An Oral History of Rikers Island

RIKERS: An Oral History, by Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau

One of the takeaways of “Rikers: An Oral History,” a new book by the journalists Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau, is the shock inmates feel upon entering this run-down and lawless prison for the first time. It’s not just the sense of peril, the reek of toilets and cramped quarters, and the nullity of the concept of presumption of innocence — it’s an awareness, as one interviewee puts it, that “nobody cared and nobody was watching.”

Alongside that shock, the rapper Fat Joe tells the authors, is the awareness that, if you grew up in the projects and attended the public schools, you know this place. “I’m willing to bet that the same architect designed all three things,” he says, having visited friends at the jail complex when he was growing up. “I’m telling you I was born in Rikers.”

Rikers occupies a 415-acre island, most of it landfill, in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. If you take off from LaGuardia, there it is, right off to the left. It’s close but oddly far away. One skinny, terrifying bridge leads out to it — terrifying to prisoners, at any rate, because if your bus rolls into the river, as one detainee puts it, there’s little chance of survival when you’re in a cage and in shackles.

It’s certainly far away for relatives and other loved ones. Visiting an inmate in Rikers is a degrading experience that often takes up an entire day, between the buses and the interminable waiting, even if your visit is an hour. A lot of people give up and stop making the trip.

Rayman and Blau have each worked for The Daily News, among other New York City papers. Blau now works for The City, a nonprofit digital news site. They cast a wide net in “Rikers: An Oral History.” They’ve interviewed not just former inmates but officials, correction officers (guards hate the word “guards,” they tell us), lawyers, social workers, chaplains, gang leaders, mob guys, clinicians.

The Crisis on Rikers Island

Amid the pandemic and a staffing emergency, New York City’s notorious jail complex has been embroiled in a continuing crisis.

  • Sick Leave: A number of investigators responsible for cracking down on sick-leave abuse among jail officers at Rikers Island have themselves been absent from work for significant periods.
  • Contraband Problem: Rikers, which had its deadliest year in a decade in 2022, continues to see a flow of drugs and weapons into the complex. Are cargo pants worn by guards to blame?
  • Release Delays: Thousands of detainees at Rikers were held for hours or days after they made bail. Each one is now due $3,500 from the city, according to a $300 million legal settlement.
  • Inside Rikers: Videos obtained by The Times reveal scenes of violence and offer vivid glimpses of the lawlessness that has taken hold.

The result is a bit chaotic, as oral histories tend to be. But the chaos feels true to the experience of prison; this impressive book throws a lot at you, and much of the reading is difficult.

The authors break their material into chapters: “First Day,” “Race,” “Gangs,” “Violence,” “Solitary,” “Food,” “Riots,” “Escapes,” “Death” and so on. There is no section on rape, and curiously there’s relatively little here about sex, forced or otherwise.

The authors are apparently excellent interviewers. They get people to say extraordinary things, like the retired guard who admits to having beaten a prisoner for “four hours straight” because he’d been disrespected.

The authors were shocked and followed up with the guard, who changed one detail, claiming this had occurred “for about an hour.”

There is so much material in this book that it’s hard to condense one’s impressions. “Futility” is the first word that comes to mind. Everyone knows that Rikers is worse than a hellhole, the kind of place a civilized society should not countenance, but its problems, despite decades of sound advice from special commissions and elsewhere, seem intractable. Everyone, at this point, stares out at their intellectual opponents like boxers at the start of the ninth round. Reading “Rikers,” you begin to understand those who have called for closing the prison entirely.

Martin Horn, who was the city’s correction commissioner from 2002 to 2009, puts part of the problem this way: “No mayor has ever gone on to national prominence based on how well they ran their prisons or their jails.”

The other word that comes to mind is, simply, “danger.” One guard tells the authors that, walking around Rikers, you can hear things being sharpened. Almost anything can be turned into a shank. Terminating quarrels are always about an epithet away.

In his extraordinary memoir, “Solitary,” about the years he spent in Louisiana’s Angola, Albert Woodfox wrote that the minute he left school he wound up on the street, where “everyone had one choice: to be a rabbit or a wolf. I chose to be a wolf.” Those who aren’t wolves when they arrive at Rikers learn to become them in order to survive.

Woodfox’s experiences in solitary confinement are relevant here, as well. The lawyer Ron Kuby, whose comments throughout the book are humane and eloquent, tells the authors: “On the outside world, in the free world, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. In a place like Rikers, the squeaky wheel gets shut down and shut up in a cell so deep that nobody can hear the wheels squeak any more.”

Kuby is among those who are aware that many of the people in Rikers should not be there at all — they should be in drug rehab programs or in mental hospitals. The former commissioner Joseph Ponte used to say that Rikers was the de facto largest mental hospital on the East Coast. It’s the city’s bad conscience.

The travel writer Jan Morris made it a practice, wherever she went, to drop in on court hearings. She did this, she wrote, to learn about the “social, political and moral condition of a place.”

Morris had a special loathing for bureaucratized cruelty, and she visited courts too for “the pure pleasure of offering the accused a smile of sympathy, while eyeing judges, court clerks and self-satisfied barristers with a deliberate look of mordant ridicule.” The inhumanity described in “Rikers: An Oral History” makes you want to do something similar with prisons.

The final chapters of this book are intensely moving. Rikers changes you; it leaves you worse off than you were before you arrived. People who leave aren’t sent off with much outside this warning about a recidivist curse: “When you leave Rikers, don’t ever look back, don’t look back in the car or the bus, or else you’ll come back.”

RIKERS: An Oral History | By Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau | 452 pp. | Random House | $28.99

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