This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
It should be easy to visit my incarcerated client.
After all, she’s locked up. She can’t miss a subway on her way to seeing me, and definitely won’t have a childcare emergency or conflicting appointment.
I know where she is: “Rosie’s,” the women’s jail on New York City’s Rikers Island. And I know where I can go to meet her: not Rosie’s.
Visiting anyone “on island,” as we call it, requires leaving your office for an entire day. That could mean neglecting the rest of your caseload. So most attorneys I know ask to have their Rikers clients brought to Criminal Court at 100 Centre Street in Lower Manhattan.
There, I’m confident this client and I can discuss strategies for her pending Family Court case. The stakes are arguably even higher than in the criminal case she faces— after all, we’re talking about how to get her child back when she’s released from jail. As a court-appointed attorney, I'm asking a client who didn't get to choose me to trust that I will fight for her child—and her. I have to stand up in court and say that I am talking for that person.
If I’m going to speak for her, I need to visit face-to-face. But visiting can be a hell of a slog.
First, I have to call the New York City Department of Correction a day in advance. There are multiple numbers, and although the department publishes some of them, they’re usually handed from attorney to attorney like passwords to a speakeasy.
Sometimes, no one answers. I call one number and let it ring on speaker, while I’m putting case notes into my computer. I lose track of the number of rings. I hang up and call the second number. This time I count. Twenty. Forty. I dig in my heels this time. I will not hang up.
On the 45th ring, a muffled voice answers.
“I’m calling for an attorney-client visit,” I say. “My client is at Rosie’s.” I rattle off my client’s book and case number.
“No go, counselor. It’s after 3 p.m.”
It’s 4:05 p.m. on Monday afternoon, and I’ve been in Family Court all day. I want to see my client on Tuesday afternoon. Isn’t this a day in advance?
"I'm calling from California? It's before 3 o'clock here," I gamely try.
“You have to call before 3 p.m. the day before you want to see your client, counselor. Not two days, not the day of. The day before. By three.”
I had sent a letter to my client, informing her that I’d be requesting a visit for tomorrow at Centre Street, and now I’m sick imagining her thinking I forgot or didn’t bother. There’s no way to reach her by phone; she doesn’t have commissary money to call to me, and a letter sent today won’t wend its way to her in time. She’s just across town, but that doesn’t matter when the line between inside and outside goes through so many gates.
The next week, I get it right. When court is in recess (before 3 p.m.), I call that number and refuse to hang up. I finally get a corrections officer on the line and give my client’s case number. She will be produced at 100 Centre Street sometime the following morning, although I’m not told when.
The next day I send an email to my colleagues in court: “Going to corrections. See you at Christmas.” I’m going dark.
I arrive at 100 Centre Street at 1 p.m., during my first break in all-day Family Court hearings, and slap my Secure Pass against the filthy glass window. I heave open the heavy metal door and shove my pass under a second window to the same officer. She pushes it back; the gate in front of me buzzes.
I shoulder that gate open and am faced with a wall of dented lockers and, past them, a metal detector. I go through it, giving up my pass to another C.O. behind a desk. She takes it, giving me a weary hello — we’ve been through this many times together — and hands me a laminated badge identifying me as “No. 8” to clip to my blouse.
Going through those gates is like entering an airlock. Inside, there is no natural light, no sound of the rain or wind—not even the strong smell of New York City.
“It’s raining out there,” I offer to the C.O. behind the desk, thinking that maybe she’ll appreciate a weather report.
“I don’t give a shit,” she says. “It’s not raining in here. Sign in.”
In this digital age, there still exists a ledger at Manhattan Criminal Court with smeared pages and a ballpoint pen attached by a chain. It’s the size of a phone book, of a dictionary, of a Bible.
I sign my name, write the purpose of my visit and my client’s case number. There’s a column for the floor I’ll be visiting.
“What floor is my client on?” I ask the officer.
“Don’t know,” she answers. “Maybe seven. Maybe 12.”
I write seven.
I pick a locker and lock up my briefcase, phone, keys, umbrella.
I pass through another gate.
The elevator clangs open. Another C.O. is operating it. He’s a clever guy with a dark sense of jail humor.
“Where to, counselor?” he asks.
“And if we’re not having a luau today?”
“Seven. Or 12, please.”
“Male or female?”
“I’m female. So is my client,” I respond.
“Let’s try 12,” he says.
Another gate. A long hallway. Another ledger.
The visiting area is a large rectangular room with a smaller cage inside it. Attorneys sit inside the cage and incarcerated people sit outside the cage on stools. It’s noisy. I can hear raised voices, impatient explanations, frustration, anger and resignation piling up like laundry. There is no privacy here; everyone can hear everyone.
I have to wait because women can’t be produced alongside men. One full side of stools has to be empty before my client can be brought out.
Fifteen minutes go by. Thirty minutes. Lawyers leave, looking annoyed and rushed. Clients leave, looking dispirited and broken.
A C.O. asks for the name of my client again, then uses a phone to call some unseen place behind yet another gate.
“Your female just left,” he says, hanging up the phone. “Must have left while you were waiting. She took the early bus back to Rosie’s.”
I stare at him.
“They do that, you know,” he continues. “They wake them up so early, like 4 a.m., to get on the bus. No one tells them why they’re here. By 2 p.m., they’re given an option to leave, so most do. Why stick around? They’re tired. They’re hungry.”
I keep staring.
It should be easy, visiting my incarcerated client.
Rebecca Boucher is an attorney in New York City. She represents parents who are responding to petitions filed against them in Family Court.