On the evening of July 26, an inmate from Rikers Island jail in New York City escaped. Officials stated that 24-year-old Naquan Hill was in the recreation yard of the facility where he climbed over the fence and fled captivity. Hill was found the next day, but between the hours of 7:30 p.m. and 10:30pm on July 26, the entire jail was locked down, including visiting civilians. With jail officials shouting directives and providing no information, the atmosphere was chaotic and stressful.
I spoke with Ashley Ellis, Restorative Justice Program Director for Good Shepard Services in Brooklyn New York. Ellis, a juvenile justice activist, was there to visit a former student and was one of the people detained at Rikers when a lockdown order was issued.
When you’re visiting Rikers Island, you can only enter and exit the premises on the facility buses. I saw about six bus-loads of people when I arrived. It looked like about 200 visitors were there in total.
I got to Rikers at 7pm but I had a hole in my jeans—about a centimeter in length right above my knee—so I couldn’t see my former student. The correction officers refused my visit and directed me to leave the premises. I returned to the bus that brought us there.
I realized something abnormal was happening as soon as I returned to the bus. Typically, when the bus reaches full capacity we begin to exit the premises. This time we sat there for at least one hour without moving. The bus was full. The doors were closed, windows were up, air was off and no information was provided. People were getting upset and frustrated. Several people had small children with them. Others had children that needed to be picked up from childcare, and still others had to return to work and expressed concerns about the consequences of missing work.
We were all asking to get off the bus. We had so many questions but no answers. Tension was growing. People were scared and confused. The bus smelled awful and people were beginning to speculate about what could be happening. The corrections officers were outside the bus screaming that we couldn’t leave. They gave no additional information. After about two hours passed, people with children could get off the bus to stand outside.
People were getting sick on the bus. One girl had asthma, and she passed out. Several of us came to her aid and tried to help her. She was a young black girl in her early twenties. She had serious health conditions. She was epileptic and she had a brain tumor. We were all on the ground trying to support her. Somebody must have screamed for help because [the corrections officers] arrived.
It was hard remaining calm in this situation and they were so verbally aggressive with us. They asked us all the same questions for 15 minutes. Twenty minutes after she passed out they called the ambulance. Outside of the bus another passenger had a seizure. In total the ambulance was called three separate times for assistance.
At one point, a loud alarm went off inside the facility. We saw the helicopters flying around and what appeared to be search dogs walking around. I could also see what looked like a hundred other visitors behind the large gate that leads to the visiting area. The best way I can describe it is to say when the lockdown started every visitor was detained exactly where they were. If you were behind the gate (on your way to the visiting area inside the facility) then you remained there. If you were on the bus you pretty much remained there.
The authorities never searched the buses. We thought perhaps they would search the buses, see that it held no inmate, and allow us to go home but that’s not what happened. We were on lockdown with no confirmed information, forced to stay on the bus (or allowed to walk off the bus for a short time) for three hours.
The correction officers laughed and joked amongst themselves in the middle of all of this, outside of the bus. It seemed like they were only there to have a physical presence. They stayed to themselves and only screamed things like “stay on the bus.” They ignored our questions, fears and concerns. It was scary.
Without an explanation, at 10:30 pm the bus driver just started to drive us off the premises as if nothing happened. I had to use the Internet to try to figure out what happened because we never received any information. I don’t know what happened to the visitors that needed to be removed via ambulance. I didn’t arrive home until after 11pm from what was supposed to be a 7pm visit. It was an incredibly traumatic experience.