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Welcome to Rikers, Please Leave Your Prints at the Door

Nearly 7,000 people visit Rikers Island jail in New York City each week, and most must be fingerprinted before they are allowed in.
Image: Riker's Island jail
This June 20, 2014, aerial photo shows New York's biggest lockup, Riker's Island jail, with the New York skyline in the background. Investigative documents obtained by The Associated Press on the 11 suicides in New York City jails over the past five years show that in at least nine cases, protocols and safeguards designed to prevent inmates from harming themselves were not followed. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)Seth Wenig / AP

At Rikers Island, the notorious 10-jail complex in New York City, it’s not just the inmates who get fingerprinted, but the visitors, too.

The jail has been quietly collecting the fingerprints of visitors since December 2010, using a biometric-scan system called Visitor Express. A spokesman for the New York City Department of Correction told NBC News that the policy — which is not mentioned in the guidelines for visitors on the DOC website — increases efficiency in processing visitors and eases their stay.

Rikers is the nation's second-largest jail, a massive beast of a compound that fields as many as 6,800 visits a week. No doubt, visitors would appreciate a degree of efficiency as they wait in line after line to get to the right cellblock for their visit.

Not everyone is at ease with the practice. New York State Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, chairman of the Correction Committee, told NBC News the policy is "intrusive" and he wants to put a stop to it. He wrote two letters to the DOC inquiring about the policy earlier this year, after constituents complained.

In response in April, the DOC told him the policy was "was developed with visitors’ comfort in mind,” wrote Mark Cranston, the acting commissioner at the time, citing the speedier check-in for visitors as well as the security of the compound. He said the system was discussed “during two public meetings in 2011.”

O’Donnell said there is a question of privacy. Namely, where do those fingerprints go? Can they be handed over to law enforcement and used against people in a criminal investigation, even if they committed no crime?

Barbed wire fences surround a building on Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York.Lucas Jackson / Reuters, file

It’s possible. According to Cranston's letter, the prints remain within a self-contained database at Rikers —unless there’s “a specific request by an official law-enforcement agency.”

DOC spokesman Robin Campbell said no fingerprints have left the internal database to date. The DOC declined to give details on the specific kind of law-enforcement request that would spur the release of the prints.

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, said fingerprinting visitors is unnecessary. “I’ve been going to jails since 1990 and have never been asked to give prints — the vast majority of jails are managing without this means of security,” he said. “Driver’s licenses are an accepted form of ID. You can get on an airplane and get access to a federal courthouse with a drivers’s license.”

Fathi said he doesn't know how many U.S. prisons use such a policy but that he believes it is “very, very rare.” Alabama began scanning visitor fingerprints at state prisons in 2012, citing security and efficiency. Washington, D.C., reportedly considered such a policy in 2011 but shelved it amid legal and operational concerns. In Kansas, the El Dorado Correctional Facility began scanning visitor prints in 2011, but a spokesman said the prints aren't stored in a database — visitors are scanned each time they enter and exit to make sure the prints match and an inmate doesn't escape.

“I’ve been going to jails since 1990 and have never been asked to give prints — the vast majority of jails are managing without this means of security.”

Assemblyman O’Donnell said he has not come across any other jails in New York beyond Rikers that fingerprint visitors.

Rikers says its policy is optional. However, the jail does not make that clear to visitors. On June 29, I visited an inmate and was told to give my prints. I was not told it was optional. Neither were the two visitors who accompanied me. I placed two fingers on a biometric fingerprint reader — then did so again, and again, due to an apparent glitch.

According to the policy, obtained by NBC News from the New York branch of the ACLU, if you refuse to give your prints, “the registration officer shall immediately notify the visit captain. The visit captain shall attempt to persuade the visitor to provide fingerprints. If all attempts to obtain the fingerprints fail, the visit captain shall override the fingerprint requirement in the Visitor Express application, noting that the visitor refused to be fingerprinted, and then enrollment shall proceed.”

“If it is indeed optional to give prints," Fathi said, "that needs to be clearly communicated to visitors.”

The DOC would prefer that people not know the policy is optional. “Publicizing visitors’ right to refuse to be fingerprinted would undermine the system and result in longer processing times and waits for all visitors,” the spokesman said.

New York State Assembly member Daniel J. O'Donnell.New York State Assembly

Assemblyman O’Donnell, a former public defender at the Legal Aid Society, questioned just how optional the policy is. He said he has heard from constituents that when people tried to forgo the prints, they were told there was “no guarantee” they would get their visit.

“It’s an intrusion into the process of allowing people access to the people they need to see in their lives,” he said, noting that visitation is an important part of rehabilitation, leading to lower rates of recidivism. He added that most inmates at Rikers are "pretrial detainees" who have not been convicted.

The DOC spokesman defended the policy, saying fingerprints are simply the fastest way to verify that people are who they say they are at the mammoth compound. Once visitors are enrolled in the system, they just place their fingers on the scanner on subsequent visits as opposed to producing documents.

“Fingerprint scans also expedite the process of ensuring that people whose visiting rights have been restricted do not gain access using false identification,” he said. He explained, “Visitors who violate DOC rules — for example, by behaving disruptively or bringing contraband into a facility — may be barred from subsequent visits."

“It’s an intrusion into the process of allowing people access to the people they need to see in their lives.”

Indeed, contraband is a problem at Rikers — but not always due to visitors. Last month, two correction officers and more than 20 inmates were reportedly arrested in a contraband smuggling network. Searches unveiled marijuana, tobacco and weapons, according to The New York Times. At least a dozen other officers and their superiors were reportedly referred for prosecution as part of the investigation.

The contraband smuggling is among a list of recent problems at Rikers: A Times investigation revealed evidence of attacks on inmates — particularly the mentally ill — by correction officers, sparking an official investigation. In the past year, one inmate died in the prison in an overheated cell. Another died after being locked in a cell for seven days, naked and covered in feces.

The DOC declined to say whether the jail seeks fingerprints from people who visit in some official capacity —lawyers, members of aid groups, reporters on official press visits. Alison Parker, a director at the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, told NBC News that the group's members had not been fingerprinted on visits to the jail. It seems Rikers is more concerned with the “comfort” of the friends and family of inmates.