I didn’t actually have to make this trip, but a coworker asked if I could do him a favor. It was the kind of favor akin to asking someone to retrieve your key from a desk in a nuclear power plant after the reactor had melted down. Everyone will be wearing radiation suits except you. Instead, you’ll be wearing a stupid grin and hoping that nothing goes wrong.
That’s how you feel when you go to Rikers Island on business. Sure you know that at the end of the visit you’re most likely going home, but anything could go wrong, and there’s nothing you can do, but hope it doesn’t go wrong till after you’re back across the Rikers Island bridge and go through the last check point. Incidentally, that bridge is named Francis R. Bruno Memorial Bridge and was built in 1966. It connects Queens to Rikers Island, which is technically considered the Bronx. Yes, that’s right, yet another cross for the Bronx to carry. The bridge is only 4,200 feet long, but for those on the Island who are residents, it might just as well be the distance to the moon.
When you visit Rikers Island on business as opposed to visiting Rikers Island as the business, you must follow a series of rigorous protocols the entire time. Television and the movies do not do it justice. I bet you didn’t know this, but visitors are not permitted to bring guns inside the prison. All firearms have to be checked on entry.
I like to arrive early. Before the shit has a chance to hit the preverbal fan. I know what you’re thinking. A prison is open twenty four hours a day. This is true, but the day starts for the prison population on the Island at five in the morning and breakfast is served between five thirty and six. By eight a.m., everybody has settled into their daily routines. My other preference is to visit on either Monday or Tuesday. Those are the only two days when prisoners get no visits from family or friends. Family and friends have a way of stirring the pot of discontentment.
I arrive this day at eight in the morning, a Tuesday and go to the Visitor’s parking lot. To get across the bridge that separates Queens from Rikers, you must have on your person, your current drivers license, your current automotive insurance card, your vehicle registration papers and your company picture identification card, and a hefty bag of patience or it will cost you.
When my papers check out, and they always do, I’m given a three inch by two inch, hard plastic badge and placard for my windshield. I refer to the badge as the “Good God Almighty” badge because if I lose it, they’ll be hell to pay. The whole island would go to lock down, and nobody would be going anywhere until it is found. The badge has a small, flimsy plastic clip for you to clip it to your clothing. It’s like finding out that the mechanic who worked on the plane you’re flying in fixed the door using bubblegum. You stare at the door hoping it doesn’t open before you land.
By eight forty-five I’m back in the car. Now, I drive to gate one, which is at the foot of the bridge. I must show my placard, the plastic, “Good God Almighty” badge and my photo ID to the guard. If everything checks out, the gate opens, and I drive across. As I drive across, I enjoy the beautiful view of the water and airport runways. The bridge is one way in each direction, with an emergency lane down the middle.
I’m on the Riker’s side of the bridge at nine o’clock. I’m instructed to pull up to gate number two, on the far left side. Two heavily armed officers try to peer through my eyes and into my skull before asking,
“Where are going and who you here to see?”
And I tell them what I’ve told everyone else who has asked this question since eight in the morning.
“1010 Hazen, gate four, the print shop to see Officer Watkins.” I get an affirming nod. I’m asked,
“You know where you’re going?”
I’ve been to this place a dozen times. I simply nod and they wave me through.
As I pull past the gate, I’m stopped at the main road. A bus of new arrivals has come through the main gate on it’s way to where ever they process people who are just arriving. The passengers are all wearing their street clothes. Soon they will exchange them for new outfits. They all wear the mask of uncertainty. I notice the eyes of one. They look out the window, skyward, and then to his lap. They look hollowed, filled with despair and tired of waiting to be taken.
I drive to gate four and find a parking space that’s not marked. A large portion of the parking spaces are marked, CAPTAIN or LT. CAPTAIN and things of that nature. I park facing the building. There is a warning light attached to the building, above the entrance. I check to make sure the warning light is not flashing. Everything looks good. I check the time, it’s now nine fifteen. I call Officer Watkins. I’ve learned there is absolutely no point in getting out the car if he doesn’t pickup the phone because nobody else is going to volunteer to escort me to the Administration Office and wait while I work. I was told a story by another coworker, about a tech who was brought to a room to work on a computer. The Officer needed to step out for a moment. So he told the tech, “I’ll be right back,” and locked the tech in the room. The Officer forgot about the guy and went off shift. Four hours later another Officer happen to look into the room. Two hours of red tape later, and the poor tech escaped.
The phone rings, once, twice… “Officer Watkins… Yes, this is Joe… Yes, I’m in the parking lot… I’ll wait for you at the check point.” I give another ten minutes for Officer Watkins to make it through all the gates. I empty my pockets, keeping just my wallet. No extra keys, no watch, no cell phone. I slip it all into the glove box. I am almost good to go. I load up my bag with anything I think will need for my visit because this is one stop shopping. No return trips to the car, except to leave. As I walk toward the building, I read the building name scrawled across the front. All the buildings on the island have names or at least the initials of names. This building is labelled DOC of EMTC. It stands for Eric M. Taylor Center, you can be sure it’s someone in law enforcement.
I enter the building lobby and stand at the door with my “Good God Almighty” badge visible. A loud click is heard, and a red light turns green, I push on the door, it opens. As it closes behind me, I hear another click as it locks. I step up to a cinderblock wall with a square hole cut into it with a metal drawer at hip height. This metal drawer is extended toward me and a faceless voice on the other side of the wall says,
“Badge and photo ID.”
I place them in the metal drawer and slide it closed. A moment later, the drawer opens and inside is a new, “Good God Almighty”, badge. This new badge is only for this prison, and it carries the same consequences if I lose it.
I affix the new, “Good God Almighty”, badge to my jacket. I place it high enough that it’s always within my view. It’s now nine thirty. I step over to the next guard booth. He asks me the same questions regarding my purpose. I restate my answer, with the additional info of,
“I’ve spoken to Officer Watkins and he’s on his way.”
I get a nod and am told to sit. He then calls to verify that Watkins was spoken to and is on the way.
Now I sit, wait and watch. Department of Correction officers mill in and out. Their Walkie talkies chattering with noise, that reminds me of a subway conductor announcing stops. Detectives arrive, checking their weapons and then continuing to the waiting area. They’re likely not narcotics detectives because they have shirts and ties. Perhaps they’re homicide. The guys working narcotics dress to resemble street thugs to blend with their targets. This makes me wonder if we legalized narcotics and focused on treatment, the landscape of police work would change.
My mental gymnastics are interrupted by the arrival of a sharply dressed man. I assume he’s a pricey defense attorney. The type you pay for with a second mortgage on the house. Polished shoes, shaved faces, clean suit with white shirt. A moment later, a public defender lawyer enters. He looks like a junk yard dog who’s, given birth to twelve pups. His shoes look as if they’ve been polished with a brick, a stubbled face with eyes that have had to little time shut. A wrinkled shirt, with a sport jacket from JC Penny. Someone’s client is going home today to await trial, the other will be staying put for three or four or more months. Liberty, and justice for those who can afford it.
The detectives stand near where I’m seated. They smell of leather and sweat. I catch them staring down at me. I grin and nod. This forces them to return the nod. They hold their gaze for a moment more than I’m comfortable, so I pretend to look for something in my bag. They also pretend not to be interested, but I can tell their Spidey senses are tingling. The paid lawyer won’t come near me and never makes eye contact. He stares past me, confident that his shoes cost more than my couch set. The public defender flops down next to me. He’s sits hunched over, you might think his back was broken. Too worn down to care about our quasi social event. It’s just like my high school cafeteria. Everyone staking out their territories in different corners. I am now as I was then, the odd man out. I’m just observing them, watching them. It’s like going to the zoo and watching the primates. Stand there long enough and someone is going to start flinging poop. I hope it’s not going to come to that, I’m wearing one of my favorite blue shirts. The shirt is dark blue, and I wore it today because I think it helps me deal with the police. They see the blue shirt as I mimic their body language and they think, “He’s one of us, let him pass.” I know you might think it’s Jedi bullshit but it works. When I worked for the State Department, I took a required course called “Invisibility in crowds” which dealt with the subject. Fascinating stuff….
It is ten fifteen and Watkins must be close because I’m called to the guard booth with the metal detectors. I’m told to put my stuff in the machine and walk through the magnetometer. Not a beep. He stamps my left hand with invisible ink and I’m told, “Watkins is on his way. Stand there, till he gets here.” I nod and stand, military style at ease, waiting. While I wait, I check that my, “Good God Almighty”, badge is still attached securely to my jacket. I breathe a sigh of relief, it’s right there, where it belongs.
Watkins arrives. He offers his apologies for being late. I lie and say no problem. What else can I say? I certainly can’t tell him that this visit has wasted most of my morning and as far as I’m concerned what ever problem there is, they caused it. No, I can’t say that because he’s my ticket in and out of this sad place. I simply smile.
We walk from section to section, on our way to his office. Each section is separated by a gated box. As we approach the gated boxes, Watkins stands in front me, and they open the gate. He moves out of my way, directing me inside, then he steps in behind me. The gate snaps closed, and we’re now inside the gated box. I’m told by an Officer behind a glass panel, to put my left hand in the opening. He pointed at a small box with a violet light glowing. After I place my hand in the small box, the gate at the other side opens, and Watkins directs me through.
As we travel, we come upon different group inmates. There seems to be three different types of inmate. Guys in bright orange jump suits, guys in black and white striped jump suits and Guys in all green jump suits. Most of them look to be twenty to thirty years of age. As we approach them they stop and wait for us to pass, I’m convinced this has everything to do with Watkins. They all speak and act with proper respect toward the guard. I wonder what happened that they ended up here on this island. I think about how easy it is to make the wrong choices. How quickly the rule of law is determined by someone using their judgement to determine if you should be arrested. Many of these inmates are awaiting trial. They may not be guilty, but they are certainly no longer innocent.
This isn’t the only prison I have visited. I’ve visited a number of juvenile detention centers. There, they are all chained together. It’s odd, but in Rikers, I’m never afraid of the prisoners. I figure, their on their best behavior. They want to get out. At the juvenile detention centers, the inmates are full of contempt. Really rotten teenagers. And yet, I feel for them, they’re so angry and damaged. I can’t imagine how imprisonment is going to fix them, love them, or heal them. The cold fact is, prison is for protecting us from them.
By ten forty-five, we arrive where I need to work, and all along, I’ve made sure the “Good God Almighty”, badge is still on my jacket.
I finish my work on the office equipment by twelve noon
and Watkins is getting ready to take me back out. You don’t go anywhere without someone taking you. I hate leaving at noon time. It’s the witching hour in this place. Watkins and I are about two hallways from the exit, which is where I came in, when the alarm bell goes off, and a red light starts flashing. Watkins says,
“Ah shit, we got’a get the fuck out’a here… we got’a run!”
I don’t question it, I just run. I’m easily out running Watkins, but I don’t want to lose sight of him. I grip my “Good God Almighty”, badge as I run. The section gates are open as I reach them, Watkins is only a few feet behind me. I make eye contact with him, and he waves his hand, indicating that I should continue. We’re now being passed by guards going in the opposite direction. I slow my pace to let Watkins catch up. We reach the last corner, and as we make our way towards the last section gate, we are passed by more guards, but now they have riot gear. Watkins and I slip through the last set of gates as they are closing.
With my “Good God Almighty” badge in hand, I exchange it for my old, “Good God Almighty” badge and jog to my car. I throw my stuff in the back seat and speed toward gate two. I look in my rearview mirror, the strobe is flashing above the door. The guard at the gate two booth takes my “Good God Almighty” badge’ and inspects my car. He gives me the thumbs up, and I drive to the next guard booth, only thirty feet away. He checks that my picture ID and my face match. He waves me through and I start across the bridge. As I get to the other side, I present my picture ID one last time. I hold it up, next to my face and smile. The gate opens, and I’m free. I can’t imagine, and I don’t want to, what it must be like to be clad in one of those jump suits.
It’s one thirty in the afternoon. I’m going to take an exceedingly long lunch and call it a day.