Every week since August, Donna Hendricks has requested an appointment to visit her fiancée at Rikers Island, where he awaits trial on a gun charge — and in all but one of those 20 weeks, she says, nobody in the Correction Department even replied.
So again on Wednesday, she got in line, broke out her lawn chair, and waited.
“It’s hard. Sometimes you don’t even want to come. But you gotta do it for your loved one,” said Hendricks, 53. She thinks the visits help her boyfriend. “They live for visits in here.”
Rikers officials banned detainee visits at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the pandemic has faded, visits today are a lot harder than in pre-COVID times.
Rikers still does not allow in-person visits on weekends. Only video visits are allowed Saturday and Sunday, and in person visits are only allowed Wednesday through Friday.
Asked why in-person weekend visits have not resumed as the pandemic wanes, Correction Department officials did not respond.
They make it as difficult as possible, and it makes you not want to come,” said one woman standing in the rain Friday as she waited for the Q100 bus in Astoria, on her way to visit her boyfriend at Rikers.
“But then you see them, and they’re suffering,” she said of the detainees.
Rikers has maintained a system created during the pandemic that lets visitors request scheduled in-person visits. Hendricks has tried the system — and like others who have also tried it, she never heard back on most of her requests.
“They never respond,” Hendricks said.
So she and others who get no response wait on a long line of ‘walk-in’ visitors who head to the island without knowing for sure if they’ll get in.
The Correction Department makes no promises — on its website, it notes it can not guarantee those without scheduled appointments will be able to see their loved ones.
During Friday’s cold rain, the Rikers visitor line was uncovered. Plastic construction barriers and safety fencing marked its path. The line starts about 20 feet from a plexiglass enclosed vestibule, which is largely empty and unused.
“COVID’s over. So why are we still outside? It’s crazy,” said a 29-year-old woman who traveled an hour from Canarsie to visit her husband.
An in-person visit takes up to six hours. Because weekend visits are not available, most visitors have to take a day off from work.
A woman on her last day in New York before returning home to Colombia was among those on the line Friday. She was with her daughter, who shielded her from the strong wind with a one-armed embrace and a practically useless umbrella.
The woman was unable to get a scheduled visit with her son, so on her last day in the U.S. she hoped for a walk-in visit.
Televised visits have been unreliable, her daughter said.
“I tried video visits. I asked them many times, and only one time I got lucky,” she said.
She recounted that she was on time for the televised visit — but no one brought her brother to the camera. “I asked my brother and he said, ‘No one called me.’ No one told him.”
The woman and her mother did not get to see her brother Friday, because a guard abruptly announced that they were taking no more visitors at the Eric M. Taylor Center, the Rikers jail where he was housed.
Visibly upset, the woman put her arm around her mother and walked back to the bus stop. She had taken the day off from work for no reason.
its do a world of good for their incarcerated loved ones.
“We know from national research that there’s a direct relationship between family visits, family contacts, and reduced violence in institutions,” said Alex Frank, a former assistant correction commissioner.
In 2021, in her former role, Frank worked to plan a Rikers program aimed at curbing violence in its jail for younger detainees. She said the visits were a help to detainees — and to the officers who monitored them.
“Frontline staff wanted incarcerated people to see their loved ones. They recognized how big of an impact it had on their unit when people would be able to see their loved ones,” Frank said.
“People [detainees] came back from a visit with a totally different mindset feeling way different than they did before. It made their units safer and made them safer as officers.”
She said detainees are more likely to engage in programs, participate in school and build relationships when they’re connected by visits to those who care about them on the outside.
Tracey Wells-Huggins — a correction reform advocate who worked with Frank on her Rikers program and whose son was once incarcerated — says visits give detainees and families a way to emotionally break through jailhouse walls.
“There’s no replacement for tactile stimulation. Being able to hug your loved one is powerful,” said Wells-Huggins. “Being able to just look them in the eye and have that conversation is a stress reliever. There’s a sense of freedom.”