.
“This is so degrading. I didn't break the law,” said one young woman trying to fill out a pat down consent form and keep tabs on a wandering child, “but they treat me like I did.”
Not all visitors seemed resentful of being at Rikers. I waited in a security line about three spots in front of a middle-aged man who loudly proclaimed, as he complimented the feet of women around him, that his incarcerated girlfriend was nervous he’d strike up a relationship with a female visitor.
A Craigslist Missed Connection from Aug. 8 suggested a similar mentality:
Riker's island security line ... — m4w
“You were ‘keepin it real’ but looked quite ravishing waiting impatiently on the line ... camo belly shirt and tight shorts, large hoop earrings ... you briefly looked my way, rolled your eyes and mumbled incoherently about racist laws, unpaid bills, a deadbeat dad on trumped up charges and boy, I tell ya it got my juices flowing … The Q100 bus line is like the love boat for me.”
I never observed the same level of enthusiasm among female visitors. But every time I visited, I noticed a handful of young women dressed like style bloggers. They came in coordinated outfits and stacked heels with airbrushed makeup and very coiffed, sometimes candy-colored, hair. They referred to Rikers Island as simply “the Island.” If there’s any social hierarchy on the Island, these decked-out young women were at the top of it.
“Don’t write on Instagram you been seeing me at the Island,” said one such visitor to another about an unwanted comment on a photo she posted. “I don’t want people to know I spend all my time here.”
Rikers Island wore on me
Visitor registration takes place after the first security line. Inmates can see three visitors at a time, but only one group of visitors per day. This information is on the Department of Correction website. But there’s no way to check if inmates have already had visitors or in any way pre-empt the chance of being turned away for this reason.
I tried to coordinate my Rikers trips with Ruben’s parents, his only consistent visitors. Regardless, I got rejected twice for being the day’s second visitor. One week in late August, I went to visit Ruben on a Friday afternoon not knowing that, for the purpose of visiting hours, Friday is considered the weekend and visiting hours end at 2 p.m. The following morning, I tried again. It took me an hour and a half to reach Rikers and another 45 minutes to get through security.
The CO told me Ruben already had a visitor.
Until this point, I maintained a clinical perspective about the visitation process. There was nothing pleasant about pat downs, filthy seating areas or baseless detention threats from COs. But I knew, roughly, how many beautiful late-summer days I’d need to spend there. If I felt frustrated, it was vicarious frustration. I was sharing other people’s experiences, not having my own. For a while, that made all the difference.
But this time, I was viscerally annoyed by a rule that seemed engineered to waste people’s time.
“Could I somehow check ahead of time if Ruben already has a visitor?” I asked the CO.
I could not.
Black gunk and loose brown dirt
I did not think Rikers would have plush furnishings but I did think the visitation areas would meet minimum standards of cleanliness. I was wrong. At OBCC, I pulled a Coke bottle from the filthiest vending machine basin I’d ever seen. Black gunk and loose brown dirt clung to plastic seats, lockers and handrails. The women’s bathroom in the GMDC waiting room, which lacked soap, a stall door and any circulating air, reeked of longstanding neglect and overuse.
Had disgruntled visitors staged a rally when I first visited Rikers, I would have stood to the side and chronicled the scene. By my final visit, it would have taken every scintilla of self-control not to jump onto a filth-covered chair and start verbally drafting a vindication of the rights of visitors.
We hope you enjoyed your stay
If the Q100 bus is sitting at the drop-off area when visitors hand in their registration tickets, all sense of decorum disappears. It’s true, another Q100 will probably come over the bridge within 10 minutes, but most of us acted like we’d get left behind if we didn’t get on that bus.
Right beside the Q100 drop-off area, an overhead loudspeaker plays a recorded message:
“Thanks for visiting Rikers Island. We hope you enjoyed your stay.”
The message would be appropriate at a water park, or a national park, or even a corporate medical park, but at Rikers it registers somewhere between ironic and infuriating. If a real human hovered near the exit and thanked people for coming, that person would surely become the target of many a middle finger and a healthy coating of visitors’ spit.