New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex has regularly made headlines for its outrageously inhumane conditions, brutal violence, many overdoses, and record number of deaths. Since 2015, a federal monitor has been assigned to oversee the jail, but the chaos, violence, and deaths have continued unabated. The year 2022 was the jail’s deadliest, with 19 deaths; the year before, another 16 died.
Advocates have long pressed the city to shutter the island altogether, wringing a promise from former Mayor Bill de Blasio to replace the dilapidated hellhole with smaller, more modern jails in four of the city’s five boroughs. The plan hinged on reducing the jail population to below 3,300 people, which it has yet to do.
The jail population dipped to a historic low of fewer than 4,000 people during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, the numbers have been rising, causing Mayor Eric Adams to backtrack from de Blasio’s pledge.
Reporters Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau have covered the jail for years. In their new book, Rikers: An Oral History, they examine how the country’s most well-funded and well-staffed jail has collapsed into an ongoing state of crisis. They interviewed more than 130 people, including those who have been incarcerated at Rikers, those who have been employed there, and those who are working to reform the jail, to give a 360-degree view of a system plagued by decades of institutional inertia.
Victoria Law: You both have spent years reporting on the disaster that is Rikers Island. Why did you decide on an oral history rather than a reported book?
Graham Rayman: When Reuven and I worked together at the Daily News, we talked about doing a more conventional history. This format is even better because it’s stripped of the overlay that we bring. We tried as much as possible just to feature the individuals that we interviewed.
Reuven Blau: It gives people a more direct line into what’s going on there. I also think that, in the day and age where everybody has a quick attention span, it’s helpful to do short stories so people can go in and out, as opposed to reading more of a narrative book. This is a book of the times.
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VL: How did you decide which voices or whose voices to include?
GR: The idea was to get as broad a cross section as we could of people’s experiences. One of the themes that really hits home for me is that if you talk to somebody who was there in the 1970s, and you talk to somebody who was there five years ago, some of the experiences are the same. Why is that? Why is it that 30, 40, 50 years later, we hear the same experiences?
VL: How did your reporting influence how you shaped the book?
RB: Generally, we asked open-ended questions, like, “Hey, what was your first day like?” And other questions about general things that were happening. One issue that really stuck out was “bullpen therapy,” which we weren’t really familiar with before.
GR: Bullpen therapy is set up, probably unintentionally, to pressure you to plead guilty. With the practice, you’re constantly going back to court. These are all-day experiences, and it’s dangerous. You’re in holding pens packed with people. The coordination is bad, so you miss dinner [when you return to Rikers]. Doing this over and over and over again over a period of a year, a year and a half, two years, it just wears you down. It’s not intentionally that way, but it just is that way. And one of the reasons it is that way is because of the location of Rikers.
RB: Bullpen therapy is a cruel and baked-in problem at Rikers. More and more people were talking about it; it kept coming up. And Graham and I said we should write a chapter about this issue that hasn’t gotten a lot of public attention, not even in our coverage.
VL: The record number of deaths at Rikers is a crisis that has been years in the making, not just the fault of one administration or one time period. Tell us more about this.
GR: Here’s my question: Where’s the peace dividend? The jail population is now less than 6,000. The department staffing is still more than any other correction agency in the country by a significant margin. The budget is $1.4 billion. One would have thought that with the jail population at that level, things would improve substantially. When there were 18,000 detainees in the late ’90s, there weren’t 18 deaths.
RB: We’ve been covering Rikers for about 20 years now. At what point does society say, “Hey, enough is enough. This needs to change”? These are stories that really drive home that point: that this is not acceptable.
We wanted to get a bird’s-eye view of everything, including the officers. I think what this book drives home, too, is that it doesn’t work for them either. They’re people trying to do their job and go home. The decades of terrible doesn’t work for them either.
But the current argument of restricting solitary confinement [is constantly undermined by the correction officers’ union]. Any time there’s an incident where an officer was injured, the union’s reaction is: “This is why we need solitary confinement.”
Spoiler alert: The Department of Corrections has had solitary confinement for decades, and still, officers have been assaulted for decades. The system in place does not work. And the idea that any reform to the jail system is somehow anti-officer is frankly ludicrous.
VL: The clamor around closing Rikers seems to have dwindled with the new administration. What are your thoughts about the future of the island?
GR: In 1979, there was a proposal from the Koch administration to turn Rikers into a state prison and to create better borough jails. All of the pretrial detainees would go to borough jails and the state inmates would go to Rikers. That would have solved a bunch of problems that have continued to fester, like [families’] not being able to visit [their loved ones who have been transferred to a prison] on the Canadian border. Ultimately, the political forces stopped that, and the plan died. But that was an opportunity to correct some major systemic problems with structural flaws with the way we do this.
This is another opportunity. And it would be real shame if, once again, that opportunity was lost.
RB: Every commissioner has come in and said, “I need more time to fix the problem.” This book is a testament of decades of time and ideas and so-called sort of plans and reforms. And arguably, Rikers has just gotten worse and worse over time.
VL: Why has it been so difficult to close it, and how does its existence feed the prison-industrial complex?
GR: It starts with the decision to put the first jail there in the ’20s, which opens in 1933. That sets the underlying philosophy to put the jails out of sight. Then there’s a jail expansion period that begins in the ’60s, with the construction of the bridge in 1966 and a couple of jails, including the Robert N. Davoren Complex, which houses young men.
Then there’s a frenzied building period in the ’80s, which is the “tough on crime” era and one major reason the population explodes. But the other part is the fear over crack era. In 1988, you have the murder of a rookie cop named Edward Byrne, which led to federal legislation that led to mandatory minimums.
So the city kept doubling down on the same idea—keep them out of sight, keep them away from the neighborhoods. And there was a lot of space [in those jail buildings on the island].
Then there’s just institutional inertia. Very simply, City Hall, the unions, and the old-line political establishment all have a deep, vested interest in preserving the status quo. So while there’s been tremendous movement in the last few years, now we’re seeing this swing back [to keeping the jail open] driven by those same institutions that prevented the Koch administration from making Rikers a state prison facility, and moving [people awaiting trial and serving sentences of less than one year] to borough jails. That was squashed, ultimately, by the same factors.
A lot of policy around Rikers is made out of crisis. There’s really no long-term planning. The solution in the 1980s to the expanding population was: build more jails. So they built a bunch of jails and filled them up.
RB: The union [the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association] is a big player as well. They’re against closing Rikers. They feel that money should be put into hiring more and more officers. They don’t talk very much about training or where officers should be assigned. They don’t talk about the expanded needs of the people within the facilities or the needs for more mental health facilities. And they’re influential; they give substantial donations to political candidates. And they’re close with the mayor now as well, and even share lobbying firms.
Advocates don’t have the ability on the election side to make those [sizable] donations and make those endorsements that seem to take a larger weight in this conversation.
The status quo is always easier. Rikers is a place out of sight, out of mind. And there’s a lot of beds to put people. It’s easier to talk about that than to talk about really reimagining what works and what doesn’t long-term.