Part 1: Rikers Island
We spent the previous twenty-four hours preparing ourselves for what we imagined would be a difficult day: poring over the DOC website’s rules and regulations, reading and rereading reportbacks from the last two visits, seeking and receiving much great advice from lots of great people – and bracing ourselves emotionally. We were probably as prepared as we possibly could have been, but it took the visceral experience to truly grasp its weight.
Upon our arrival via the Q100 bus from Queens Plaza, we followed other visitors towards the entrance along a path that seemed constructed to immediately make you feel trapped and uncomfortable. We stood in line for about 20 minutes between two chain-link fences with barely enough space between them for two columns of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The inside fence has large-print advisory signs on them, which were a challenge to read because there was no room to stand back. The only sign with reasonably-sized lettering was, for some reason, elevated about 20 feet in the air, making it just as difficult to read but in a totally opposite way. Almost every sign throughout the visit bore rules upon rules, and threats of arrest if any of these rules were broken – as if we needed the reminder.
The sun beat down. In the distance, we could see large, imposing buildings surrounded by barbed wire, and we wondered where Mark was. We were among only about six white folks of about 50 total people in sight. Almost all of the other visitors were women with young children, and most seemed inured to the dehumanizing bureaucracy that frustrated us at every turn.
We left everything in the first locker except our quarters, some cash, our IDs, and the books we brought for Mark — (The Gift, The Wu-Tang Manual, and a book of poetry by Adam Mansbach) — and proceeded through the first security checkpoint. We waited in another line inside for about 30 minutes, and when we got to the front of the line, we were each in turn identified, asked for an address, and quizzed as to our relationship with Mark. We were a little surprised when they fingerprinted us and took mugshots, which were printed out and given to us on rectangular paper that looked and served exactly like airline boarding passes.
After another 30 minute wait, we were pointed towards a white bus, which took us to the Eric M. Taylor Center. The short drive across the plaza reminded us we were now trapped in the belly of the beast – giving us the slightest taste of the “YOU CANT LEAVE” message that inevitably resounds for all prisoners throughout every moment of their sentence. It also allowed us a glimpse at Incarceration City – isolated buildings, each surrounded with violent tangles of barbed wire. Every inch of the place is a visual threat, its role as an institution of confinement and disempowerment constantly reinforced.
We received a brief lecture from a corrections officer before being let into the building, including mention that there had been “a slashing” at the building next door earlier that day and no one was being allowed in or out of that place today. After another security check, the back of our left hand was stamped with a clear substance. We were bewildered by the invisible stamp; we don’t know what it was. We were told it was to mark that we had been through security, but we don’t know how to read it and have no idea what, if anything, it says. (We would love to know more about this practice, if anyone knows.)
After an excruciatingly long hour (or so – without phones or watches, and no clocks on the walls, the entire visit felt as though it took place in a time vacuum) in a room full of chairs reminiscent of a free clinic’s waiting room (the soap opera and hysterical baby really set the scene) we were finally called to enter the “visiting floor”.