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How the Women Who Visit Rikers Island Navigate the Complex Dress Code

Women looking to visit loved ones in the hellish NYC jail must submit to humiliating searches and allegedly inconsistent rules about what they can and cannot wear.

by Sonja Sharp
Sep 23 2015, 4:00am

Roquelina Fernandez, who turned her dress into a T-shirt to pass dress code at Rikers. All photos by the author

VICE is exploring America's prison system in the week leading up to our special report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, September 27, at 9 PM EST, to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.

You can spot them almost any day of the week, clustered at bus stops around Queens with nearly identical gray sweatsuits and thermals and shower shoes stuffed into black plastic bags. They often have infants on their hips or impatient children in hand, their faces made with care that belies their sneakers and sports bras, and their undone hair.

These are the ladies of Rikers Island. Not the female inmates of the 800-bed Rose M. Singer Center, but the untold thousands whose husbands, brothers, baby-fathers, boyfriends and relatives make up the detention complex's roughly 11,000 other inhabitants, and who fill the Q100 bus most days of the week laden with clothing and other supplies for their imprisoned loved ones.

And there's a reason the women themselves all look so similar.

"I hate that shirt," cried Niesha Smith, 20, bouncing her one-year-old daughter on her lap on the Q100 bus as she described the XXL neon green "cover-up garment" female visitors like her are forced to wear if their outfits fall short of the jail's strict visitor dress code. "I want my daughter's father to see me, to see my body, that's why I came."

When they were first introduced in 2011, the T-shirts were touted by the city's tabloids as "covering up the skanks—and keeping out the shanks." In theory, the garment's purpose is to conceal the provocatively clad and draw extra eyes to anyone who might be trying to smuggle in contraband, and on paper it would seem simple enough to avoid the see-through tops, miniskirts, and hot pants that aren't kosher.

But in practice, the rules can be onerous—and many say, capricious—for women, who constitute the bulk of visitors. Even a slight infraction of the written code—a blouse that gaps in the back, for example, or a patella peeking out from a skirt—can earn a humiliating sartorial addition from the New York City Department of Corrections.

Alexis Cortez, who says she was turned away for a long skirt with a slit in it and made to wear "the shirt" for a pair of leggings on her last visit to Rikers Island

"This is actually a dress—I had to put on pants to make it look like a shirt," 17-year-old Roquelina Fernandez told me of her outfit as she sat outside the main visitor center smoking a cigarette. "It's a dress like this," she said, pointing to mine, "but if it's here"—she pointed to just above my knee, where the dress I was wearing had ridden up—"and not here"—she tapped just below my kneecap—"they give you a shirt."

To be clear, did Roquelina honestly think that the same high-necked, long-sleeved black maternity dress I'd worn to my Orthodox synagogue for Rosh Hashanah a few days before—the one covering seven months of very obvious pregnancy—would earn me the shirt?

"Once they see it rises up past your knees, no, you can't wear it," she added.

She and others I spoke to told me the code is so strict it would make a Catholic school teacher blush. The rules effectively translate to no tank tops, no V-necks, no button-up shirts or leggings or dresses. A rule against layers means sweltering through summer and shivering all winter long. Another forbidding uniforms adds an extra layer of hassle for hospital and fast-food workers coming to visit from their jobs.

"It's horrible, because it makes you feel like one of them," 45-year-old Juyana Lewis said of the shirts, which she considered punitive. "That just teaches you a lesson."

Dress codes aren't without some justification: On my last trip here, I overheard a group of visitors talking about an inmate who had been shanked after his mom wore a red top on a visit (red being the traditional color of the Bloods). And although the Department of Correction (DOC) has so far declined to answer questions about the dress code or how it's enforced, the visitors have theories.

"It's different for a man," Lola Arroyo, 29, explained to the younger mom Niesha when she despaired over getting stuck with the shirt for her V-neck top. When they see even a small amount of cleavage, "it creates a big problem."

Kya Morrell, 17, with her daughter Abria, whose father has been incarcerated for 21 months. Morrell doesn't get much hassle for her outfits, but her hair is a different story: The complicated do gets a full search for weapons.

Still, the written code isn't the only thing limiting what female visitors can wear. Arroyo and others spoke of their wireless Rikers Island bras.

"I still wear an underwire bra but you have to sign a paper [allowing them] to search you physically," explained Alexis Cortez, whose four-foot-six frame was literally swallowed by the shirt the first time she had to wear it."They lift up your shirt. You have to unbutton your pants and they check to see if you have anything in your [vaginal] area. It's disgusting."

Underwires aren't the only item likely to trigger a so-called "consecutive search"—the wrong hairstyle can do it, too.

"They put their fingers in your hair to make sure you ain't got no weapons," said Kya Morrell, 17, who'd brought her one-year-old daughter Abria two hours from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn to see Abria's father, who has been on Rikers for 21 months.

Despite hours of travel each way and hours more enduring sometimes invasive searches, a fashion violation can mean no visit at all.

"They pick and choose," Cortez explained, saying she'd been sent home for a long skirt with a slit, but allowed to visit wearing a cover-up on a day she wore leggings.

Fernandez agreed.

"There's so much stupid rules, some of them don't even make sense," she said.

"You can't wear a ponytail or a bun. If you have a headband, you gotta take it off," Fernandez added. "If you have on a one-piece jumper, you have to wear the green shirt for that too. You gotta come here bumming."

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