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Across the 'Bridge of Pain'

How the Rikers Island Jail became America’s most infamous penitentiary.
Rikers Island: 415 acres of prison mismanagement. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Rikers Island: 415 acres of prison mismanagement. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the 18 months since he became mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio has made several trips across a 4,200-foot causeway in the city’s East River. To the Queens residents on its southern border, this outer borough roadway is known as the Francis R. Buono Memorial Bridge—or, more informally, as “the Rikers Island Bridge.” The residents on the other side know it by a different name. To the roughly 10,000 men, women, and adolescents in the Rikers Island Jail, the mayor has been driving across the “Bridge of Pain.”

De Blasio has returned from these visits with ambitious plans for the nation’s second-largest jail complex. In April, he promised to end court delays that keep Rikers inmates locked away for years while awaiting trial. On June 22, his administration settled a long-standing class-action lawsuit filed by United States Attorney Preet Bharara on behalf of inmates who were beaten by Rikers guards. As part of the settlement, de Blasio agreed to federal oversight of the jail and announced sweeping new restrictions on the use of force by its corrections officers.

City officials have been pledging to end the violence and overcrowding on Rikers Island for almost a century, but there are reasons to hope that De Blasio’s commitments are sincere. He speaks passionately about the “moral imperative” to reverse the Island’s decades of abuse and his administration has already devoted tens of millions of dollars to curbing jail violence.

He also faces withering scrutiny over the jail’s dysfunction and corruption. Last month, one current and two former corrections officers were arrested for beating a 52-year-old inmate to death in 2012. The New Yorker recently uncovered shocking revelations about the beating and starvation of Kalief Browder, a former juvenile inmate who committed suicide on June 6th after three years of being incarcerated without a conviction. And, earlier this month, it was revealed that 20 Rikers inmates had filed yet another lawsuit against the city, claiming $10 million in damages from a February incident in which they were allegedly beaten and pepper-sprayed by guards. In a report on the jail’s juvenile facilities released last summer, the U.S. Attorney’s office concluded that the Rikers Island jail continues to suffer from a “deep-seated culture of violence.”

How did a city landfill in the armpit of the Bronx become one of the world’s most infamous penitentiaries? How did a house of detention opened to progressive fanfare during the New Deal come to symbolize the worst excesses of our contemporary justice system?

These scandals are the latest to place a spotlight on an institution that has always been shrouded in mystery and myth. For most Americans, Rikers is little more than a flash of sunlight on a barbed wire fence, a piece of toy scenery on the descent toward LaGuardia Airport. Fans of hip hop know it as a murky dungeon, a holding pen for the darkest memories of their favorite emcees. In the 1987 song “Rikers Island,” the rapper Kool G. Rap calls it a “jungle,” a place “that’s crowded but there’s room for you,” a place that leaves you “black and blue.” Thirty years later, that reputation for violence is as bad as it’s ever been. Even if you can’t find Rikers on a map, you surely recognize the sound of its Dutch surname, with its jagged cadence and weapon-like syncopation.

Yet even as we read about the squalid conditions in Browder’s cell, and the dismal food in the Island’s commissaries, and the perpetual frustrations of its overworked guards, we’ve heard very little about the history of the jail. How did a city landfill in the armpit of the Bronx become one of the world’s most infamous penitentiaries? How did a house of detention opened to progressive fanfare during the New Deal come to symbolize the worst excesses of our contemporary justice system? As city officials start to implement reforms, it is worth re-visiting the centuries-old story of this troubled institution. If the Rikers Island Jail is a “house-of-horrors,” as the New York Times concluded in a recent editorial, then it is a particularly old one, a residence still haunted by the ghosts of its past.


The story begins in the Dutch settlements of New Amsterdam in 1664. This was the year that a wealthy merchant named Abraham Ryken bought the deed to an 87-acre island in the East River. His descendants lived on this land for the next two centuries, building a land-owning dynasty known by the family’s Anglicized surname: “Riker.” After lending their estate to the Union Army for training during the Civil War, the Riker descendants sold the Island to the city's Commission of Charities and Corrections in 1884.

In the late 1800s, with new immigrants flooding into the city, the dilapidated facilities on Blackwell's (now Roosevelt) Island were too small to accommodate both the city’s charitable institutions and its prison population. "It has long been a reproach to this city that the sick and unfortunate who are legitimate objects of charity are sent to Blackwell's Island, which is generally associated in the public mind with a penal institution," the city aldermen concluded in an 1893 report. With its discreet location at the mouth of Flushing Bay, Rikers Island was deemed a more appropriate site to punish the city’s convicts.

Transforming Rikers into a modern house of corrections was an engineering nightmare. Nearly half of the Island was less than three feet above sea level, and it took decades of prisoner labor and city garbage to complete the elaborate landfill projects. The sun-baked worksites were a world apart from the salons of Gilded Age New York but an inescapable presence in the lives of lower-class residents along the water’s edge. As Edwin Burrows notes in Gotham: A History of New York Until 1898, "the Riker’s Island landfills brought furious complaints from Queens, Manhattan and Bronx residents sickened by the terrible odors.”

In 1935, after nearly five decades of construction, prisoners in jumpsuits began to file into the Island's House of Detention for Men. They arrived at a moment when the Roosevelt Administration’s Prison Industries Reorganization Administration was using penal institutions to employ and quarantine millions of Americans displaced by the Great Depression. A Workers Projection Administration guide to New York City touted the "modern" and "scientific" approach to the treatment of prisoners on Rikers Island: The jail had a hospital, a laundry and 26 fireproof red brick buildings.

By the early 1960s, the city was experiencing the largest influx of heroin it had ever seen. The Rikers Island Jail was ground zero for these urban tremors, the crash site of a 30-year crime wave.

But there were early cracks in its progressive facade. A 1939 grand jury investigation found “cramped quarters, unsanitary conditions and inadequate facilities” at the jail and raised suspicion that WPA workers were smuggling contraband onto the Island. Garbage continued to fester on the Island’s outer rim, the raw material for new landfill projects that would eventually expand the Island to its current 415 acres. And even in the early years, when Rikers Island was viewed as virtually escape-proof, the inmates showed a dogged determination to break their bonds. A 33-year-old man named Walter Zell was the first to escape the jail, sneaking out of a coal chute and swimming across to nearby North Brother Island. A prisoner named Joseph Grimm tried the same escape a few years later and is believed to have drowned in the East River.

The desperation of the inmates and the idealism of their overseers collided in the jail’s mess hall. The prisoners ate beneath a WPA mural titled “"Man's Daily Bread” a massive triptych depicting a bountiful harvest, while hunger had driven so many of those prisoners to commit their crimes. When the Times interviewed the artist, Herbert Lehman, in 1939, he admitted that the painting had been poorly received by the local critics: When it first appeared in 1936, the inmates threw their mashed potatoes at it.


The post-war decades brought sweeping changes to New York, as Puerto Ricans and southern blacks began arriving in record numbers, settling on the margins of the city’s famously sectarian neighborhoods. Competition for blue-collar jobs grew increasingly fierce, aggravating tensions between the city’s working-class whites and their new neighbors. New Yorkers alienated by these social upheavals turned to new and increasingly dangerous ways of adapting: youth gangs were on the rise and, by the early 1960s, the city was experiencing the largest influx of heroin it had ever seen. The Rikers Island Jail was ground zero for these urban tremors, the crash site of a 30-year crime wave. As authorities meted out increasingly harsh sentences to the city’s drug users and dealers, the number of prisoners on Rikers Island began to swell. From a population of 2,500 in the mid-1930s, the jail had grown to 6,500 inmates by 1968.

That same year, six black prisoners at the jail were attacked by 80 white inmates armed with chair legs, mop handles, and knives made from filed-down spoons. One of the victims, a star pitcher for the Rikers Island baseball team named Theodore Cummings, was left in a coma. According to press accounts of the attack, the victims had been targeted for “moving into an area of the prison that the whites had designated for their own use.” As tensions simmered in the city’s multi-ethnic neighborhoods, they were reaching a boil within the choked confines of the jail.

“Everyone was covered with blood. Eight batons were broken. It made Rodney King look like kindergarten.”

In 1971, Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs, and the jail was flooded with new arrivals. Rikers added a new House of Detention for Women that year; in 1972, it opened a jail for adolescents. By the mid-1970s, the city was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and conditions on the Island had rapidly deteriorated. A June 1975 lawsuit filed by New York City’s Legal Aid Society on behalf of all inmates at the House of Detention for Men cited decrepit physical conditions in the cells and common areas, lack of decent sanitation, and obstacles to visiting by detainees’ families and attorneys. That fall, prisoners at the HDM took five guards hostage in one of the worst riots in New York City history.

After 17 hours of negotiations, the guards were released unharmed, and corrections officials agreed to address the jail’s overcrowding and visiting policies. But the riot produced a lasting rift between the Island’s inmates and its guards. Corrections officers were bitter that the roughly 1,800 prisoners who had taken part were granted immunity from prosecution. And the inmates had their own reasons to distrust the COs: according to a post-mortem published in the Times, some guards and their superiors had advocated for re-taking the hostages by force, a tactic that had produced 39 deaths during the Attica prison uprising in 1971.

Despite the best efforts of Mayor Ed Koch, who swept into office promising an end to “inhumane conditions” at the city’s jails, the 1980s were perhaps the most desperate chapter in the jail’s history. The inmate population tripled over the course of the decade, rising to 21,000 prisoners by 1990. With the HDM nearly 700 inmates over capacity, the city began housing the jail’s excess population on prison barges, including two 350-bed POW ships that the United Kingdom had used during the Falklands War. As city coffers dwindled in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash, the Department of Corrections laid off many of the Island’s social service providers, including teachers and counselors. Stabbings and slashings soared.

On a visit to the jail in March, de Blasio vowed to make Rikers a “national model of what is right again.” But like Ed Koch and other reformers before him, de Blasio is pushing against the weight of history.

In this chaotic environment, corrections officers relied on solitary confinement to wield control. In 1988, not long after Kool G. Rap’s “Rikers Island” was released as a single, the prison opened the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, aka "The Bing"—a maximum-security quarantine for its most violent inmates. In Jennifer Wynn’s Inside Rikers: Stories From the World's Largest Penal Colony, a corrections officer captain describes the unit as a "jungle ruled by the inmates," the site of pitched battles between rival prisoners and, ultimately, between prisoners and COs. By the early 1990s, this captain and his fellow guards had made it a policy to respond to every disobeyed order with their fists and their batons. After one incident where a prisoner stabbed an officer with a pen, “the officers took the inmate into the receiving room and beat him with batons for fifteen minutes,” the captain recalls. “Everyone was covered with blood. Eight batons were broken. It made Rodney King look like kindergarten.”


When the violence at the Bing came to light in the mid-1990s, the Department of Corrections began to re-organize many of the jail’s facilities. The Bing was moved to a newer, less decrepit building and its guards were assigned to different units. New educational programs were introduced on the Island, including a greenhouse program administered by the Horticultural Society of New York. As the city’s crime rate declined under the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, local jails grew less tense and overcrowded. The City’s inmate population dropped by nearly 30 percent between 1990 and 2009, and the number of prisoners on Rikers Island has slowly declined to roughly 10,000.

But the island jail is still defined by violence and inequality. At the turn of the millennium, 92 percent of the Rikers population was black or Hispanic; one quarter of inmates couldn't afford bail of $500 or less. And while the number of stabbings among inmates has dropped significantly since the mid-1990s, the abuse of prisoners by guards is still endemic. A New York Times investigation released in February documented 62 cases in which inmates at Rikers were seriously injured by corrections officers between August of 2014 and January of this year. The report compiled a gruesome inventory of broken limbs, crushed eye sockets, and traumatic head wounds, and reached the same disturbing conclusion as recent investigations by the the New Yorker, the Associated Press, and the city’s Investigation Department: The Rikers Island Jail is a place where “guards routinely [beat] inmates bloody as a matter of course.”

Units like the Bing remain at the center of this cycle of violence. Between 2007 and mid-2013, the number of solitary-confinement beds at the jail increased by over 60 percent. A 2013 report by the city’s Board of Corrections found that almost 27 percent of the adolescents on Rikers Island were in punitive segregation. One of these inmates was Browder, who made frequent trips to the Bing while awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit. Video footage obtained by the New Yorker shows a corrections officer slamming the young man’s head into the ground during a trip to the unit in 2012. It was at the Bing that Browder made the first of several attempts to take his life.

Last year, de Blasio appointed a new jails commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who promised to “end the culture of excessive solitary confinement” on Rikers Island. Since taking office, Ponte has ended punitive segregation for all inmates under 18 years old and for inmates deemed severely mentally ill. In May, the Corrections Department announced that the average daily population of inmates in solitary confinement had dropped 32 percent over the previous year.

The agreement struck on June 22 between city officials and the U.S. Attorney’s office represents the de Blasio administration’s boldest initiative to change the jail’s culture of violence. Under the new guidelines of this class-action settlement, the city will allow a federal monitor to oversee the jail complex, impose strict regulations on the use of force by corrections officers and install 8,000 new surveillance cameras throughout the Island. No recent city administration has devoted more resources or political capital to reforming Rikers Island. On a visit to the jail in March, de Blasio vowed to make Rikers a “national model of what is right again.”

But like Ed Koch and other reformers before him, de Blasio is pushing against the weight of history. Last month’s agreement is the sixth class-action settlement over the use of force at the jail since 1990, and civic leaders have been raising concerns about the treatment of Rikers prisoners for almost a century. When the jail’s first warden arrived on the island in 1935, he promised to “devote much attention to the rehabilitation of inmates.” Richard A. McGee and his New Deal contemporaries saw the new penitentiary as a place where education and vocational training could be combined with psychiatric service. Eighty years later, inmates and officials alike would be content to merely stop the bleeding. As it says on the wall of a new unit for violent offenders: “Positive anything is better than negative nothing.”