It is a perfect summer day; 80 degrees and clear blue skies dotted with cotton-candy-clouds. Gentle breezes carry the unmistakable scent of the ocean. If I closed my eyes, I'd think we were approaching Martha's Vineyard. Instead, I see the sunlight glinting off the barbed wire that is everywhere.
Rikers Island, New York City's main jail complex, is bustling. My companion worries that all lockers are taken. He relieves me of my purse, cell phone and jewelry, which are all considered contraband, and hurries off to store them. A rusty sign warns that we use the lockers at our own risk; the powers that be are not responsible for missing items.
He waits in line. I sit on a bench, dropping into a meditative state, insulating myself from the overwhelmingly hostile energy of the jail. In the distance, I notice planes taking off from Laguardia Airport. The juxtaposition is jarring; the freedom of flying, adjacent to the locked-down reality of what has been called the worst jail in the US.
Ushered like cattle through the narrow gated ramps, the crowd inches toward the metal doors. I am shocked and devastated by the number of infants and children in the crowd, which is glaringly predominated by tan and brown people. If modeling behavior is how children learn, then clearly, this is a self-replicating system. A young girl sits next to me on the bench. Her infant, about five months old stares at me wide eyed, then flashes me a joyful smile. My heart sinks as I try to trace a trajectory for her life that includes visits to this hell hole.
As my ears pick up random conversations, I am acutely aware that for too many, this is part of the everyday fabric of life. They travel blindly on the path paved for them from public assistance to public housing to failing public schools, straight to jail. It is simply a stop on the gravy chain of the criminal justice system and the end result of the NYPD surveillance vans that occupy neighborhoods of color, like tanks during wartime.
The air is taut with grim surrender, as family and friends of the incarcerated steel themselves against the rigors of visiting day. They are eerily calm, given the unapologetic irreverence for human dignity that confronts us at every step.
"Get ready to have your humanity stripped away," says an elderly woman brushing errant silver-blond strands away from her pale face. Her blue eyes bore into me as she warns of what is to come.
Going through the metal detectors, I wonder out loud why babies must remove their shoes. The girl behind me offers, "You didn't hear? They're checking the babies because a woman recently tried to hide a vile of crack in her infant's rectum!"
As I walk through the detector, its alarm blares in protest, "Go get searched!" A guard barks at me.
A female officer instructs me to "take everything off." She's gabbing on the phone and interrupts her conversation, commanding me to lift and shake my bra vigorously. She stares at my breasts intently waiting for contraband to fall out. None does.
We board another bus to the designated facility. The doors are locked behind us and it is clear we are now prisoners too. After two more searches, I enter a vestibule leading to the visiting room. The metal door behind me slides shut, effectively confining me in a 4' x 6' metal cage. Thinking of the earthquake that rumbled up the east coast a few days ago, I am uncomfortably aware of the impossibility of escape from this place should a power outage or natural disaster occur while I'm inside.
Looking around the visiting room, I feel like I've been kicked in the gut. Some of the girls look like they are 16 years old; still fresh faced and seemingly physically unmarred by the system that seeks to grind them into submission. We are told to be patient. A cell block search is being conducted causing delays.
After three hours on Rikers, we finally get to embrace our beloved inmate. Her tiny frame is swallowed up by the gray jump suit. She is facing 5 to 7 years for having a street fight. I am outraged that there are rapist and murderers who get less time. The anger I feel at the injustice of the justice system is acute. I take a deep breath and let it go for my own survival.
Our visit lasts 30 minutes. It takes another 90 minutes to connect with the various buses and vans to leave the island. Back in my car, I can breathe again, grateful for freedom. I am one of the lucky ones that had a onetime visit.
For those who will support their loved ones on the inside for months or years to come, they are also prisoners; ostensibly free, yet subjected to indignities that would compel the average American to cry foul. It is an environment ruled by primal instincts of dog-eat-dog, so deeply infected with depravity and indifference that no one escapes unscathed.