How NYC got Rikers Island and Why it Doesn’t Work

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Rikers Island houses not one jail but 10 and represents the bulk of New York City's incarceration capacity. People held there are either awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than one year.


Rikers Island houses not one jail but 10 and represents the bulk of New York City's incarceration capacity. People held there are either awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than one year.

“…here you sty me
In this hard rock,
whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island.”

-Caliban addressing his master, Prospero, in “The Tempest”

Rikers Island, located in the East River within spitting distance of Port Morris, the Bronx, and Astoria, Queens, has a foreboding aura that only island lockups have. It is at once amid the city, just a hundred yards from a LaGuardia Airport runway, and at the same time easily hidden by a sudden fog bank. It symbolizes the way Western societies have approached criminal punishment for more than a hundred years: No more public pillorying – keep the wrongdoers out of sight, out of mind.

Today, with Rikers’ inmate population 90 percent black or Latino, experts say its isolating and ostracizing nature magnifies the racial discrimination at the heart of the criminal justice system. “The idea that we need to put people on an island away from us – it is a self-contained community where they’re locked up and the people who oversee their detention travel across a bridge to get there – almost begs for trouble,” says Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “This is a very old way of thinking about how we as a society manage the deprivation of liberty. We do it far away.”

This is the second article in a series co-published with City & State. Click here to read more.

This is the second article in a series co-published with City & State. Click here to read more.

The notion of a penal colony has existed since 17th century China, but their use peaked in the 19th and early 20th centuries – Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” was published in 1919 – most often in European colonies. Theorists of biological determinism of criminality like 19th century Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso recommended that “incorrigible” repeat offenders be exiled to such colonies.

Though Rikers Island was bought by the city in the 1880s, it wasn’t put into use as a site for detention until 1935, just a year after the creation of the infamous island prison, San Francisco’s Alcatraz. Under Correction Commissioner Richard C. Patterson, a World War I veteran who helped organize the American Legion in Paris, Rikers replaced the principal jail at the time, which was located on what is now Roosevelt Island, then called Blackwell Island, which also had a history of abuse.


The relocation of Blackwell Island inmates to Rikers was, at the time, seen as a reform. Back in 1934, narcotics-trafficking gangs headed by Joie Rao and Edward Cleary (whose mentor was Dutch Schultz) were the subject of an investigation to determine the extent to which they ran operations at the old jail.

Over decades the Italian and Irish gangs have given way to the era of mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos, and Rikers’ unsavory reputation is carried by a new demographic. It still functions as a depository for hardened street criminals, repeat gang offenders and, increasingly, the mentally ill, and it has been nicknamed, like Alcatraz once was, “the Rock,” which calls to mind not only its rocky landscape and incomparable “hardness,” but also the term for cocaine that has been processed for street use.

The reaction to the crack wave of the ’80s was an aggressive system of drug-war policing that has led to the incarceration of many young men of color, often for relatively minor drug offenses. Since many lack the resources to pay bail, it has become a way station for the Kalief Browders of the world: those accused of possessing of small amounts of marijuana or committing petty larceny. These days Rikers’ resemblance to a penal colony is the byproduct of its grim past, its forlorn location and its place within an inefficient court process that delays justice for its staggering number of pretrial detainees.

Rikers’ physical reality, many agree, is a crucial part of its problem. Much has been written about its narrow approach roads, inconvenient public transportation access, and remoteness from families who must confront interminable bus rides and a maze of sometimes hostile bureaucracy for a relatively brief encounter with their incarcerated loved ones.

“It takes a whole day to get to Rikers and back home,” says City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who favors closing the island. “You go out at 7 a.m. and you return at 7 at night. We should be making it easier for families to visit their loved ones. Study after study has shown the decrease in the amount of recidivism when families can continue to be involved with their loved ones.”

For a resident of Hunts Point, the Bronx – which is physically only a little over a mile from the island – to visit a loved one or friend at Rikers, travel time would be around an hour and 40 minutes, requiring a subway trip to Midtown in order to cross into Queens to catch the Rikers bus.

As hard as it is for civilians to get on and off the island, it’s also difficult for inmates to go to and from court. The city spends roughly $25 million a year and devotes more than 300 employees to the Correction Department’s transportation division. Without traffic, Rikers is 20 minutes from criminal court in Queens, 21 minutes from the Bronx courthouse, 26 minutes from Brooklyn judges, 27 minutes from Centre Street in Manhattan and 50 minutes from criminal court in Staten Island.

Access to courts is a critical factor because Rikers – a jail and not a prison – functions mainly as a holding cell for the criminal court system. While some of its residents are convicted and serving sentences of less than one year for misdemeanor offenses, most of its inmates on a given day are pretrial detainees who, because they’ve been remanded there or unable to afford bail, wait there between court appearances.


While Rikers is not the only jail in New York – about 150 people are locked up in

the Brooklyn Detention Complex, another 800 on the Bain barge docked off Hunts Point, and nearly 900 at the Manhattan Detention Complex, known as the Tombs – it is by far the largest. The epitome of a sprawling detention complex, Rikers consists of 10 jails and additional support facilities, including a visitors’ center and infirmaries.

Although construction is underway to build a new jail on the island, projected to cost $594 million and due to be completed in 2018, the rest of the facilities are over 50 years old, and their crumbling conditions and inadequate recreational spaces add to the isolating atmosphere. Former Correction Commissioner Martin Horn even says the buildings themselves undermine efforts to reduce violence.

“They are poorly designed and they actually serve as an arsenal,” he says. “Most of the weapons are being made inside the prison because the prison is so poorly built the prisoners can rip metal off the heating fixtures and off the lighting fixtures and sharpen them into lethal weapons.”

Among the problems resulting from Rikers’ physical deterioration are sewage backups, water main breaks, and lack of heat and ventilation. While most of Rikers is not currently in the 100-year flood zone, projections for the years 2050 and beyond show large swathes of it becoming vulnerable to coastal inundation. City Comptroller Scott Stringer says that during a recent visit to the island, he saw “floorboards that were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy that were never replaced” in a juvenile gymnasium facility.* And although concentrating services on one island should create efficiencies, the overall inefficiency of the arrangement outweighs any advantages, critics say.

In the past, Rikers Island’s limited bridge access was used as leverage by the city’s correction officers to stage protests. Under Mayor David Dinkins in 1990 and three years later under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, correction officers blocked the bridge to protest working conditions and the failure of the city to reach a contract agreement with them. The 1990 episode was particularly tense, when, following a “bloody uprising” involving sustained clashes between inmates and guards, “600 guards blockaded the bridge, stranding thousands of inmates and workers on the island for two days,” according to The New York Times.

READ PART I: The Growing Calls to Close Rikers Island

Adi Talwar

READ PART I: The Growing Calls to Close Rikers Island

The difficulty of traveling to Rikers, its removal from the normal conditions of contiguous city life, even the fact that it is far from city courthouses, all heighten its sordid, outside-the-law ambiance, whether real or imagined. Even the abuses and corruption that correction officers have been accused of – from active collaboration with drug gangs to simply running visitors through a gauntlet – are sometimes attributed to the island’s “out-of-sight” perception. John Jay’s Travis sees Rikers Island’s remoteness at odds with trends in criminal justice policy.

“Community courts are all around the city now,” Travis says. “This is part of a larger imperative for the country: to reduce the stigmatization of people who have been accused of, not even convicted of, violating the law. These are our brothers and sisters and fellow citizens, and putting them on an island conveys just the opposite image of the larger national project that’s underway right now to reimagine our justice system in terms of a citizenship and human dignity value proposition.”


Rikers’ long history as a facsimile of a penal colony makes it vulnerable to charges that it reflects the kind of institutionalized racism that criminal justice reform advocates inveigh against. Isolating inmates on an island has the effect of ostracizing them, and can be seen as the first step toward an eventual denial of educational opportunities, housing and voting rights.

But while that systemic critique is in the background, the movement toward closing Rikers is largely driven by the more tangible reality of the jail’s problematic space and place.

“Rikers Island consists of 13 different facilities – it is chaotic, and that generates violence and brutality because of the culture of the place,” says psychiatrist Bandy Lee, who worked at Rikers earlier in the decade. “To alter and ameliorate it involves tearing down the architecture, because of its effect on people’s emotional state and mental health.”

* Editor’s Note: The Department of Correction says this issue has been addressed.

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