Rikers Island is worse than any maximum security prison

Rikers Island is worse than any maximum security prison

For the last 21 years I’ve been incarcerated, mostly in maximum security prisons: Clinton, Attica, Sing Sing and now Sullivan in the Catskills. But before my conviction, I spent a few years on Rikers Island in New York City. That time and year spent on the island as a teenager was by far the most brutal.

You go to jail after being convicted. You come to a prison like the one housed in the sprawling mega complex on Rikers after being arrested and being denied bail or unable to afford it. Prison is a place of tension, with months of silence between court dates, hours of nothingness, arguments about who’s next on the phone or who didn’t get extras on Chicken Day. What makes prison so hard is not knowing what to become of you.

Rikers is an island full of people at the worst point in their lives. In her new book Rikers: An Oral History, Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau reveal that prison robs the people who live and work there. Through themed chapters – “Bullpen Therapy”, “Race”, “Gangs”, “Mental Health” – the authors paint a vivid picture of what life on the island is like. What becomes clear is that it is not the people who do it badly, but the environment.

There are specific elements unique to Rikers that make it so unbearable. For one thing, it’s an entire island dedicated to accommodating the city’s undesirables. A narrow bridge (which Mayor John Lindsay dubbed “Bridge of Hope” and rapper Flavor Flav more accurately dubbed “Bridge of Pain”) is the only way to or from the island, making travel so difficult that attorneys, even those who You pay, you won’t visit often. And the facilities mostly include makeshift trailers built for temporary housing, with corridors that stretch into long, eerie corridors. But it’s the general vibe of Rikers, with its mythical reputation for being the most dangerous place in America, that affects the psyche the most.

I was first sent to Rikers in 1995 at the age of 18 after being caught with a gun. After violating my probation, I ended up spending a year in a prison for teenagers: C-74, which we called “Juveniles at War.” On my first day, a group of Ñetas (a Puerto Rican gang) beat me up after I refused to give them my sneakers. As a white boy, I was in the minority in C-74; The sick paradox was that I only felt safe when I acted violently.

I dropped out at 19 but ended up back on the island after shooting a man on a Brooklyn street at 24. This time I spent two and a half years there before finally being found guilty and sentenced to 28 years of life. In 2004, when I was tied and shackled in the back seat of a bus—about 40 of us—being transported to prison, I felt relieved. Leaving Rikers feels like a better chapter of your life is beginning – even if the next chapter is jail time.

I hesitated when I first came across Rayman and Blau’s book. The writers are tabloid reporters who mostly cover the prison complex from afar, and I’m skeptical of journalists who rarely delve into the worlds they write about. Rayman and Blau don’t offer a clear explanation as to why we need another book about Rikers right now, but the stories they contain have prompted me to find my own reasons for the book’s existence. And to be fair to the authors, they spoke to about 130 people with experience on the island: law enforcement officers, wardens, commissioners, activists, lawyers, relatives of the inmates and people who were incarcerated there, including some with whom I once served . Presenting opposing voices side by side allows the reader to hover over Rikers and experience them from different angles. Even as someone who has witnessed many of the things the authors write about firsthand, I appreciated the juxtaposed perspectives that capture the complexities of life on the island.

In the chapter on gangs, James “Shaquell” Forbes, whom I met in 2016 when we were both in Attica, explains how the New York faction of the Bloods (originally a West Coast gang) started on Rikers to unite black people against two of the big Latino Gangs: the Latin Kings and Ñetas, who frequently jumped and slashed underdogs. To challenge this dominance, Shaquell shotcaller, meaning boss, became one of the first subgroups of the New York Bloods. He reflected on how the gang born in the chaos of Rikers spilled over into society: “We never wanted her to hit the streets… And then we start hearing about people being circumcised [in the streets] because they wear red clothes or it is part of an initiation. Why is this happening?”

In a chapter on “bullpen therapy” — the term for the endless hours people spend together in large cells, either in the Rikers’ bullpen or in court — the authors aptly describe the logistical nightmare hundreds of people in and out of the Island to transport Island to their court dates every day. It all starts at 4 a.m.: caged bus rides, overcrowded bullpens, jammed files, and constant delays in cases — “a form of torture,” as Rayman and Blau put it.

Soffiyah Elijah, the executive director of a nonprofit called the Alliance of Families for Justice, explains how prosecutors are using Riker’s notoriety — particularly the horrific nature of bullpen therapy — to get defendants to plead guilty. “In fact, knowing that your client is waiting and waiting for their case to be resolved at Rikers shifts their entire plea negotiation… They are significantly more likely to accept a plea deal to get out of this situation.”

The notion that Rikers brings out the worst in human behavior is particularly evident in how it can corrupt those in power. In one of the book’s most disturbing examples, retired correctional officer Thomas Cinquemani openly brags about violating the civil rights of a young man he says disrespected in front of his peers by calling him a “white slut.” Cinquemani goes on to tell the authors how he later saw the boy get off the court bus and beat him in a cell for an hour. “Remember the old James Cagney movies when you see the head in the toilet? I also did this to my black bitch for the day…I flushed his head in the toilet more than once and I hit him with enough force to let him know what he did was wrong. Cinquemani adds, “You have to become part of your environment.”

Riker is a book full of horror stories. It’s enough to make you feel like the only solution is to shut down the complex entirely. To that end, the authors provide a concise history of recent efforts to do so. In 2015, a federal monitor was appointed to oversee the city’s prisons after widespread reports of violence and abuse emerged on the island. In 2017, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio approved an $8.3 billion “district-based jail” plan to rebuild the existing jails adjacent to the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens courts and build a new jail from the ground up to build the Bronx. In 2019, the City Council passed legislation to get things started, but the plan was contingent on keeping the prison population low. That number has been rising since the coronavirus pandemic began, and Mayor Eric Adams, who has championed promises to improve public safety, has spoken about a possible “Plan B” for Riker’s statutory 2027 graduation date.

Reading this book took me back to my worst years when I was my worst self. My own time on Rikers remains traumatizing as I remember living in a prison cell even now. After I finished the book, one comment by a bureaucrat stuck in my mind the most. Eve Kessler, former director of public affairs at the New York City Department of Justice, tells the authors that Rikers is commonly referred to as the largest psychiatric hospital on the East Coast. “It’s not about the prisons. It’s about our society pushing back so many people with so many problems that we don’t have the right kind of help for [to] the prisons,” she said. “It’s like everyone’s talking about the prisons being so brutal… it’s society that’s brutal.” She’s right. A violent crime occurs, tabloids report, and we send the person, often someone who is sick and suffering, to Rikers, where they are likely to get even sicker and suffer even more. Society’s brutality lies in its indifference to this cycle, its inability to envision a world where Rikers is not the only solution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *