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"The concept of the indefinite suspension is contrary to the original intent of the standard," says Dale Wilker of the Prisoners' Rights Project. "You were supposed to turn them away only if even a non-contact visit would not prevent the threat. The idea was to save the visit and still protect security. It wasn't meant to be punitive. Now it seems they move right from infraction to suspension."
"The idea was that visits are so important for an inmate's well-being that you tried to encourage them," another observer says. "But now, they are essentially creating disincentives to do it. Only reason to do that is to save money."
Morello, the DOC spokesman, disputes these claims. First off, he denies that the department has reduced or eliminated booth visits, or reduced staff or overtime. "A non-contact visit is still available as an alternative to the restricted list for those who commit lesser infractions," he says. Department figures show that booth visits make up less than 1 percent of all visitsbut the number of booth visits more than doubled in the first six months of 2007, compared to the same period in the previous year.
Three-quarters of the people on the restricted list, he continues, were arrested for misconduct during the visiting process. Moreover, since people rotate out of Rikers in 45 days on average, many of the people on the list would have no reason to visit the jails today.
Finally, he says, visitors are allowed to request review of a suspension every 30 days. "The offenses most often at the root of a restriction are serious security-related offenses, not minor offenses, or at the whim of officers," Morello says.
Based on an examination of visitor complaints filed with the city Board of Correction, verbal clashes with correction staff seem to be a major reason for suspensionsa situation that often amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy, given the seemingly Kafkaesque treatment that some Rikers visitors have encountered.
"There didn't used to be so much of the visitors getting into battles with the officers," says one jail observer.
Visitor Joanne McNeil wrote to complain that an officer kept her waiting 25 minutes only because he wasn't finished reading his newspaper. "There is a growing problem at Rikers where correction officers are abusing and mistreating visitors for no reason," she wrote. "When a visitor speaks up, the COs get combative."
In addition, some of the rules cause problems. For example, Rikers officials sensibly banned cell phones from the jails, which prevent the devices from use by inmates. The problem is that there are few working lockers to store them in. So visitors who show up carrying a cell phone either have to trudge back home, leave the phone in an unlocked locker at the jail, or risk having it confiscated and losing their visiting privileges. Some people simply toss the phone in the trash. Enterprising van drivers will store phones in their vehiclesfor a $5 fee.
An aggrieved mom posting on an Internet bulletin board said she couldn't find an empty locker to store her phone. "I took my sim card out of my phone and threw the phone in the garbage," she wrote. "My phone is replaceable. My dignity is kinda hard to replace."
Morello also disputes this claim, saying there are working lockers available. But he acknowledges the department did have a problem with people taking home the keys. In response, the DOC began padlocking the lockers until the keys were returned. Since then, he says, the problem has been reduced.
Alicia Williams, 46, of Brooklyn, said she was strip-searched during a visit to see her husband at Rikers in October 2005.
photo: Cary Conover
When Iris Duberge went to visit someone at Rikers in March of last year, she was told that she was still banned for an incident eight years earlier in which she was caught bringing contraband into the facility.
Maria Piccolo, in October 2006, got a 45-day suspension for dropping her identification card on a table rather than handing it to the officer.
After she complained about waiting in the cold, Ikeytie Willie claimed that the bus driver snapped: "It's my fucking bus." She also got a 45-day suspension. For his part, the bus driver claimed Willie was disrespectful to him.
Isania Perez had her visits suspended last January for 180 days when she forgot to turn in her cell phone at the initial checkpoint.
Victoria Davis says she was suspended from the island for a year after she said, "Excuse me . . . " to a captain who kept her waiting for a half-hour while he chatted with other visitors.
Nancy Rosario forgot that she was wearing a digital-picture keychain. She was banned for 180 days. "That's very hard for something that was done accidentally," she told the board.
Olga Kalantyrsky was banned six months for not wearing underwear and then telling an officer, "This is fucked up."