Do NOT Go Directly to Jail

Visiting a loved one in Rikers? Good luck.

Some examples that Morello proffered of the city's attempts to accommodate the families of inmates: Relatives no longer need to visit Rikers to deposit funds in inmate accounts; it can now be done online, by phone or by credit card (though the private firm that handles the transaction charges a fee for the service).

There is also a lost-and-found service, more parking spots set aside for visitors as well as vehicles to transport handicapped visitors, and extended visiting hours for inmates in protective custody. A video in the central visiting house, he says, informs visitors of rules and available services.

Morello says the buses that take visitors from central registration to the individual jails are operating more efficiently, and visitors can get a free blood-pressure screening and obtain health information. More phones have been added as well. "We have, in fact, made significant progress on improving the process," Morello says.

Nyki Oliver, 19, of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on her way to visit her cousin at Rikers Island. The trip takes "mad time," she says.
photo: Cary Conover
Nyki Oliver, 19, of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, on her way to visit her cousin at Rikers Island. The trip takes "mad time," she says.

He also noted that Correction Commissioner Martin Horn has long argued for placing the jails in the boroughs proper, saying that the location of Rikers "demonizes and marginalizes" inmates and "makes it difficult for families, friends, and attorneys to visit, and for those in custody to maintain contact with their communities," Morello says.

But Horn's plans to build new jails in the Bronx and Brooklyn are still in the works. Another plan to place a facility in the Oak Point section of the Bronx has been stalled by a bankruptcy proceeding involving the owner of the property. And the city is still looking for the right proposal to expand the Brooklyn House of Detention and add shops and housing to the mix.

Correction officers, meanwhile, tell the Voice that things used to be a lot worse. "Once you get to Rikers, from beginning to end, it's probably about two and a half hours," one veteran correction officer says. "Given the location and the need for the searches and the volume of visitors, it's about as good as it can be."

Beyond the remote location of the island, there are, the officer points out, legitimate reasons why the visiting process might be slowed. An inmate might not be prepared. There might be a search going on in the facility. After a fight, inmates are locked in their cells. And when a lot of visitors show up, moving them through the process eats up time.

But it's pretty hard to imagine a valid justification for what happened to Alicia Williams, now 46, of Brooklyn. In October 2005, Williams was visiting her husband when officers accused her of passing something to him.

The officers asked Williams to step into a room. There, they had her sign a form consenting to a search. She says that two female officers watched as a third patted her bra and checked around the waistband of her pants.

The officer then told Williams to remove her pants and push her underwear down to her knees, she says. The officer found no contraband, but told her afterward that the visit with her husband had been terminated anyway.

Under the rules, officers are allowed to frisk visitors, but there is no provision for a strip search. In fact, the city has already lost two class-action lawsuits for strip searches of misdemeanor inmates. Williams hadn't even been charged with a crime.

"I cried all the way home," she says. "I felt humiliated and disrespected."

Williams says she believes the search was retaliation against her husband, who had spoken about a jail riot that had taken place earlier that week. "The same officer told me, 'Tell your husband he needs to shut up—he has a big mouth,' " Williams says.

Williams subsequently complained to the Board of Correction, a city-jail oversight body, but didn't receive any response. She recently filed a lawsuit over the incident.

"My goal is to let them know they can't be doing that to people," she says. "What they did was wrong."

The search was improper, says Williams's lawyer, Cynthia Conti-Cook. "It's a dehumanizing and offensive exercise that violated her civil rights," she adds. "We believe in this situation it was retaliatory. There were a lot of other alternatives the officers had."

The overall value of allowing jail visits, experts say, is that it keeps inmates happier and improves the likelihood that they will stay out of jail after being released. Under the "minimum standards"—the city rules that govern inmate care—a visit can only be revoked when it would constitute a "serious threat" to security. Increasingly, however, the department has stopped allowing the use of non-contact booths for visitors who break the rules and instead has banned them outright, jail observers say. On the enormous list of banned persons are names going back to 1999. In some jails, booths once used for visits are now used for storage.

The central reason for the reduction in booth visits, sources say, is simply budgetary: Booth visits cost money in both staff and overtime.

The suspensions, meanwhile, are supposed to be reviewed every 30 days, but it doesn't appear that those reviews are going on. "Once you get on that list, you don't get off," a jail observer says. "It's to prevent visitors from coming. The Correction Department is never asked to explain itself, and there's no real process to appeal the ban." For example, the DOC often arrests visitors caught with contraband—but even if their resulting criminal cases are dismissed, the visiting ban still remains in effect, and their names remain on the list.

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