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The Q100 bus to Rikers can be a lifeline for families with loved ones inside the jail

The Q100 bus is one of the only ways to get in and out of Rikers Island, New York's largest correctional facility. During the pandemic, advocates say, the jail has descended into chaos.
Salvador Espinoza for NPR
The Q100 bus is one of the only ways to get in and out of Rikers Island, New York's largest correctional facility. During the pandemic, advocates say, the jail has descended into chaos.

Came'e Lee sits alone on a fall day waiting for the Q100 at a quiet New York City bus stop that seems all but forgotten on the edge of the East River. She's fidgety: She keeps checking her phone and looking around at the other people at the bus stop. A few days earlier, she got a call from the Rikers Island correctional facility.

It was her son.

He's 20 years old. He had been at Rikers for around a month. He'd violated a protection order. There was no information regarding when he'd be released or get a trial. On the phone, he told her he was struggling. He also said he'd been beaten up. For his safety, NPR is withholding his name.

"He wanted me to know that if he doesn't make it, he did not kill himself," she says.

Came'e Lee waits for the Q100 bus, to get to Rikers. She says her son called her from inside Rikers to tell her he was afraid for his life.
/ Salvador Espinoza for NPR
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Salvador Espinoza for NPR
Came'e Lee waits for the Q100 bus, which will take her to Rikers. She says her son called her from inside Rikers to tell her he was afraid for his life.
The Q100 bus is one of the only ways to get in and out of Rikers Island.
/ Salvador Espinoza for NPR
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Salvador Espinoza for NPR
The Q100 bus is one of the few ways to get in and out of Rikers Island.
On the Q100 bus, a stark contrast: between the recently gentrified neighborhoods it drives through, and the decrepit Rikers Island, where the route ends. Seen here: Came'e Lee on her way to see her son.
/ Salvador Espinoza for NPR
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Salvador Espinoza for NPR
On the Q100 bus, there's a stark contrast between the recently gentrified neighborhoods it drives through and the decrepit Rikers Island, where the route ends. Here, Came'e Lee is on her way to see her son.

Lee's fears are not unfounded. Detainees, families and advocates report horrific conditions that include a lack of food and medical attention. They also say a staffing shortage has meant gangs are now running the jail. Even city and state officials have said Rikers is at a breaking point.

Getting information about the well-being of detainees can be difficult. Speaking by phone to loved ones inside is also challenging. So many of their relatives say that it is difficult to even contact detainees to check on their well-being.

The Q100 but is one of the most reliable ways to check in on a loved one on the island. It runs from Queens to Rikers Island. It is a lifeline, a way to stay in touch. NPR spent several weeks riding the bus to and from the island, interviewing passengers — among them, Came'e Lee, who says she has been consumed with thoughts about her son's well-being since she got that call.

"Every night, throughout the night," she says. "In the middle of the night. In the day, during the day. In the morning, during the morning. In the evening, during the evening. It's a feeling I can't ... I can't explain."

Q100 riders say they go see inmates in person when they can't get answers by phone

Here at the Q100 bus stop, it's nearly all women, mostly of color. The bus runs every 15 minutes or so; it's always half full.

Many are dressed up. Some women flaunt stunning electric-blue hair, fluttering eyelashes, impeccable pastel purple nails and velvety soft makeup. It's a mix of glamour and anxiety.

The passengers of the Q100 are mostly women, almost all people of color. They voiced distress over conditions at the facility, and many told stories of loved ones' lives being in danger.
/ Salvador Espinoza for NPR
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Salvador Espinoza for NPR
The passengers of the Q100 bus are mostly women, almost all people of color. They voiced distress over conditions at the Rikers Island facility, and many told stories of loved ones' lives being in danger.
Before arriving at Rikers Island, the Q100 bus drives through the Queensbridge Houses- the largest public housing complex in North America, and the area high school.
/ Salvador Espinoza
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Salvador Espinoza
Before arriving at Rikers Island, the Q100 bus drives through the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in North America, and the area high school.
Most of the women we spoke to on the Q100 shared a deep sense of anxiety over the stories their incarcerated loved ones told them, regarding inhumane conditions at Rikers Island.
/ Salvador Espinoza for NPR
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Salvador Espinoza for NPR
Most of the women we spoke to on the Q100 shared a deep sense of anxiety over the stories their incarcerated loved ones told them regarding inhumane conditions at Rikers Island.

One woman named Francine says her brother almost died in Rikers. He was in for three months, she says, for violating a protection order. She asked that her last name not be used in order to spare her brother the stigma of incarceration.

As she talks, she lights a cigarette and looks down the street to see if the Q100 is coming. She says her brother had a broken leg at Rikers that got infected. She says he couldn't get medical attention. "The nurse was busy. The doctor was busy. And he was sitting there bleeding."

She says she'd call and no one would give her answers.

"Devastating wasn't even the word," she says, "to hear my brother calling home, and crying, and saying, 'I'm gonna lose my leg.' "

When he was released, she says, she had to rush him to the emergency room. In the race to get him to a hospital, she says, they left his belongings behind.

Now she's waiting for the bus so she can go pick them up.

A woman named Toya is here with her 1-year-old son. They've come to see her husband. "They're not treating them like human beings, and that's really it," she says.

Her husband has been inside for a year, awaiting trial. She says he hasn't received medical attention for breathing problems; she asked that her last name be withheld out of concern for his safety.

"If you're looking for justice out of a person, treating them like they're an animal ain't gonna make it no better. Do you expect them to make better choices when they're angry?" she asks.

Overwhelmingly, the passengers of the Q100 are women. Toya (last name withheld) is bringing her son to see his dad. She says her husband's lack of medical attention has been terrifying.
/ Salvador Espinoza for NPR
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Salvador Espinoza for NPR
Overwhelmingly, the passengers of the Q100 are women. Toya (who asked that her last name be withheld out of concern for her husband's safety) is bringing her son to see his dad. She says her husband's lack of medical attention has been terrifying.
A camera overlooking the last Q100 bus stop, right before the bridge that leads to Rikers.
/ Salvador Espinoza for NPR
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Salvador Espinoza for NPR
A camera overlooks the last Q100 bus stop, located right before the bridge that leads to Rikers.
Came'e Lee says her son's incarceration- and his allegations of abuse while at Rikers, have affected her own wellbeing.
/ Salvador Espinoza for NPR
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Salvador Espinoza for NPR
Came'e Lee says her son's incarceration and his allegations of abuse while at Rikers have affected her own well-being.

2021 was a deadly year at Rikers

A lot of these women say they are frustrated with the people they are coming to visit. Their incarceration has affected the entire family: moms, daughters, wives, girlfriends.

But they're also frustrated with how dangerous the jail has become. The New York City Department of Correction says there were 14 deaths in custody in 2021. Two more men died shortly after being granted compassionate leave. Advocates say those deaths should be counted among the total. It's the deadliest year on the island since 2013. Several of those deaths were ruled suicides; there were also various drug overdoses. At least two deaths were related to COVID-19.

Staff members have raised the alarm over a surge in COVID-19 cases at the jail. At the end of December in a public letter, Vincent Schiraldi, then the commissioner of the Department of Correction, talked about relatively low vaccination rates among detainees. He wrote, "for the past several months our COVID positivity rate was consistently hovering at approximately 1%. Yesterday it was 9.5%. Today it is over 17%. "

Schiraldi then implored courts and government officials to do whatever they can to reduce the population at Rikers, including through compassionate release or modification of sentences.

Tahanee Dunn, a prisoners' rights attorney at the nonprofit Bronx Defenders, says none of this surprises her. She says she has filed around 20 complaints in the past six months related to lack of food and medical attention, as well as to violence.

"Incidents like this have been on the rise, I would say, in the past six to nine months," she says, "given what's been going on in the jails regarding COVID, certainly given the staffing issues, and the population has almost doubled since last April, when it was at its lowest."

Long-standing chaos at Rikers has led to its impending closure

There are plans to close Rikers by 2027 and replace it with smaller, more modern jails across the city. The Department of Correction says that in the meantime, there has been progress at ameliorating conditions on the island.

In a statement to NPR, a spokesperson said, "We have worked aggressively to improve unacceptable conditions and thanks to those efforts, more officers are reporting to work, overcrowding and long waits in intake have ceased, and more resources are readily available. The physical and emotional wellbeing of people in our custody is our highest priority. We'll continue building on our progress to make Rikers safer for everyone who lives and works there."

The spokesperson also pointed to a recent report indicating that use of force by correctional staff declined by 11%.

In response to the outcry over conditions at the jail, last September officials released nearly 200 detainees who were in for technical parole violations. A few weeks later, more than 200 women and transgender inmates were moved to facilities upstate. Still, activists say these moves have barely made a dent in the crisis at Rikers.

Rikers is set to close down by 2027. In a statement to NPR, officials said they have "worked aggressively to improve unacceptable conditions."
/ Salvador Espinoza for NPR
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Salvador Espinoza for NPR
Rikers is set to close by 2027. In a statement to NPR, officials said they have "worked aggressively to improve unacceptable conditions."
Among many troubling allegations we heard while riding the Q100, was the lack of medical attention. Some passengers told us they believed their loved ones' lives were at risk.
/ Salvador Espinoza for NPR
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Salvador Espinoza for NPR
Among many troubling allegations we heard while riding the Q100 was the lack of medical attention. Some passengers told us they believed their loved ones' lives were at risk.
In addition to being one of the only ways into Rikers Island, the Q100 bus is also one of the only ways out. Seen here: a former detainee leaves behind an incarceration report.
/ Salvador Espinoza for NPR
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Salvador Espinoza for NPR
In addition to being one of the few ways into Rikers Island, the Q100 bus is also one of the few ways out. Here, a former detainee leaves behind an incarceration report.

On the bus to Rikers along the East River, this mom thinks "about the lives that go over the water and never come out"

The Q100 finally arrives, and the women file on. As the bus rumbles over the bridge, over the East River and onto Rikers Island, the passengers get real quiet. Came'e Lee breaks the silence.

"My mind thinks about so much when I'm on that bus," she says. "Especially when it's time to go over that water. I think about the lives that go over the water and never come out."

Inside Rikers, Came'e Lee spends about 2 1/2 hours shuffling between waiting rooms, doing security checks.

The visitation room is bare. Dark cubicles are separated by plexiglass.

Finally Lee's son appears. He's disheveled, and his voice is hoarse. He says he's not getting food regularly.

She presses her hands and face against the plexiglass pane that separates them. He does too. For a moment they look like statues. Until she whispers something across the divide.

The island does something strange to time: It stretches it, freezes it. Lee and the other women have been in here for six hours, though it feels shorter. They nearly miss their bus, which is about to leave.

Lee settles into her seat, catching her breath. I ask Lee what she whispered to her son.

"I love you. I love you consistently. I love you consistently."

The sun is setting.

She looks out the window and closes her eyes as the Q100 bus makes its way back over the bridge.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

For Came'e Lee, like many of the women we spoke to on the Q100, the problems plaguing Rikers Island are symptomatic of deeper issues with the American criminal justice system.
/ Salvador Espinoza for NPR
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Salvador Espinoza for NPR
For Came'e Lee, like many of the women we spoke to on the Q100, the problems plaguing Rikers Island are symptomatic of deeper issues within the American criminal justice system.

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Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.