By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
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By Tessa Stuart
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On most weeks since August, Gordon, of Brooklyn's East New York section, has been taking two trains to Queens Plaza for the 30-minute bus ride to the nation's largest jail complex. The bus ride, however, was only the beginning of what would become a day-long odyssey.
After several searches, more bus rides, and the interminable (and often unexplained) waits at each step, the bus ride back to Queens Plaza, and the final subway ride home, Gordon would have spent more than nine hours in transit for a 60-minute visit with her boyfriend. She was interviewed by the Voice at Queens Plaza at 10:30 a.m., but she didn't leave Rikers until after 5 p.m., she said by phone the next day.
"It's an all-day thing," Gordon says. "You have to plan your life around it. On a good day, you wait two hours for a one-hour visiton a good dayand the COs are rude. Sometimes they load you on the bus at Rikers and we're sitting there, and the driver is standing outside smoking, and it's like he's not going to take you until he's ready."
Gordon says she was once turned away for wearing a tank top. Another time, she says, she waited eight hours to see her boyfriend. In the end, she was told she couldn't see him. "It was almost 9 p.m., and I was sitting there with a couple of other people, and the officer goes, 'You're an idiot for staying so long.' "
Gordon was trudging a well-worn path taken by many previous visitors to the remote complex, which sits in the East River in sight of LaGuardia Airport. Maybe you've never had to visit Rikers, but you probably know someone who has. Each year, about 350,000 peopleor about 1,000 a dayvisit someone at Rikers or elsewhere in the sprawling city jail system. There are a lot of reasons why Rikers visits take so longsome reasonable and others notbut together they amount to a hidden penalty exacted by the criminal-justice bureaucracy on a population largely made up of moms, wives, girlfriends, and sisters.
In 1992, a federal judge issued a ruling that forced the Correction Department to meet basic requirements for jail visits. Chief among those was a rule which said that visitors could not wait more than an hour to see a prisoner. In addition, anyone who arrived within visiting hours was guaranteed to see a prisoner.
Under the decree, says John Boston, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society's Prisoners' Rights Project, the department improved its visiting procedures and consistently came close to meeting the one-hour requirement. But in 2001, a federal judge dismissed the consent decree. No one outside the DOC has done an examination of the visiting process, but anecdotally, observers say the quality and efficiency of the visiting process has deteriorated.
In addition, the Correction Department is much more aggressive about banning visitors who commit infractions, like bringing in banned items or arguing with correction staff. The list of banned visitors has grown to more than 1,100 names.
"We hear stories that the lines are longer, and things take longer, people are subjected to more searches, and they can't bring in minor items," says Dale Wilker, another lawyer with the Prisoners' Rights Project.
Visiting Rikers, says Tamika Gordon, 19, of East New York, is an all-day thing. She says she once waited eight hours to see her boyfriend.
photo: Cary Conover
An Internet bulletin board hums with complaints about Rikers visits. One poster titled her missive "Visiting is a job!" She writes that she arrived recently at 12:45 p.m. and didn't get inside until 2 p.m. "I still didn't get off the island until 5:30," she writes. "I don't understand why it takes this long."
In a recent public hearing, Kareem Sharperson, a teenager working with an inmate advocacy group, the Osborne Association, testified that visits are usually less than an hour. "Every time I visited my father at Rikers, I never had a full hour," he said. "Most of the time, it took him 15 minutes to get downstairs to start the visit."
Sharperson added: "The average time I spent visiting my father was between five and six hours. That is a very long time to wait, with an average of two hours before and two hours after the visit."
In a lengthy response to a Voice query, Correction officials blamed the sheer inconvenience of visiting Rikers on its location and security requirements. But they strenuously objected to any assertion that the efficiency of the visiting process has declined since the consent order was lifted.
Correction Department spokesman Stephen Morello argued that the agency has done a great deal to make the visiting process at Rikers as efficient as possible. He says most visits still begin within one hour of the visitor's arrival.
"We recognize them as the sons and daughters, mothers and fathers of our community, and we consider visitation a critical element in the ability of inmates to see their incarceration period through and to return to the community with a strong chance of living lawful lives," he says.