Last week, Beauty, a sex worker in Hunts Point, disappeared from the streets. Rumor in the neighborhood said she was locked up. Photographer Chris Arnade and I set out to find her real name. After days of electronic searching and misattempts, we found her. She had been arrested and taken to Rikers Island jail. We visited.
Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade
Enclosure began disguised as transit common to New York City, with a city MTA bus. Civilians boarding the last mainland stop of the Q100 find themselves carried over the bridge’s half-moon, views of low-slung, faded earth-colored buildings and loop after loop of sharp wire.
The line outside the Rikers Island visitors’ entrance ebbed and flowed in rhyme with bus arrival, the sole means of transport for jail visitors. After drop off, passengers funneled into a chain link fence queue, which empties into a locker room of sorts, charging 50 cents for visitors to leave everything behind — electronics, jewelry, car keys, purses, hair clips. The line snaked through with flashes of ID cards, composed of patchworked ethnicities save for the white population. Chris Arnade and I comprised one of possibly two other white duos in the hundreds-odd line collection — we, there to visit Beauty, a sex worker from Hunts Point incarcerated last week for an assortment of crimes: assault, robbery, prostitution and possession of marijuana.
Of the charges, two were felonies, the robbery the worst in terms of conviction sentence length, expected to be a minimum of three-and-a-half years.
The queue segued into an airport scan mimic, shoes off, pockets emptied, IDs out. Visitors carried nothing from themselves, only packages to their loved ones, containing mainly clothes, magazines and legal documents.
Chris and I solicited recommendations from long-time Rikers veterans on what to bring, narrowing to socks, underwear, a sports bra, sweatpants, long-sleeved t-shirts (all grey), and a book. Parcels are made complicated by extended rules — logos, drawstrings, hoods, shoes with laces, bra underwire, zippers prohibited; many colors banned.
Post TSA-like scans, visitors signed in with their fingerprints and carefully jotted booking and case numbers. Bus and building number revealed, visitors split haphazardly away from one another, bound for buildings differentiated by gender and type of crime. Amidst the chaos of finding correct buildings and bus zone, guardians knelt with toddlers and hefted infants; visitors deposited money into inmate accounts for commissary use.
We boarded the bus to the Rose M. Singer facility for women, traveling through streets flanked by run-down buildings and disjointed administrative trailers, each straight surface decorated with razor wire seven loops tall, boulevards framed in circles of metal. Visitors sat checker-boarded across the bus, airing patient resignation and nodded camaraderie.
Aboard the blue and white wrenching school-like correction buses, through parts in the buildings, lay a view of Hunts Point, the nearest land to the Island, a swim away. We saw the Bank building and the docked ship, the point where Beauty worked the streets just across the water. It disappeared as we neared the Singer building, one dotted with rust, where small buckets overflowed and protected the concrete entryway from roof leaks.
The dozen or so off the bus were scanned and hand-stamped, then fed through another metal detector. Linoleum floor met grey plastic chairs while Judge Joe Brown piped from a small TV perched atop a high shelf. Another set of lockers and Pepsi machines lined the walls. Visitors ferrying packages stood in line to have their items sorted, checked for color, intent and appropriateness. Item after item failed: shapes within a hand-made snowflake sweater neared a little too red; sweatpants were black (both associated with gang activity). The attendant shoved approved items into a brown paper bag, scrawling the corresponding inmate’s name on the paper and shelving for pickup.
Visitors found lockers again to store anything remaining: photo ID, cash, belts. I, along with two others in the group of 12, was selected for drug testing, my palms swabbed for trace illegal substances. The man ahead in line failed and was instructed to wash his hands and return. He failed again.
We were shepherded one or two at a time into an alcove of a room. I was asked to turn out my pockets front and back, remove my shoes, show the bottoms of my socks, shake out my bra, run my fingers inside my belt line, pull up the legs of my pants, each move visually traced by two corrections officers. Three hours through security, faces were stern, my niceties dismissed.
Chris and I waited outside a grey metal door, one that slid open to reveal a small chamber. The door eased closed behind us, a voice through one-way glass commanding us to show our hand stamps. The forward-facing door slid open to reveal a large rectangular room set with several dozen child-size circular tables stamped with numbers. Most tables separated one chair facing another. Some had two chairs across from a single, while still others had a row of three opposing one.
We were pointed to table 26, and faced a wall. Beauty appeared behind us, face angling quickly around the room before alighting on her visitors. When recognition came, she elicited a wail. “Why did y’all come visit me? I thought you was my husband.” Between hugs, her level of upset became clear: her boyfriend-pimp hadn’t come to see her, the man who the neighborhood said beat her, the one who, after she became locked up, told her friends, “don’t worry about her, she’s chillin’,” the one who had a new girl working the streets the day after Beauty’s arrest. We were a far cry from second best.
Once seated, the 22-year-old righted, speech falling back into the street-level cascade. She wore a grey jumpsuit fastened with velcro (two bras and underwear underneath), her hair pulled back with frizzed pieces escaping, faded salmon beach-type plastic sandals partially enclosing bare feet. Her eyes were an abnormal K2-less clear.
She spoke of how she missed Bishop, her boyfriend-pimp, and begged us to relay how much she loved him if we saw him on the street. On her phone allowance she called him, expressed how much she wanted him to wait for her so that they could be together, perhaps running off to Oklahoma, her home. She told him through voicemail how she wanted him to visit her in jail, or come to court. A week in lock-up and no visit, no plans.
In jail, she spent her time watching basic cable, on suicide watch for “anger issues and depression.” Her mind remained fastened on her street skills for barter, angling for better treatment and possibly a lesser sentence by offering sex to one of the Rikers employees.
Of her charges, one, fairly serious for assisted robbery, she adamantly refuted. “You know I suck and I fuck. I don’t rob. Y’all see me. Ya’ll know me.” In her mind, she stood by while a former pimp, Trigger, stole something small from one of her dates. The others, she admitted to. Yes, while enraged at arrest for the robbery charge she kicked out the window of a police transport van. Yes, she prostituted.
She spoke of Rikers with mouth curled down, eyes slitted. By comparison, Hunts Point, where she slept in the hallways of buildings or inside empty Mac trucks in exchange for sex, was idyllic. She missed being what she called a street renegade. “Rikers Island is somewhere you don’t want to be. You piss and shit on their time. It’s a hell hole for motherfuckers that don’t need to be here,” a short-term jail and place where new inmates awaited sentence.
Memories of jail, though, were much better. She spun happy childhood threads of visiting her incarcerated mom in Oklahoma jail, a smiling mom who would braid and clip her hair. She looked forward to visits, to the queue lines. While she spoke, a happy dark-haired toddler toyed the lap of her young mom at the table next door.
She knew little of what her mom went through in jail, as little as she knows about her own future in incarceration. She had no insight as to who her lawyer might be, or what sentencing options could look like. She just knew her court date was the next day and that, because of it, she had to get up at 4:30 a.m.
Throughout our hour visit allowance, she warmed, glad to see us despite her initial disappointment, standing up at times to hug me and cry, thanking us through sobs, asking for coloring books and crayons (colored pencils were contraband) for our next visit. “Y’all actually care. About me. Y’all care about me. When you leave, I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s so hard. I just want to go with y’all.” Sadness and urgency. It’s been two years since she’s been in contact with her family — her boyfriend-pimp was all.
After exactly an hour, at 3:35 p.m., we were handed a slip of paper to leave, and, bereft, haltingly walked away and replayed our waiting-room-to-bus-to-lockers journey, a slow methodical efficiency. Five hours after we entered, we left. On the ride away from the island, through the wide windows, planes serenely landed and departed from La Guardia airport. People clutched poles on the lurching, crowded bus, tight against one another in union, gaze set back on who they had left behind.
Tomorrow, Beauty’s court date would come.
"There are over 13,000 people sitting on Rikers Island. Eighteen percent of these people are already sentenced to City jail time, with an average length of stay of 38 days, and the rest are detainees awaiting trial or prison bound. Fifty seven percent of these people are African American, 33.7% are Latino, and 6.9 percent white. In comparison, NYC’s population is 26.6% African American, 27.0% Latino, 44.7% white. Seventy to eighty percent of people on Rikers have substance abuse histories, 75% are in on drug-related charges, 32% are illiterate, 40% percent require mental health services and 11% suffer from serious and persistent mental illness. Over 5% of these people are released to NYC homeless shelters, while many more wind up in our shelter system within months of release. In addition, according the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 8% of males and 18% of females on Rikers are HIV positive. There we approximate 58,000 discharges in FY10, including 19,500 to Brooklyn, 15,200 to the Bronx, 9,600 to Queens, 9,400 to Manhattan, and 2,200 to Staten Island. Statistics show that 45.5% will return to Rikers Island within a year. For those under age 21, approximately 8000 people, 48% will return in that same time period."
Taken from a NYC Council Budget Committee Meeting
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