After 15 months of waiting, visitors are finally able to see their locked-up loved ones in person on Rikers Island.
The Department of Correction stopped visitations in March 2020 as the coronavirus swept through the city. Most family contact since then has been through video-conferences.
The visitation process, which resumed last week, is even more complicated than it was prior to the pandemic.
The jail is only allowing 50% of pre-pandemic capacity to make social distancing easier. Buses to Rikers Island are also only allowed to be half full for the same reasons.
Visitors must sign up for an appointment time online before their trip. After their arrival, they must submit to a temperature check and fill out a COVID questionnaire before going through security.
The security process is similar to TSA checkpoints at the airport, with some more stringent rules: People are required to lock up most of their belongings before entering the complex unless they have small children accompanying them.
THE CITY spoke with some people who traveled to Rikers Island Thursday for long-awaited reunions.
‘I Tried Very Hard Not to Cry’
Stephanie Rivera’s husband, Gabriel, has been detained at Rikers for three years. Thursday marked her second trip to the jail complex since in-person visitation resumed last week. Before that, the last time she was in the same room as her husband was March 2020.
“All the other times during [the pandemic] I would see him through the televisits, but that was really hard,” she said. “It is not the same thing.”
When asked how she felt about seeing him for the first time in over a year, Rivera said, “I tried very hard not to cry, because I knew if I cried he was going to cry. But it was amazing because my life feels so empty without him, you know?”
Rivera hopes that the resumption of in-person visitation will mark a turning point in her husband’s case and that they won’t have to wait long for his sentencing to move forward.
“It’s just that coronavirus delayed everything. So hopefully soon it’ll be back on track,” she said. “Everything should be moving forward soon.”
‘He’s Just So Excited’
Jennifer Branford brought her 1-year-old son, Tom, to see his father, who has been in Rikers for about a month.
“Last week, we came for the first time,” Branford said. “It was good. I loved it.”
While her baby is too young to understand what’s happening, she said he was still happy to be with his father.
“He’s just so excited,” she said in between Tom’s baby talk. “He was just so happy to see his dad. He was able to sit on his lap.”
Some visitors were tripped up by the new scheduling system. Jenise Sepulveda made the trip from The Bronx to visit her cousin, but wasn’t sure whether she’d be let in.
Sepulveda arrived around 1:30 p.m. in anticipation of starting her visit a half-hour later. But she was left standing in line trying to work through her confusion with a DOC staffer.
“I’m waiting for the lady to talk to me now,” Sepulveda said. Shortly after she spoke with THE CITY, a Correction Department staff member told Sepulveda she would have to wait almost two hours before being allowed to see her relative.
Left to Their Own Devices
Visitors who arrive too far ahead of their scheduled time have to sit in a waiting room after their temperature checks and COVID questionnaires are completed. There’s a TV mounted on the wall and bathrooms nearby, but otherwise, visitors are left to occupy themselves.
“It’s a long process,” said Sophia Garcia as she looked through a diaper bag.
Garcia came to Rikers with her 15-month-old son, Taylin, to visit his dad.
While the waiting room had little to offer for the adults present, Taylin kept himself entertained by taking items out of his diaper bag and unsuccessfully trying to open an emergency exit.
‘It’s Not the Same’
Laishawn Ramos and her 7-month-old son, Jream, took the Department of Correction shuttle from Downtown Brooklyn to Rikers to see her son’s father.
Ramos said he had been in custody for 16 months, so the trip was Jream’s first opportunity to see his father in person.
“We’ve done weekly video visits, but it’s not the same,” Ramos said. “I feel kinda nervous. We haven’t seen each other in a while.”