Rikers Island is a jail, located in New York city, sitting in the East River between Queens and the mainland Bronx. Unlike a prison, it is not designed to hold inmates for the duration of their sentences, but simply to detain them whilst awaiting trial. The inmates of Rikers Island are not yet convicts, and are sent there when they can not afford their bail fees, or when they are refused bail. The average stay for an inmate in Rikers Island is 50 days, and from there, the inmates attend trial, where they are sentenced or acquitted accordingly. Some inmates stay for a further two weeks after trial, whilst preparations are being made for their transfer to a prison, and others with short sentences are sent there.
Total number of employees: 9,000 officers and 1,500 civilians
Budget: $860 million a year
Inmate Population: 12,300
|Anna M. Kross Center (AMKC)||Houses male inmates, and includes a Methadone Detoxification Unit and DOC’s Mental Health Centre||2988|
|Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC) Formerly known as CIFM||Houses adolescent and adult male inmates sentenced to terms of one year or less||1851|
|George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC)||Originally the Correctional Institution for Women, the jail became a male detention centre in 1988when the Rose M. Singer Center for women opened.||2,098|
|George R. Vierno Center (GRVC)||A 850-bed facility for male detainees. A further 500 beds were added in 1993.||1330|
|James A. Thomas Center (JATC)||Built as a 1,200-bed, all-cell jail in 1930. The building remains on site, but is no longer in use.||N/A|
|North Infirmary Command (NIC||There are two buildings: one with 153 beds for housing infirmary care inmates, and 263 beds in specialized units, for inmates who require protective custody and for inmates with HIV and AIDS-related illnesses.||416|
|Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC)||Contains dormitory and cell housing and includes a 400-bed Central Punitive Segregation Unit||1,697|
|Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC)||Adolescent male housing (ages 16-18)||2238|
|Rose M. Singer Center (RMSC)||Female Housing including a 25-bed baby nursery.||2017|
|West Facility (WF)||Contagious Disease Unit. It is not currently in use, but remains in reserve status.||940|
|Central Intake (CINT)||Newly admitted inmates are processed prior to being transferred to a housing unit.||N/A|
The island was used as military training ground during the Civil War before the jail was built upon it, the first regiment arriving in May 1861. Just over two decades later, New York’s Commission of Charities and Corrections expressed their desire to purchase the land, with the intentions of using it as a work-house. In 1884, Governor Cleveland signed a bill which authorised the Commission to purchase the island for a total of $180,000.
Rikers Island opened in 1932 as a jail for men. As the island was only 90 acres, the decision was taken to expand its size. Beginning in 1954, developers dumped large masses of solid waste into the river, and inmates were sent to help construct the growing island. The harsh reality is that the island was being build up using rubbish, it was literally a dumping ground for household waste from the surrounding areas. Inmates were forced to work in grotesque conditions, living amongst rats and the often exploding methane gas. The general toxicity of the island made many inmates violently ill, and many were killed or injured during the methane explosions.
Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center
Due to severe overcrowding at Rikers Island, a prison ship was designed for the New York City Department of Corrections in 1989. Construction began the same year at Avondale Shipyard, with an estimated time of one year for completion, costing a total of $125.6 million. Two years later, the ship was complete, albeit 18 months past its deadline and costing over $35 million over budget.
In January 1992, the ship was brought to New York by a tugboat and opened as an additional site to the Rikers Island complex. The ship was named the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, after a well respected warden who had recently be killed in a car accident, and was nicknamed “the boat” by both inmates and guards.
The prison ship has held many inmates during its tenure at Rikers Island, ranging from juveniles to maximum-security inmates. Currently still in operation, the centre now holds medium-high security convicts, in 16 dormitories and 100 cells. On the top deck lies an enclosed exercise yard, whilst the lower decks hold the cells and dormitories alongside a law library, a medical clinic, a mess hall and a chapel. In 2014, the ship was named the world’s largest operational prison ship by the Guinness Book of records, and William H. Booth, the chairman of the Board of Correction declared: “This should be our last barge. They’re too expensive and too uncertain.”
The barge currently lies next to Hunts Point, directly opposite Rikers Island, and is a part of the Borough Facilities. This group also contains the Bellevue Hospital Prison Ward (BHPW), Brooklyn Detention Complex (BKDC), Elmhurst Hospital Prison Ward (EHPW), Manhattan Detention Complex (MDC), Queens Detention Complex (QDC) and the Correction Academy.
In 1965, Salvador Dali was scheduled to appear in Rikers Island, as part of art rehabilitation programme. The scheduled date was 20th February, but the 60 year old artist was too sick to attend. By a way of an apology, he painted a picture for the inmates at Rikers Island, and sent it there via his wife. “For the dining room of the prisoners Rikers Island” was wrote by Dali in the lower left corner of the canvas.
It remained on the dining room wall for 16 years, until it was moved in 1981 to the prison lobby for safekeeping. In March 2003, the drawing was robbed from the wall and replaced with a crude fake. At first it was unclear how a painting in such a highly guarded area could be stolen, until it emerged that three prison guards and the assistant deputy warden were responsible. Despite the prosecution of the involved individuals, the original painting has never been recovered.
There have been a multitude of reports in Rikers Island containing allegations of adolescent abuse, staff brutality and rape, all of which serve to give the jail its notorious reputation. Dozens of law suits and investigations have been filed against Rikers Island, including the case of 18 year old Christopher Robinson.
Christopher Robinson was sent to Rikers Island after he violated his probation for a juvenile robbery offence. Inside his cell, the 18 year old was brutally beaten to death by a number of fellow inmates, just two weeks before he was due to be released. During an investigation, a horrific reality emerged called ‘The Program’, described by the local DA as a “secret society run by correctional officers at Rikers Island to extort and beat other inmates.”
The guards selected inmates to become part of ‘The Team’, and would give them orders to assault other prisoners. Those who were ‘not with it’, were battered and beaten continuously as punishment, and those who ‘were with it’ were forced to comply with orders from the team. Such orders included beating other inmates, and giving commissary money and phone credits to The Team.
In many cases, the guards participated in the viscous acts of violence, stomping on any prisoner who would not comply with their rules. By all accounts, Christopher Robinson was one inmate who refused to comply, and paid for it with his life.
In 2012, the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit against Rikers Island for their “deeply entrenched” use of violence by the guards. Their excessive force has been responsible for putting various inmates in hospital, costing the city millions of dollars in lawsuits and further damaging the jail’s reputation. A total of 11 former and current inmates filed lawsuits against the jail, for unprovoked attacks by guards, which resulted in serious injuries .
The complaint was 89 pages long, and was filed by the Legal Aid Society and two additional private law firms. It disclosed a series of detailed events which highlighted a distinct pattern of violence and brutality, which has been going on since the 1990s. ‘Despite previous court orders’, the complaint reads, ‘the abuse has continued.’
Tupac Shakur– Famous American Rapper, Shakur spent time at Rikers Island in 1993/4. He was charged with two counts of sexual abuse due to an incident in a Manhattan hotel room. Shakur and another were convicted of restraining a female fan, whilst a third man sexually assaulted her. Shakur denied these claims, but he received 4 ½ years regardless.
Sid Vicious – The renowned punk legend, Sid Vicious visited Rikers Island on two occasions. He was arrested for the death of Nancy Spungeon in October 1978, and sent to Rikers Island, where he spent 5 days before he paid the $50,000 bail. During his time in jail, he was sent to the hospital wing to detox from heroin. He returned to Rikers Island in December the same year, after attacking Patti Smith’s brother, Todd, and this time spent 70 days inside. Once again, he was entered into the drug rehabilitation program to detox from heroin.
David Berkowitz – Also known as the Son of Sam, Berkowitz is an American serial killer who taunted New York City from July 1976 to August 1977.
Just after his arrest in 1977, he confessed to killing six people, and wounding two others during his murder rampage that lasted over a year. Upon his arrest, Berkowitz was sent to Rikers Island.
Mark David Chapman – Chapman was convicted of murdering John Lennon on 8th December 1980 outside The Dakota apartment building in New York. He fired at Lennon five times, then remained at the scene reading The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger, claiming it to be his statement. Chapman was initially sent to Bellevue Hospital, to be psychologically assessed, but was later sent to Rikers Island when fears arose of Lennon fans storming the hospital building.
Lil Wayne – American rapper, who spent 242 days at Rikers Island for attempted criminal possession of a weapon in 2010. Since his release, he has openly discussed his time inside in interviews, claiming “it wasn’t difficult as people might think.”
Peter Steele – Singer and bassist of Type O Negative, Steel mysteriously disappeared in 2005. Rumours of his death circulated, but in 2006 he gave an interview in Symphony for the Devil which explained his whereabouts. Steele was sent to Rikers Island for 30 days after assaulting a love rival, where he claims to have feared for his life everyday. His long black hair and fangs made him stand out, as did his Gothic notoriety. After his release, Steele’s family staged an intervention, where they insisted he check into a mental institution (Kings County Hospital).
Foxy Brown – American Rapper Foxy Brown was sent to Rikers Island in 2007 after she allegedly attacked two nail salon manicurists in 2004. Whilst she claims to have served time under “the worst conditions”, counter claims have arisen that she relieved preferential treatment throughout her sentence.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn – The Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominique Strauss-Kahn was charged with the attempted rape of a hotel maid in 2011.
The incident took place at the Sofitel New York Hotel, when 32 year old maid, Nafissatou Diallo entered his suite. After his arrest, he was sent immediately to Rikers Island. He resigned from his role at the IMF just three days after his arrest, despite his claims of innocence.