The History Of Rikers Island

Rikers Island

Photo: By Tim Rodenberg (Flickr: Rikers Island Jail) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone familiar with police dramas, particularly the Law and Order franchise, knows that often when the perpetrator is apprehended, he is sent off to Rikers Island. It is often mentioned and referenced but mainly exists off camera, except for some staged indoor scenes when Vincent D’Onofrio or another elite squad detective needs to have a “sit down” in the interview room at the prison.

As shows like Law and Order strive to deliver an authentic New York experience to their viewers, Rikers is just called Rikers and is not given a fictitious counterpart in TV land. Rikers Island, a series of buildings built on an island spanning over 400 acres, is the main correctional area that serves all of New York City.

Rikers Island was named for the man who purchased the land in 1664, Abraham Rycken. It was a family owned island until 1884 when the land was sold off to the city for a mere $180,000. The grounds were perfect for military training, and the 9th New York Infantry used it as a proving ground during the Civil War.

After the war, The New York City Commission of Charities and Corrections decided that Rikers Island would be the perfect place for a workhouse as charity and corrections were closely linked during that time. Instead of the plan for a workhouse, the city just used it as a refuse landfill.

By 1922, New York could no longer just dump its garbage in the Atlantic Ocean, so Rikers was chosen as the next best place. All that coal from stoves used for cooking and heating homes had to go somewhere, so Rikers became a true “Valley of Ashes.” This was not unusual, as, like in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, many places on Long Island, Staten Island and other remote outposts served as garbage dumps. Coal and smoke emanated from Rikers, lighting up the night sky. Swarms of rats burrowed in the trash heaps while seagulls scavenged above. Legendary New York City Planner Robert Moses decided something had to be done. His concern was not purely altruistic. The New York World’s Fair was coming soon in 1939 and he wasn’t about to have it located near a massive, smelly, rat-infested trash heap. A practical decision was made to send the trash over to Staten Island. The new popular place to heap trash was the Fresh Kills Landfill; and it lived up to its name, littered with everything from ash, to animal carcasses.

In the late twenties, plans were in the works to use Rikers Island somewhere along the lines of its intended purpose. The jailed population housed in Blackwells Island, now known as Roosevelt Island was growing, according to the New York City Department of Corrections. Aside from Manhattan’s “Tombs”, another famous jail referenced on police dramas, the other smaller jails throughout the boroughs fell under local jurisdiction, overseen by individual sheriff’s departments.

As New York City’s population grew, so grew the need for more jail cells. Rikers Island Correctional opened in 1932, and not a moment too soon, as the jail and workhouse located on Blackwell closed. The inmates moved into Rikers and more trash was added to expand the usable land mass from 90 acres to 415. The pier was extended and during the years, a floating prison barge named the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center (aka The Boat) was put to use at Hunt’s Point, in the Bronx an area make famous by an HBO Documentary Series Hookers at the Point.  This floating prison barge houses up to 800 inmates. Before New York Mayor David Dinkins put the barge to use for Riker’s residents, it was used as a temporary floating juvenile hall for kids at the famous Spofford Juvenile Detention Center, while repairs were being made to the buildings.

Rikers Island has always been a hot topic for news stories. One of the most famous tales, that changed the world’s perception of Rikers inmates occurred in 1957, when according to the New York Post, a jet leaving LaGuardia airport for Miami, Northeast Airlines Flight 823, went down in a storm and began to burn. The inmates of Rikers did not hesitate to help the screaming, disoriented passengers escape the burning wreckage. These unlikely heroes of Rikers got commendations as well as shortened sentences. One young man when hearing the story of his father’s plucky actions during the rescue was confused. Antonio Cuin had never known his dad had been a Rikers inmate; however, the notoriety he received as a hero gave the younger man some shocking insight into a secret of his father’s past. The younger Mr. Cuin later ended up on Rikers himself, as a Warden.

There have also been controversies over the treatment of prisoners at Rikers. The use of excessive force by some correctional officers, the practice of strip searches, the use of restraints that “hog tied” prisoners were all hotly debated. As time moved on even the well-known prison punishment, solitary confinement, was under scrutiny, Advocates for prison reform and inmate’s rights had Rikers in their sights. After a prisoner death in 2014, and one following closely behind in 2015, the future of Rikers Island came into question. Should it remain open, and if it closed, what would the city do with all those inmates doing their short stretches or being held for trial?

From the time he was elected in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio has been dealing with the prospect of closing Rikers. It would take 10 years and billions of dollars. In February 2017, a TV commercial supporting the closure, aired in the tri-state area. Celebrities such as Jay-Z have also advocated for the closure of the jail mega complex. Advocates claim that the city is better served by smaller, more localized facilities. A television commercial included in a Daily News Article,  addressed Mayor Bill de Blasio directly, stating that the prison is a crumbling, expensive, “urban shame.”  On March 31, 2017 Mayor de Blasio announced that Rikers will indeed, be closing. Although it will take time and money, the most famous jail in New York is slated to become part of New York’s past.



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