Written by Roy Hall

“Roy, would you do me a favor? Can you visit Sammy in Rikers Island? He is stopping there for a few weeks on his way upstate to prison and he is lonely.”

This request came from a friend of mine who was Sammy’s uncle. He had been delayed on the west coast and couldn’t get back east in time to see him. I immediately said yes for two reasons. The first was to do a good deed for a friend and the second was sheer curiosity. Rikers was the most infamous prison in New York and the opportunity to visit it (legally) was all too tempting.

I had known Sammy since he was a kid but his criminal tendencies didn’t manifest themselves until his teens when he got a job selling tickets at car shows around the country. He noticed that the same tickets were used for all the shows and as no one in the company counted the unsold tickets, he stole blocks of them and hired an army of friends to approach people heading for the show. They sold them for half price. Surprisingly he was never caught doing this and made a tidy sum in the process.

He subsequently went to school in Arizona and became an accountant. I had run into him at a party and he told me that he was now the controller of a large New York company. In conversation he hinted about their substantial cash flow and how they didn’t seem to take advantage of financial opportunities available to them. It turned out that Sammy decided to take advantage himself and the next time I heard of him was when he was arrested for embezzlement.  He was accused and subsequently found guilty of embezzling 2.8 million dollars. Most of it was spent in Las Vegas, gambling and living the high life. Apparently what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay there.

Rikers Island is adjacent to La Guardia Airport. You often see it when taking off and landing at runway 4/22. I often thought it cruel to be next to an airport. The constant air traffic must remind the inmates of freedom denied.

You cannot drive on to the island itself. I discovered this when I approached the well-armed guard post at the entrance to the bridge. I was ordered to park my car in the lot and wait for the city bus to carry me over. Unprepared for this I had no change on me when the bus arrived. The driver, nonplussed, let me on for free. The 3-minute drive across the bridge took me to a different world.

On entering the compound I had to walk through a metal detector similar to the ones used in airports. I stood in line at the information desk, showed my ID and asked for Sammy.  I was told to go to room three and wait. Room three was quite large with a few chairs and a locked door opening to a courtyard. It was painted in intuitional green; was run down and had an air of despair about it. The door, like the windows had bars and chicken wire. I sat down to wait. A steady stream of young black women slowly filled the chairs. Most were silent and had sullen expressions.  There was an air of resignation about them. Some brought their children who also seemed forlorn. We sat and waited and waited and waited. Forty-five minutes later a bus arrived, the guard opened the door and we boarded. After the bus door was closed and locked, we took off and looped across the courtyard stopping at a building facing the one we had just left. We had travelled about thirty feet. On exiting we went through another metal detector and were each given a set of locker keys. This room was quite large but oppressive. There were many rows of benches and a few chairs scattered around. At one end was a counter that accepted gifts for the prisoners. The guards opened the packages and each item was thoroughly examined. Being a novice, I didn’t think to bring anything. (Next time, I thought. If there is a next time.) We were ordered to place everything we were carrying in the lockers. All money, wallets, keys personal effects etc. We then sat down and waited and waited and waited.

After what seemed like an interminable time my name was called and I went through a third metal detector, this time with my pockets turned inside out. I was also patted down. I was taken upstairs and led into a room that looked like a cafeteria. It had rows of tables and chairs. I sat down at one. Other visitors did the same. Eventually Sammy came and sat down. I asked how he was doing. He said he was fine but he was bored as he had little to do and spent a lot of time watching movies. I enquired about the conditions and other prisoners but he just told me that he was keeping his head down and trying not to interact with anyone.  The hubbub in the hall was quite loud and I suffer from that type of deafness that makes listening to a conversation, amid ambient noise, difficult. I pulled my chair closer to Sammy and was immediately scolded by a guard for moving too close to the prisoner. Sammy told me that he had no remorse and expected to get caught. The sentence he received, one year in a medium security prison, he thought reasonable and doable. Frankly, I thought it far too short. Apparently he had not squandered all the stolen money and had saved it for his expensive and successful legal defense.

After all that effort just to get in to see him, I found our conversation rather boring. What was more interesting was the couple sitting next to us. The visitor was a young black woman no more than nineteen. When her boyfriend (?) arrived, she folded her arms and immediately turned sideways facing me. She had an angry look on her face and her body bristled with attitude. This electric silence lasted fifteen to twenty minutes when suddenly she turned to face him and started screaming. Her fury was immense and her boyfriend, a tall, well built black man, withered under the assault. He tried to say something but she wouldn’t let him talk. When she had finished, she folded her arms again and turned sideways. She sat that way for the rest of the one-hour session. Neither of them spoke again.

When the hour was over, I descended the stairway, collected my belongings and sat down to wait for the bus. I noticed that some of the same people I had come in with were still waiting to see their loved ones. I had been lucky; I was in the first batch. By this time I had been in Rikers over four hours. I sat down to await the bus. I waited and waited and waited. Eventually it arrived and we were whisked across the courtyard. On finally exiting the compound, we stampeded to the waiting city bus and freedom.

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