Whether a loved one is being held there or you have to visit for other reasons, a trip to Rikers Island definitely isn’t a day at the country club. The island itself totals about 400 acres, and the various prison complexes located there take up much of this land. More than 13,000 inmates and detainees call the place home on any given day, and they receive up to 1,500 visitors on each visiting day. Expect crowds, some waiting and some less-than-pleasant conditions depending on when you visit.
How to get there
There’s only one way on and off Rikers Island: the Rikers Island Bridge. This helps to keep the prison secure, but it can also give visitors fits. The New York City Department of Correction recommends that you take the bus to Rikers: the Q101 from Manhattan, which delivers you directly to the Rikers Island entrance at Hazen Street and 19th Avenue in Queens. From there, transfer to the Q100 line, which takes you over the bridge to the Visit Center.
If you’re determined to drive instead, anticipate having to hunt – and hunt hard – for a parking space. Parking is extremely limited. Take the Triboro Bridge from the Bronx or Manhattan to Queens. If you’re starting out from Brooklyn or Staten Island, take the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. In either case, exit at Astoria Boulevard.
Stay alert at that point because the route you must travel has a few twists and turns that come up at short intervals. Bear left on Astoria Boulevard to access 23rd Avenue, then hang a left on 82nd Street and a right on 81st Street, which becomes 19th Avenue. Turn right again at the first traffic light. This puts you on Hazen Street, where the Rikers parking lot is located. You’ll still need to catch the Q100 bus from there to get from the parking lot to the Visit Center.
When to visit
You can visit Rikers five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday. There are no visiting hours on Mondays or Tuesdays.
That’s the easy part. New York City sets a visiting schedule for inmates and detainees, so you can’t just show up at any time on a visiting day and expect to see who you want to see. Check the city’s website for the schedule to find out when your loved one is permitted to receive visitors. The schedule is based on the first letter of his last name, and it can change monthly. You can usually get the schedule on the website for the current month and a month in advance.
Visiting hours are from 1 to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays and from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but you can expect occasional delays depending on what’s going on at the prison that day.
Security issues and rules
Go first to the Registration Center to check in. You must register before 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays and between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Inmates are limited to one visit per day.
You must pass through a “passive” canine search after you’ve registered; in other words, a dog will sniff around your body for hints of contraband. Provide current identification that includes both a photo and your signature. A driver’s license, employer ID card or nondriver’s license ID will suffice if it has both. Otherwise, a passport is acceptable, as well as a Medicare or Food Stamp ID for the state of New York, a U.S. Armed Services ID Card, a resident alien or permanent resident ID card issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, a diplomatic or consulate-issued ID or an IDNYC card. Children under the age of 16 do not need ID if they’re accompanied by an adult over age 18. A visitor who is 16 or 17 may accompany a minor who is the child of both the visitor and the inmate. In this case, a birth certificate is required to prove it.
Keep in mind that this is an old, somewhat decrepit facility. Yes, there’s air conditioning and heat – at least in visiting areas – but the prison is known to become uncomfortably hot in the summer and frigid in the winter because it’s constructed mostly of concrete and steel. Whatever the weather is outside tends to get trapped inside, resulting in temperature extremes even indoors. Dress lightly if you visit during summer, and wear a sweater if it’s wintertime.
Remember, there’s only that one bridge on and off the island. It’s been known to become impassable in snowy conditions. Flooding of the facilities is common in any heavy rain- or snowstorm.
Then there’s the smell
The facilities on Rikers Island are built over a giant landfill. Initially, the island comprised only 87 acres, which simply wasn’t enough room. The problem was rectified by expanding it with more than 300 acres of ash and garbage. Garbage smells. It produces methane gas as it decomposes. Be prepared to hold your nose against the aroma that’s reportedly reminiscent of rotting eggs. It’s more pervasive on some days than others.