The Disastrous History of Rikers

The Island

A history of Rikers. 


Desperation, decay, and violence are far from exceptional for Rikers. The island—which hosts eight of New York City’s jails and the nearly 6,000 people caged in them—has become synonymous with ruinously brutal carceral practices and inhumane facilities. But by the summer of last year, the chaos and disorganization of the Covid-19 pandemic had degraded living conditions considerably for the island’s prisoners. A delegation of state elected officials, visiting the complex to document the crisis in September 2021, witnessed prisoners in desperate conditions: floors strewn with garbage and human waste, vermin infestations, sick prisoners abandoned without access to medical care, an attempted suicide. A mass sick-out policy—wherein thousands of guards simultaneously coordinated taking medical leave—had badly intensified the situation: New York City’s phenomenally well-resourced jails, where correction officers significantly outnumber prisoners, appeared to be badly understaffed. By year’s end, 16 people had died in the custody of the city’s Department of Correction (DOC), some from medical neglect, some from suicide, all while the city’s jail population crept up to pre-pandemic levels and vaccination rates among prisoners remained alarmingly low.

The jail complex represents such an affront that it is currently slated to close by the end of 2027, though this closure is contingent on the city’s construction of four new skyscraper jails. So it’s ironic that, as anti-jail organizers often say and as geographer Jarrod Shanahan firmly establishes, Rikers itself has its origins in a liberal attempt to reform the city’s preexisting carceral facilities and practices.

Shanahan’s new book, Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage, traces in detail the competing political agendas that produced Rikers, following the history of the city’s jails from the 1950s up through the end of Ed Koch’s mayoral administration. Shanahan makes it possible to answer the immediate and pressing question—why did an agenda of jail reform fail so drastically, producing in the process one of the most notorious penal colonies in the United States?—by asking, and answering, several others.

How and why did New York City begin to confine its captive population to a formation of rock and landfill floating in the East River? Who was this population, and how did it transform from majority white at the opening of the Rikers Penitentiary in 1932 to majority Black and Puerto Rican by the 1970s? How and why did the city turn to arrest and detention as a means of disciplining this population, rocked earlier and harder by the effects of deindustrialization and unemployment than the rest of the city? How did the city’s correction officers acquire the massive political power they currently enjoy—able to undertake unauthorized work stoppages without the repercussions that successfully keep nearly all other public employees in New York State in check? And what does this history of failure and its human cost tell us about the fate of future efforts, however humanely intended, to reform New York City’s jails?

Captives in that sense is more than a history of Rikers: It chronicles the transformations of finance, industry, race relations, and political consciousness that made the jail complex possible in the first place. Shanahan documents the tumultuous second half of the 20th century in New York City—the fading glow of the New Deal; the rise of Black Power and the New Left; the near-total exit of the city’s manufacturing capital, and the subsequent capture of the political apparatus by the banking and real estate sector; the imposition of austerity policies following the fiscal crisis of the 1970s—from the standpoint of the city’s jails, as well as the people warehoused within and fighting to get out of them. “Rikers absorbs the symptoms of social problems the city is unwilling to address at their root,” Shanahan argues. By following the history of the city’s jail system, including but not only its most infamous outcropping, Shanahan makes it possible to see in greater clarity the social relations and competing political trajectories that defined the fate of postwar New York City.

In particular, Shanahan documents two opposed but mutually reinforcing traditions: the liberal reforms that he calls “penal welfarism” on the one hand, and the more straightforwardly punitive agendas that over the course of the 1960s congealed into the law-and-order coalition on the other. Although these traditions “remained two distinct visions of the postwar order,” Shanahan’s project in a sense is to demonstrate the major role of liberal reformism both in creating the Rikers Island complex, with its perpetual state of humanitarian crisis, and in advancing the law-and-order political consensus that ultimately dominated city politics for decades. In a grim, ironic reversal, penal welfarism created much of the physical and political infrastructure of the city’s carceral apparatus and also fueled the development of the coalition that would eventually reject jail reform in full.

Shanahan begins with the unlikely career of Anna M. Kross, whose name now adorns one of the jails on Rikers, and whom Mayor Robert Wagner Jr. appointed as the DOC’s commissioner in 1954. Kross envisioned a jail system that would uplift the moral character of those it held: Run by the agendas of social scientists rather than correction officers, the jails would, in Shanahan’s words, “not merely respond to criminal acts, but consider the prisoner as raw material to be reshaped through incarceration.” Kross took up the agenda of progressive penologist Austin MacCormick, who oversaw the opening of the Rikers Penitentiary in 1932, but whose project had been stymied by the Depression and World War II. Kross’s primary goal was to increase the civilian staff and civilian control over the jail system—an agenda that set off a longstanding conflict with correction officers, who viewed running the jails as the prerogative of what Shanahan calls their “arrogant autonomy.” Kross intended to use her “trained professionals” in social science to retrain and reform the proletarian “flotsam and jetsam”—her terms—who passed through the city’s jails under her watch, by providing her charges with educational programs, prison work programs, recreation, access to mental health professionals, and mandatory STI testing and treatment. She also oversaw the redesign of the jail facilities in bright-toned paint schemes with greater access to natural light.

Yet Kross’s attempt to remake the jail system and provide a measure of social services to New York’s incarcerated population ran up against her task of running facilities adequate enough to house the tens of thousands of people who cycled yearly through the jails. That is to say, Kross’s agenda as a reformer of the city’s jails put her at odds with her own responsibilities as their administrator. Years into her tenure as DOC commissioner, Kross confronted the same problems she had found at the start: desperately overcrowded jails and abject conditions, including the violent and neglectful treatment of prisoners by the correction officers. As Shanahan notes, Kross herself advocated for reducing the city’s jail population, but she had little control over this figure, which fell squarely into the lap of the New York Police Department and the city’s courts. Kross therefore advocated for more funding and resources for those facilities—building, in her words, “bigger and stronger bastilles to hold our prisoners.”

Her attempt to resolve this contradiction between penal welfare programs on the one hand and adequately administered facilities on the other resulted in a significant expansion of the city’s carceral capacities—arguably the lasting effect of her commissionership. She oversaw the construction of the facility then known as C-76, now the Eric M. Taylor Jail on Rikers; she opened the Brooklyn House of Detention, a skyscraper jail now known as the Brooklyn Detention Complex and still in use; and, most critically, she secured funds for the construction of the bridge between Rikers and East Elmhurst, Queens, which replaced the ferry that had previously shepherded prisoners and supplies to and from the island. As readers of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker might guess, the bridge to Rikers, more than any single jail facility, locked the city into a decades-long pattern of development, pushing successive administrations to detain ever more prisoners on the island.

The rapid expansion of the city’s carceral infrastructure that took place under Kross advanced, however unwittingly, the power of the city’s correction officers, whose ranks swelled to staff the new jails, and who received favorable raises and terms of employment to buy their grudging support for Kross’s reform programs. Under the leadership of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, they won official bargaining rights as part of Wagner’s electioneering deal with the city’s labor unions, which offered public recognition in exchange for their support of his candidacy in the 1953 election. Together with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the NYPD’s largest union, COBA soon began to flex its political muscle, winning pay parity with the city’s cops and firefighters and undertaking work slowdowns and stoppages.

These active and militant unions became integral cogs in the developing law-and-order coalition: Outside the walls of the city’s jails, the PBA, in coalition with affiliates of the John Birch Society and the American Nazi Party, stoked racist fears to defeat at the ballot Mayor John Lindsay’s civilian review board in 1966, which would have placed independent investigation and disciplining power in a body outside the NYPD itself. (The city’s current Civilian Complaint Review Board, introduced under Mayor David Dinkins, has virtually no real disciplinary power over the city’s cops, a testament to the PBA’s enduring power.) Inside the walls, correction officers brutally repressed the prisoner rebellions that shook the city’s jails in August and October of 1970.

When the city slammed into its fiscal crisis in the mid-’70s, the PBA and COBA had positioned themselves as a force within city government sufficient to extract concessions from the mayor’s office to be considered separate from the city’s non-law-enforcement unions. Amid an atmosphere of implicitly or explicitly racist repression of the city’s Black and brown working-class population, subject to harsher punishment and longer sentences under the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws, the law enforcement unions pushed a political agenda to brand themselves as a solution to the social ills the fiscal crisis unleashed. COBA therefore played an instrumental role in brokering the city’s version of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore have called the “anti-state state”: As the city’s debtors forced austerity policies on public spending, gutting social services and forcing layoffs, New York City maintained, and eventually increased, its repressive capacities to arrest and detain. After weathering a peak of cutbacks in the ’70s, by the late 1980s and ’90s the DOC and COBA had benefited from yet another round of increases to the city’s jail facilities: expanded wings for currently existing jails in 1987, a new jail for women in 1988, an 800-bed maximum security jail in 1991, and the Vernon C. Bain jail barge in 1992.

Shanahan’s history demonstrates that, over the course of the expansion of jail facilities and law enforcement power in city politics, Anna Kross and the progressive penologists sowed, and the law-and-order coalition reaped. It’s a sobering lesson for anyone who harbors fantasies of kinder, more humane, state-of-the-art jails—particularly for those who place their hopes in the new jails under construction now.

If abolitionists who want to end the mass social practice of caging human beings often face the charge that we operate under utopian fantasies, Shanahan’s book suggests that the burden of proof actually falls on the would-be reformists who are seeking a supposedly better way to punish. In the history that Captives documents, not only did penal welfarism fail to produce a less violent city; it couldn’t even produce a less violent jail.

So what’s the actual way out of the crisis, if not “bigger and stronger”—or sunnier and more pastel-toned—“bastilles”? To start, Captives tells the story of an alternate political tradition in its careful attention to the waves of prisoner rebellion, organizing, and escape that have defined New York’s jails from the 1950s to the present. Linking together the accounts of current and former prisoners like Kuwasi Balagoon, Jamal Joseph, Sundiata Accoli, Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur, Shanahan illuminates the struggle of working-class Black and brown organizers to release people from their cages, sometimes by legal means, sometimes not.

Many of these efforts were successful: Jamal Joseph and his comrades in the Panther 21 walked free after an eight-month trial in which agents provocateurs in the pay of the NYPD admitted under oath to setting up the defendants; the Communist Party USA–led organizing around Angela Davis’s stint at the House of Detention for Women helped build support for her eventual release; and jail rebellions from the 1950s through the ’70s resulted in compromises between prisoners and the DOC’s leadership. Many other efforts, however, were not as successful. But in the cases of both success and defeat, the aim, purpose, and direction of this political tradition is freedom—not just for any one person who happens to be held captive at Rikers, but for the classes of people who are continually subject to arrest and detention, whom the city abandoned in its early experiments with neoliberal governance, and who continually fend off poverty, hunger, and debt together with the actual repressive capacities of the state. Any meaningfully anti-racist political project will have to develop both the principle and the power to keep people free from the city’s “criminal injustice system,” as the public defender Janie Williams calls it, and free to move and do with themselves as they want.

In the end, freedom of this kind—to live without the threat of incarceration or dispossession—is a positive project that will require a mass transformation of public resources, social institutions, and state capacities. If Rikers, in Shanahan’s words, “absorbs the symptoms of social problems the city is unwilling to address at their root,” then the task of closing Rikers means decisively addressing—and building the power to address—those very social problems whose effects Rikers absorbs: desperate inequality, neighborhoods consigned to the devastating effects of climate chaos, untenable levels of debt, mass divestment from both K-12 and postsecondary education, an utterly inadequate health infrastructure, widespread unemployment, and patterns of development and tenancy that force people from their homes, all sustained while the very few enrich themselves in what Jane McAlevey and others have called the new Gilded Age.

At the same time, even widely redistributive social programs will not be enough on their own to banish the possibility of another round of punitive crackdowns. As Mayor Eric Adams’s scant months in office have revealed, the fervent social base for the law-and-order agenda persists, and under the right circumstances can be goaded into a panic that lawmakers of all stripes can use to justify carceral expansion. To shutter the city’s jails, the left will have to outmaneuver some parts of this bloc and disarticulate others. Specifically, we will have to isolate its explicitly racist formations, like the PBA, which endorsed Donald Trump’s reelection in the summer of 2020 following the George Floyd rebellion; we will also have to persuade other segments of this bloc—such as the Black and Latino homeowners in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx who voted for Adams in overwhelming numbers—that their real needs for stable communities are better served by means other than criminalizing their neighbors. That means, in turn, articulating a political alternative to the center-left coalitions that have consistently increased the NYPD’s size for decades, allocated massive funds for jail construction, and caved to the political terror tactics of the law enforcement unions. One question, then, for organizers who share the vision of a city without cages: What kind of popular front do we need in order to build the necessary power for this program?

The poet and prison organizer Tongo Eisen-Martin has observed that “if it has a prison, it is a prison. Not a city.” Inverting this thesis, we can observe that the project of closing Rikers for good has relatively little to do with some buildings floating in the East River, and everything to do with the mass social capacity that state institutions contain, divert, and channel, and that can therefore assume a totally different shape under other circumstances—one that might actually relegate the city’s jails to the dustbin of history. We do not have to live in a city or a world that cages human beings at scale as a false solution to real problems. A series of social, political, and economic forces over time have produced this result; with intention, principle, and strategy, organized people can produce a totally opposite one. And that, in any case, is one of the lessons of Shanahan’s remarkable book.

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