|Location||The Bronx, New York City, United States|
|Nearest city||New York City|
|Area||413.17 acres (167.204 ha)|
|Governing body||New York City Department of Correction|
Rikers Island (//) is New York City's main jail complex, as well as the name of the 413.17-acre (167.204 ha) island on which it sits, on the East River between Queens and the mainland Bronx, adjacent to the runways of LaGuardia Airport. Supposedly named after Abraham Rycken, the island is home to one of the world's largest correctional institutions and mental institutions. The island itself is politically part of the Bronx, though it is included as part of Queens Community Board 1 and has a Queens ZIP code of 11370.
The jail complex, operated by the New York City Department of Correction, has a budget of $860 million a year, a staff of 9,000 officers and 1,500 civilians managing 100,000 admissions per year and an average daily population of 10,000 inmates. However, it has become notorious for abuse and neglect of prisoners in recent years, attracting increased media and judicial scrutiny that has resulted in numerous rulings against the New York City government. In May 2013, Rikers Island ranked as one of the ten worst correctional facilities in the United States, based on reporting in Mother Jones magazine.
The island was originally under 100 acres (40 ha) in size, but has since grown over four times to more than 400 acres (160 ha). Much of the first stages of expansion was accomplished by convict labor hauling in ashes for landfill.
Complex and facilities
The Rikers Island complex, which consists of ten jails, holds local offenders who are awaiting trial and cannot afford, obtain, or were not given bail from a judge; those serving sentences of one year or less; and those temporarily placed there pending transfer to another facility. Rikers Island is therefore not a prison by US terminology, which typically holds offenders serving longer-term sentences. It is home to ten of the New York City Department of Correction's fifteen facilities and can accommodate up to 15,000 prisoners.
Facilities located on the island include Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC), Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC, formerly ARDC), Anna M. Kross Center (AMKC), George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC), North Infirmary Command (NIC), Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC), Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC, formerly CIFM), James A. Thomas Center (JATC) (no longer used to house inmates), George R. Vierno Center (GRVC) and West Facility (WF). The Bantum, Kross, Motchan, and Vierno house detained male adults. Taylor houses sentenced male adolescents and adults. Davoren primarily houses male inmates who are of ages 16 through 18. Singer houses detained and sentenced female adolescents and adults. North Infirmary primarily houses inmates who require medical attention from an infirmary. West Facility houses inmates who have diseases that are contagious. The average daily inmate population on the island is about 10,000, although it can hold a maximum of 15,000. The daytime population (including staff) can be 20,000 or more.
The only access to the island is from Queens, over the unmarked 4,200-foot (1.28 km) three-lane Francis Buono Bridge, dedicated on November 22, 1966, by Mayor John Lindsay. Before the bridge was constructed, the only access to the island was by ferry. Transportation is also provided by the Q100 MTA Regional Bus Operations route. There are also privately operated shuttles that connect the parking lot at the south end to the island. Bus service within the island for visitors visiting inmates is provided by the New York City Department of Correction.
The North Infirmary Command, which used to be called the Rikers Island Infirmary, is used to house inmates requiring extreme protective custody, inmates with special health needs, mentally ill inmates, and inmates undergoing drug detoxification, as well as some regular inmates. The rest of the facilities, all built in the last 67 years, make up this city of jails. There is also the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a floating barge (described below). New York City's jail system has become something of a small town. There are schools, medical clinics, ball fields, chapels, gyms, drug rehab programs, grocery stores, barbershops, a bakery, a laundromat, a power plant, a track, a tailor shop, a print shop, a bus depot and even a car wash. It is also home to a large composting facility. Rikers Island has been referred to as the world's largest penal colony. For comparison, Europe's largest correctional facility, Fleury-Mérogis Prison sits on 180 acres (0.73 km2) and houses 3,800 prisoners.
The island is thought to be named after Abraham Rycken, a Dutch settler who moved to Long Island in 1638 and whose descendants owned Rikers Island until 1884, when it was sold to the city for $180,000.
The island was used as a military training ground during the Civil War. The first regiment to use the Island was the 9th New York Infantry, also known as Hawkins' Zouaves, which arrived there on May 15, 1861. Hawkins' Zouaves was followed by the 36th New York State Volunteers on June 23, which was followed by the Anderson Zouaves on July 15, 1861. The Anderson Zouaves were commanded by John Lafayette Riker who was related to the owners of the island. The camp of the Anderson Zouaves was named Camp Astor in compliment to millionaire John Jacob Astor Jr. who provided funding for the army, and who appears to have made a significant contribution to the raising of the Anderson Zouaves in particular, with the Astor ladies being credited with the manufacture of the zouave uniforms worn by the recruits of this regiment. Rikers Island was subsequently used by numerous other Civil War regiments, but the name "Camp Astor" was specific to the Anderson Zouaves and did not become a general name for the military encampment on the island.
In 1883 New York City's Commission of Charities and Corrections expressed an interest in purchasing the island for use as a work-house. Any such purchase would have to be approved by the state. In January 1884 state senator Frederick S. Gibbs introduced a bill in the state senate authorizing the commission to purchase the island. In May 1884 Governor Grover Cleveland signed a bill authorizing the Commissioner of Charities and Corrections to purchase the island for a sum no greater than $180,000. At the time, the island was within the boundaries of Long Island City, which was located in Queens County, which was not yet part of New York City, and this potential transfer set off squabbling between politicians of Long Island City, Queens County, and New York City. On July 31, 1884, a compromise was agreed to by all three entities, New York City agreed to pay a total of $3,000, to be disbursed as $2,500 to Long Island City and $500 to Queens County. On August 4, 1884, the Commissioner of Charities and Corrections, Jacob Hess, signed a contract purchasing the island from John T. Wilson, a descendant of the Ryker family, for $180,000, $179,000 to Wilson and $1,000 for a title search.
Conversion to jail
The city expressed a desire to open a jail for men on Rikers Island as early as 1925, in order to replace their overburdened and dilapidated jail on Welfare Island, now Roosevelt Island; the jail was opened in 1932. Landfill continued to be added to the island until 1943, eventually enlarging the original 90-acre (36 ha) island to 415 acres (168 ha) – which required the permission of the federal government, since the expansion extended the island's pier line. – and this despite the 200 acres (81 ha) which were stripped from Rikers to help fill in the new North Beach Airport, which opened in 1939 and was later renamed LaGuardia Airport.
The net expansion of the island enabled the jail facilities to also expand. The original penitentiary building, completed in 1935, was called HDM or the House of Detention for Men; it became a maximum security facility called the James A. Thomas Center and closed due to structural issues in 2000.
After New York City was banned by the courts in 1922 from ocean dumping of garbage, much of it ended up on Rikers Island, even though the island already had 12 mountains of garbage 40 to 130 feet tall; still, it took in 1.5 million cubic yards of additional refuse, more than the amount of dirt displaced by the building of the World Trade Center. Since much of garbage was composed of ash from coal heating and incinerators, there were frequent spontaneous phosphorescent fires, even in the wintertime, in the snow. One warden described in in 1934: "At night it is like a forest of Christmas trees – first one little light ... then another, until the whole hillside is lit up with little fires. ... It was beautiful." The island was also plagued with rats, which at one point were so prevalent that after "poison gas, poison bait, ferocious dogs and pigs" failed to control them, one New Yorker tried to organize a hunting party to kill them off. It was the efforts of "master builder" Robert Moses, who didn't want the unsightly island to be the backdrop for his carefully landscaped 1939 World's Fair, to get the island cleaned up, and have the city's garbage sent elsewhere - ultimately to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island.
During Mayor David Dinkins' term as mayor of New York, the jail filled to overflowing, and an 800-bed barge was installed on the East River to accommodate the extra inmates. The barge is called the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center (VCBC), and is also known simply as "The Boat". VCBC is located at 1 Halleck St, Bronx, NY 10474, at the end of Hunts Point, near the recently relocated Fulton Fish Market. The keel for the Vernon C. Bain was laid in 1989 at the Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans. Upon completion, VCBC was towed up from Louisiana to its current mooring, and attached to two "Crandall Arms". It opened for use as a facility in 1992. Originally it had been leased to the NYC Department of Juvenile Justice, while Spofford Juvenile Center was under reconstruction. VCBC was formerly known as Maritime Facility #3 (MTF3); facilities 1 and 2 were reconstructed British military transport barges, or BIBBYs (British Industries Boat Building Yard), used during the Falklands War, both of which could house 800 soldiers, but only 200 inmates after their conversion. MTFs 1 and 2 were anchored on either side of Manhattan at East River pier 17, near 20th street, in the Hudson River. In addition, there were two smaller 1950s-era Staten Island Ferry boats, both converted to house 162 inmates each. The ferry boats were sold for salvage in about 2003, and the owner of the shipyard that built VCBC, Avondale Shipyard, bought the two BIBBYs. VCBC is the only vessel of its type in the world. Prior to modification for use by New York City, it cost $161 million to construct. The initial plan for acquiring the vessel, because of the way New York City makes capital purchases, had to begin at least five years before the keel was laid, during the tenure of Ed Koch.
In 1957, Northeast Airlines Flight 823 crashed onto Rikers Island shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport, killing 20 and injuring 78 out of a total of 95 passengers and 6 crew. Shortly after the crash, department personnel and inmates alike ran to the crash in order to help survivors. As a result of their actions, of the 57 inmates who assisted with the rescue effort, 30 were released and 16 received a reduction of six months by the N.Y.C. Parole Board. Governor Averell Harriman also granted commutation of sentence to 11 men serving definite sentences: two received a six-months' reduction; one workhouse and eight penitentiary definites became eligible for immediate release.
A drawing by artist Salvador Dalí, done as an apology because he was unable to attend a talk about art for the prisoners at Rikers Island, hung in the inmate dining room in J.A.T.C. (HDM) from 1965 to 1981, when it was moved to the prison lobby in E.M.T.C. (C76) for safekeeping. The drawing was stolen in March 2003 and replaced with a fake; three Correction Officers and an Assistant Deputy Warden were arrested and charged, and though three later pleaded guilty and one was acquitted, the drawing has not been recovered.
Controversies and issues
The segregated unit at Rikers for LGBT prisoners, known as "gay housing," was closed in December 2005 citing a need to improve security. The unit had opened in the 1970s due to concerns about abuse of LGBT prisoners in pretrial detention. The New York City Department of Correction's widely criticized plan was to restructure the classification of prisoners and create a new protective custody system which would include 23-hour-per-day lockdown (identical to that mandated for disciplinary reasons) for moving vulnerable inmates to other facilities. Whereas formerly all that was required was a declaration of homosexuality or the appearance of being transgender, inmates wanting protective custody would now be required to request it in a special hearing.
In 1986, a federal appeals court ruled that strip searches could not be performed on people arrested on misdemeanor charges, like subway fare evasion or marijuana smoking. The case itself was brought by Ann Weber, who was arrested for making an inflated claim on a 911 call, after her son was attacked while leaving her daughter's wedding. She was brought to jail still dressed in formal wedding attire, locked in a cell, and forced to strip and expose her cavities for search in the hour it took for her daughter to arrive and post bail.
Prior to this decision, all prisoners taken to Rikers, no matter the level of their accusation, were strip searched. These searches often took place in groups of 10 to 12 and involved genital and anal searches. Despite the court's ruling, the practice lived on, costing New York City taxpayers a total of $81 million in settlements to the victims of these illegal searches. In 2001, a ruling was reached in New York reinforcing the illegality of strip searches for misdemeanor detainees, and demanding that the city pay up to $50 million to the tens of thousands of people who were illegally searched over the years.
However, the practice did not die. Another suit was filed against the city in 2007 for performing strip searches on inmates taken to Rikers on misdemeanor charges. On October 4, 2007, the New York City Department of Corrections conceded that tens of thousands of nonviolent inmates taken to Rikers Island on misdemeanor charges had been wrongly strip-searched in violation of a 2002 court settlement, and were entitled to payment for damages. The policy was kept in place despite a United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruling in 2001 that strip-searches of misdemeanor suspects were illegal, unless officials suspected that they were carrying contraband..." [Lead lawyer Richard D.] Emery charged in his papers that department officials "repeatedly resorted to lying to cover up deliberate indifference to the continued practice of humiliating detainees by forcing them to strip naked in groups." This class action suit won $33 million in damages.
Abuse and neglect of prisoners
Rikers Island has become notorious in recent years for a "culture of abuse" and has been subject to a number of investigations and rulings. In August 2014, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, issued a report condemning the systematic abuse and violation of prisoners' constitutional rights. Despite this and many other egregious incidents of abuse, few corrections officers have been prosecuted successfully or even removed from their positions.
In February 2008, Correction Officer Lloyd Nicholson was indicted after he allegedly used a select group of teenage inmates as enforcers under a regime called "the program", as well as allegedly beating inmates himself. However, "the program" has been known to exist for well over a decade and is unique to the adolescents. The inmates use it as a test for other inmates and a system of control amongst themselves.
In an alleged July 2008 rape case reported by The Village Voice on August 5, 2008, the alleged victim claimed "that someone entered her cell in the 1,000-bed Rose M. Singer Center while she was asleep, sometime before 6 a.m. on July 3. She says the intruder (or intruders) bound and gagged her with bedsheets and then used a dildo-like object to sexually assault her. Other inmates may have acted as lookouts during the alleged assault. The woman, who was being held on grand-larceny charges for the past three months, was discovered at about 6 a.m. by an Officer and a Captain who were touring the building. The Officer saw her lying on her back on the floor of her cell with bedsheets wrapped around her neck, mouth, and legs. She had also been blindfolded. The incident was reported to central command at 7:30 a.m., and the woman was transported to the Elmhurst Hospital Center. Because she didn't share a cell with anyone, a major question is how the alleged assault happened in the first place. Officials won't talk about the investigation, and there's no word on whether any arrests have been made."
The same Village Voice article also lists a roll call of 2008 scandals at Rikers, including the case of Officers who allegedly passed accused cop killer Lee Woods marijuana, cigarettes, and alcohol; the February indictment of corrections officer Lloyd Nicholson who used inmates as "enforcers", and the April 27 suicide of 18-year-old Steven Morales (who allegedly killed his infant daughter) in the high-security closed-custody unit.
On February 3, 2009, The New York Times reported that "the pattern of cases suggests that city correction officials have been aware of a problem in which Rikers Officers have acquiesced or encouraged violence among inmates." The Times added that "There have been at least seven lawsuits filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan accusing Officers of complicity or acquiescence in inmate violence at Rikers, a complex of 10 detention facilities which, along with several other jails around the city, hold about 13,000 prisoners, most of whom are pretrial detainees. None of the seven suits have gone to trial. In the three that were settled, the city admitted no liability or wrongdoing."
In 2014, a mentally ill inmate named Bradley Ballard suffered a gruesome death on Rikers Island after he languished inside a jail cell for seven days. When correction officers finally came to the aid of Bradley Ballard, 39, he was naked, unresponsive, and covered in feces. His genitals were swollen and badly infected, injuries suffered after he tied a band around his penis. According to The New York Times, some 129 inmates, 77% of whom were diagnosed as mentally ill, suffered "serious injuries" in altercations with prison guards over an 11-month period in 2013. These injuries were "beyond the capacity" of the prison doctors to treat successfully.
On February 15, 2014, Jerome Murdough, a homeless veteran in jail on an accusation of trespassing, was found dead in his cell. After being in jail for one week, he died from overexposure to heat. His cell was over 100 degrees, and he had taken prescription drugs which increase sensitivity to heat. Murdough had been complaining for hours about the heat, but was ignored by prison guards. Murdough had been arrested for camping out on the stairwell of a New York Housing Authority building during the freezing polar vortex of 2014; his bail was set at $2,500. A settlement of $2.25 million occurred.
In December 2014 Kenzo Capulong, a 29-year-old aspiring artist was housed at Rikers Island for selling methamphetamine to an undercover cop. While in custody Capulong complained of pain in his back and numbness in his limbs but his pleas for help were ignored by prison staff. Unable to raise his hands or walk on January 12, 2015 he was taken to Bellevue Hospital where a CT scan revealed an abscess was compressing his spinal cord. After the emergency surgery Capulong was paralyzed from the waist down.
Judicial action against abuses at Rikers
On June 1, 2007, Captain Sherman Graham and Assistant Deputy Warden Gail Lewis were arrested by the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) for covering up an assault on an inmate. The arrest came after both were indicted by a Bronx Grand Jury. It is alleged that on October 4, 2006, Graham assaulted an inmate after he refused to comply with strip searching procedures at the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC, C-74). The assault occurred in front of 15 Correction Academy Recruits in training. After the assault, Graham ordered the recruits to write on their Use of Force Witness Reports that Graham assaulted the inmate in self-defense after the inmate punched Graham. Lewis, who was Graham’s supervisor, did not intervene to stop the attack. Lewis also submitted a false Use of Force Witness Report. Charges against Graham include 16 counts of Falsifying Business Records, 16 counts of offering a False Instrument for Filing in the First Degree 16 counts of Official Misconduct, a class A misdemeanor and one count of Attempted Assault in the Third Degree. Lewis was charged with Falsifying Business Records, Offering a False Instrument for Filing and Official Misconduct. The investigation started when the DOI received a tip following an anti-corruption presentation at the Academy in October 2006 on the day before graduation.
Graham and Lewis were found guilty on all charges by a Bronx jury on May 14, 2012. It took the jury approximately three hours to deliberate a guilty verdict. Lewis was able to retire in December 2009 with her pension. Graham was terminated from the Corrections Department following the guilty verdict. Each faced up to four years in prison, however, Graham and Lewis were both sentenced to 500 hours of community service and ordered to pay $1,000.00 in fines on August 7, 2012, when they were sentenced.
The New York City Department of Corrections reported that in fiscal year 2012 more than 14.4 percent of adolescents detained at Rikers Island between the ages of 16 and 18 were held in at least one period of solitary confinement while detained. The average length of time young people spent in solitary confinement at Rikers Island was 43 days. More than 48 percent of adolescents at this institution have diagnosed mental health problems.
On August 4, 2014, Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, issued a damning report on the treatment of juvenile prisoners at Rikers.  The report identified "a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates". The report describes the "rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by DOC staff", as well as dangers to inmates including inadequate protection from violence caused by other inmates, a culture that uses violence as a means to control inmates, and heavy use of solitary confinement ("punitive segregation") for discipline. The report details the guards' frequent use of violence, including "headshots" (blows to the head or face), particularly in areas without video surveillance. This violence is perpetrated as punishment or retribution against the inmates, or "In response to inmates' verbal altercations with officers".
On August 28, 2014, a law was passed boosting oversight of the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island, following intense public outcry after various abuses at the prison. The law requires the prison to publish quarterly reports on their use of solitary confinement, but did not include provisions regarding the protection of prisoners against guard brutality or limiting the use of solitary confinement as a punishment.
On September 29, 2014, Judge Tynia Richard offered a sharp rebuke to the Department of Corrections, recommending that six corrections officers be fired. This group, led by Captain Budnarine Behari, had participated in the brutal beating of Robert Hinton, a mentally ill inmate, while he was hog-tied, because he had protested being moved from his cell by sitting down. Hinton's fellow inmates watched as he was dragged down the hallways while hog-tied to a solitary confinement cell where he was beaten. While this ruling was one of the most severe against the Department of Corrections in many years, almost two years had elapsed between the beating and the Justice Department's ruling, during which time the perpetrators in this attack were involved in more inmate beatings at Rikers Island.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Rikers Island.|
- Jennifer Gonnerman, "Before the Law", The New Yorker, October 6, 2014, pp. 26–32.
- CRIPA Investigation of the New York City Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island, August 4, 2014 Published by the New York Times