“A City within a City”
There’s only one way to get on Rikers Island and one way to get off—a narrow, forty-two-hundred-foot-long bridge spanning a part of the East River. At the ribbon cutting in 1966, Mayor John Lindsay called it the “Bridge of Hope.” Forty years later, in 2006, the rapper Flavor Flav dubbed it the “Bridge of Pain.”
Purchased from the Rikers family in 1884 for $180,000 (about $5.1 million today), it began life in the nineteenth century as a motley assortment of jails and “workhouses,” or debtors’ prisons. Using fill from the construction of the Manhattan street grid, the city expanded the island from 87 acres to roughly 415 acres.
It was also a massive garbage dump. Residents of Hunts Point in the Bronx could smell it from their homes a mile away, and Upper East Siders could easily see the flames from the burning of mountains of trash. Enormous clouds of rats populated the dump to the point where they challenged dogs, and humans, for control of the island.
Even today, Rikers remains landfill to a depth of roughly ten feet, based on borings conducted in 2009. “They drilled a bunch of holes and all ten feet were garbage, mixed sand with pieces of glass and brick, pieces of wood—everything you can imagine that would be thrown away as materials from a construction site was in there,” explained Dr. Byron Stone, research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
The first jail at Rikers, in the modern understanding of the place, was born in the spirit of reform. In July 1928, seven years after Vincent Gilroy’s broadside, the city fathers unveiled their plan for the Rikers Island Penitentiary. The New York Times
described it as a model prison that would correct the evils of the past.
The inscription, placed in 1933, read, “Those who are laying this cornerstone today . . . hope that the treatment which these unfortunates will receive in this institution will be the means of salvaging some lives which would otherwise have been wasted.”
As the decades passed, this purported icon of penology became a forbidding place indeed. Detainees were thrown or jumped from the upper tiers to their deaths, so those floors had to be closed.
And over time, it became known by the jailed as the “House of Dead Men.”
But the city stuck with Rikers as the place to leave the people society had deemed worthy of incarceration, the vast majority poor and of color. It was out of sight, hard for visitors to reach, closed, and foreboding.
For some of the hundreds of thousands of souls who have made the passage over the past five decades, a trip to Rikers may be the first time they will sleep somewhere away from home. For others, it’s their only chance for a bed and a warm meal. For some, it might be the place where they find themselves fighting for their lives. And still others may never make it out. The memories of their first day on Rikers are ingrained in the minds of the people who worked, visited, and served time there.
It’s an experience no one forgets.
GRACE PRICE, detained 2011: They literally arraigned me at midnight. It was me and three other people on the bus to Rikers. There was this little crackhead lady falling asleep on my shoulder on the way across the bridge. She was nasty, but I just let her sleep there because it somehow made me feel like I was actually in control of my situation.
COLIN ABSOLAM, detained 1993 to 1996: Going back and forth on those DOC buses over that bridge was traumatic. The bridge is very narrow, and you’re caged up, shackled. If the bus happened to go off that bridge and fall into the water, everyone would die. I mean the correction officers would get out, but you’re in a cage. They would have to open the cage and get the shackles off. There wouldn’t be enough time to do that before you drowned.
GRACE PRICE: The guards on the bus were horrible, and I just kind of sat there quietly sobbing. The guards hated me for that because they don’t like to hear a hysterical woman.
YUSEF SALAAM, detained 1989 to 1994, Central Park 5 case: I can’t really describe in words this horror and this horrible feeling coupled with that horror, but it had a lot to do with the smell of the place. We’re talking about a place that smelled like death, vomit, urine, feces, and like the bad train stations in New York City all wrapped up in one. And one of the first encounters I had with somebody coming up to me while I was inside the holding cell, they were asking me to check out my watch, and I didn’t realize this, but they were trying to steal the watch from me.
And I remember [the Central Park 5 co-defendant] Antron [McCray] saying, “No, don’t let them check your watch out, man. You know what I’m saying? Like they’re trying to get you, this is a trick, you know?”
DONOVAN DRAYTON, detained 2007 to 2012: I was nineteen years old. I’d never been through prison before. I’ve been through some difficult things, but walking into the unknown and not knowing what’s waiting for you, it’s one of the scariest things. And once you actually get inside and see how it’s running and operating, the environment and all the chaos, you’re just like, “Wow, this is a whole nuther world.”
EDDIE ROSARIO, detained 1990: When people ask me, what is being locked up like, the most horrible thing about being locked up is that you are being dehumanized on a daily basis. They practically stamp a number on you. In order to navigate the experience, you have to normalize the dehumanization. You have to buy into it in order to survive. That is the most horrible thing about being locked up. You’re never the same person again. Once you internalize it, you project it outward. If you are being dehumanized, that’s how you treat other people. That to me is the essence of incarceration: having to buy into the dehumanization.
STANLEY RICHARDS, detained 1986 to 1988: I was addicted to crack and on a methadone program and was out on the street robbing for my addiction. When I went to jail after I got arrested, I was in the most emotional pain in my life. And I find myself now in a bullpen with people that I’m going through it with. I’m going through it ’cause I haven’t been able to get my crack, haven’t been able to get my medication, and I am hearing my name being called through the various cells as they process you. So from the point of arrest to the point of getting a bed on Rikers could be something like five days. It’s that intense. No shower. No hot food, none of that. There’s no phone ’cause you’re all in bullpens. You’re basically shoved into a small cell like fifteen by ten and there’s anywhere from like twenty to thirty men shoved in there. So you’re lucky to get a seat. Most are staying on the floor. And most of the people are dope sick. Some are mentally insane or having other medical issues not treated ’cause they’re on the streets.
BERNARD KERIK, correction commissioner, 1998 to 2000: When I got to Rikers the first time, when I crossed that bridge, I thought, God, this is a nightmare. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to, you know, work there. Instead of one jail (where I previously worked in New Jersey), there’s ten and it looked like a city within a city. And then getting through the process, getting into the facility, meeting the guys on the island, waiting for the inmate. It was just a mess. It was uncoordinated. It was filthy. It was what the reputation was.
KATHY MORSE, detained 2006: I remember being in the holding cell in reception, the one they first put people in when they arrive. There were women in there who were getting dope sick. They were fighting over space to lie on the floor. Another woman had multiple layers of clothing on. I couldn’t figure out why. It was because at that point, when I was there, you could wear your own clothes if they met the criteria in terms of non-gang colors and things like that. So she came to court that day prepared for going to jail. She was wearing enough clothes for her stay. I realized I was unprepared.
DONOVAN DRAYTON: I went in November. It was cold. I remember just being in intake, man. It’s like, “Yo, I’m really stuck in jail, son.” Seeing everybody with their bags and all their stuff. Like your whole life packed up in a bag in a waiting cell, getting ready to be shipped off somewhere. You don’t know where the heck you at, where you going, and they don’t tell you where you’re going until you actually go.
ROBERT CRIPPS, retired warden, 1983 to 2013: The first couple of weeks I literally had trouble sleeping ’cause you have to get accustomed to working on Rikers Island, you know, with all the gates locking behind you, all the violence, and everything else. Tough job.
DR. HOMER VENTERS, correctional health services chief medical officer, 2015 to 2017: My first day on the island was in November 2008. It was snowing heavily. And it was just incredibly surreal to hear all the guys yelling out of the [solitary unit called the] Bing. You get out there and all these guys are yelling out. It never stopped. Really. It was just kind of a constant.