I grew up in the projects in New York City. It was during the time when politicians fell in love with lucrative drug policies and dealers “married the streets”—committed fully to street life and the ugliness that comes with it. This symbiotic relationship birthed what we now call mass incarceration. As data will tell you, this hit black and brown homes the hardest. Which is why I’ve been a jail visitor more times than I can count, and more times than I care to mention.
Each jail you visit is hellish, but in my experience Rikers is particularly vile. The correction officers at Rikers operate as if they have a deep hunger for power that can only be fed with the fear they produce. From the moment you enter, you’re treated no differently than an inmate. In fact, a more fitting title would be a “visiting inmate” as opposed to just a visitor.
When you first get to Rikers, you join an impossibly long line of people waiting to get into the registration building. Visiting hours start at 1 pm, but the folks in the front of the line arrive at 10 am; if you arrive too late there are no guarantees you’ll get in. While waiting in line, correction officers and their detection dogs appear without warning. You have an immense fear of dogs, and you don’t feel too differently about white, male law enforcement officials. Combine the two and those around you can probably feel your anxiety growing.
The line consists of mostly black and brown women and children, with a few men. You all have an unspoken agreement to keep the small talk to a minimum. Even without words, the looks on everyone’s faces as the dogs stalk around tell a deeper story. You see worry on the face of a woman who pulls her young daughters close. You see shame on the face of an older black man that’s told to shut up by the guards when he says he can’t stand for very long. You see rage on the face of a black teen who watches this interaction.
You wait in line for two hours without any clarity or information. The dogs disappear. Did they detect drugs? Was there an issue inside the building? Lockdown perhaps? What’s taking so long? You all wonder, but only one amateur visiting inmate makes the mistake of asking a correction officer. No one has told him the rules to this joint, but when the CO screams “Shut the fuck up or lose your visit!” he quickly learns. Well, he learns to stop asking the COs.
Maybe you gave off the “OG” visiting inmate vibe because he starts asking you questions. You’re Red and he’s Andy, and just like in the movie, you know he’ll be eaten alive if he doesn’t learn the rules. He asks you if he really can lose his visitation rights for asking questions. You tell him yes. You whisper that he should just be silent and get used to it. To be clear, you feel all the anger that “Andy” feels, you just do a better job of masking it. Until you can’t.
It’s now been three hours of just standing, waiting, and stewing in rage. You finally enter the building only to be met with, you guessed it, more lines. You wait in line to be searched. At this point, you begin to wonder if it’s even worth it. Should you just go home and wait for your brother’s expensive phone call? How much more can you take?
Someone is screaming “Open your fucking mouth!” in your face. You freeze. The CO screams louder. “Open your fucking mouth or go the fuck home!” You hear the shouts of exhausted children bouncing off the dirty walls. You feel the stares of the other visiting inmates on your back. You look over the COs shoulder and see a mother damn near dragged out after being told her son can’t have visitors because he’s been in a fight. All the noise in the room competes with the noise in your head. Should you just walk out?
“I’m not telling you again!” the CO screams breathlessly. Unchecked power must be exhausting. And because jail is all about taking down the “alpha” to teach others a lesson, you’re sure this is no longer about you. She’s performing for the other visiting inmates. You, on the other hand, aren’t performing. You are contemplating how much more of your dignity this visit will cost you. Submitting to an oral search is humiliating enough, but having the demand screamed in your face is another level. She moves closer. You close your eyes, open your mouth, release a final bit of your dignity, and hope that covers the cost.
By the time you make it inside the visiting room, you’re drained. The room looks like a large cafeteria. It’s loud, and you once again wait for the COs to search and then bring the inmates down.
Finally, your brother approaches and you embrace for as long as the COs will allow. Less than 30 seconds. Your brother asks how the visiting process is. You lie and tell him it’s smooth, no issues. You ask him how he’s doing. He lies too. He says he’s fine and has no real issues. Ten months later, he’s found not guilty of robbery in the first degree. You’re not sure what transpired at Rikers. He never tells you, but he now struggles with mental health issues. He may have PTSD; he self-medicates with drugs. He doesn’t talk about it. I suspect he thinks nobody would listen.