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The Q100 bus to Rikers keeps families connected to loved ones inside the jail

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It can be difficult for family members to contact the detainees at New York's Rikers Island. Well, this next story is about how a bus line has become a lifeline for those same family members. The Q100 bus - it's one of the only ways in and out of the city's troubled jail. NPR's Jasmine Garsd spent several weeks traveling the route, talking with the passengers.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: It's a sunny afternoon in New York City. At a quiet bus stop that seems forgotten on the edge of the East River, Kamay Lee (ph) sits alone, waiting. She's fidgety. A few days ago, she says she got a call from Rikers Island. It was her son. He told her he's been struggling. He also said he'd been beaten up.

KAMAY LEE: And he wanted me to know that if he doesn't make it, he did not kill himself. He says, mom, I want you to know that I did not commit - If I don't make it, I didn't commit suicide.

GARSD: She says she hasn't heard from him since. He's 20 years old, and he was sent to Rikers Island for violating a protection order. We're withholding his name for his safety.

Lee is here waiting for the Q100 bus on her way to see him. She's distressed about what she might find when she arrives. This is all she's thought about since she got that call.

LEE: Every night, throughout the night, 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 explain.

GARSD: Here at the Q100 bus stop, it's nearly all women, mostly of color. Many are dressed up - stunning electric-blue hair, fluttering eyelashes, impeccable pastel-purple nails and velvety soft makeup. It's a mix of glamour and anxiety.

One woman named Francine (ph) says her brother recently 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 to avoid her brother the stigma of having been detained there. 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 that got infected. She says she couldn't get medical attention.

FRANCINE: The nurse is busy. The doctor is busy. He was sitting there, bleeding.

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

FRANCINE: Devastating wasn't even the word to hear my brother calling home and crying and saying, I'm going to lose my leg.

GARSD: When he was released...

FRANCINE: I had to rush him into the ER.

GARSD: In the race to get him to a hospital, she says they left his belongings behind. Now she's waiting for the Q100 to go pick them up. A woman named Toya (ph) is here with her 1-year-old. They've come to see her husband.

TOYA: They're not treating them like human beings, and that's really it.

GARSD: She knows Rikers is slated to close down in 2027. She just wishes it was sooner. 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.

TOYA: If you're looking for justice out of a person, treating them like they're an animal ain't going to make it no better. Then you expect them to make better choices and better decisions in life when they're angry.

GARSD: A lot of these women are frustrated with the people they are coming to visit. The incarceration has affected the entire family - moms, daughters, sons, wives, girlfriends. But they're also frustrated with how dangerous Rikers has become.

The department of corrections says there were 14 deaths in custody in 2021. Two more men died shortly after being granted compassionate leave. There are also reports of lack of food, staffing shortages and gang violence. Politicians have declared it on the verge of collapse. Tahanee Dunn is a prisoner's rights attorney at the nonprofit Bronx Defenders.

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

GARSD: The New York Department of Correction acknowledges there's problems. In a statement to NPR, a department spokesperson said, quote, "we have worked aggressively to improve unacceptable conditions. The physical and emotional well-being of people in our custody is our highest priority."

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS BEEPING)

GARSD: When the Q100 finally arrives, the women file on. As it rumbles over the bridge over the East River and onto Rikers Island, it gets real quiet. Kamay Lee breaks the silence.

LEE: My mind thinks about so much when I'm on that bus, especially when it's time to go over that water. I think about the lives who go over the water and never come out.

GARSD: Inside Rikers, she spends about 2 1/2 hours shuffling between waiting rooms, navigating 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. It freezes it. Lee and the other women have been in here for six hours. They suddenly realize the Q100 bus is about to leave.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

GARSD: On the bus, I ask Lee what she whispered to her son back in there.

LEE: I love you. I love you consistently. I love you consistently.

GARSD: The sun is setting. She looks out the window and closes her eyes as the Q100 bus makes its way back over the bridge.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL SIMON SONG, "FATHER AND DAUGHTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.