As long as Rikers Island has been around, since the 1880s, it’s been a place for society’s unwanted. Heck, the place was once a home for pigs raised for slaughter. Not long after, the island was converted into a partial landfill, loaded with horse manure and garbage. The stench was so bad that while it repelled the neighbors in the boroughs, it attracted a sizable rat population.
So, what did the city do? They released the hounds. And what did the dogs do? They attacked and ate some of the pigs. In the end, humans were brought to Rikers. And the rest is history – a lesson filled with plane crashes, famous inmates, and garbage. Lots and lots of garbage.
Where Is Rikers Island?
Rikers Island sits conveniently yet remotely in the East River, between the Bronx and Queens, 300 feet from where La Guardia’s runways now sit. A home to hundreds of thousands of criminals is the city’s largest jail complex and hasn’t just made headlines over the centuries; it’s still the subject of debate.
Rikers has long held a reputation for its brutal conditions, but recently the situation has spun out of control. Ten inmates died in 2021 alone (at least five by their own doing), which is the jail’s largest death toll in years. Relatives of the incarcerated are fearing for their loved ones’ lives.
A “Hellhole” With a Foul History
According to The New York Times, the “vast majority” of Rikers’ inmates have not been tried and are presumed innocent. The place is widely considered a “hellhole,” and city officials are considering shutting it down permanently. How did it get to this point?
It is named after Abraham Rycken, a Dutch settler who took possession of the island in 1664. His descendants, the Ricker family, owned Rikers Island until 1884, after which it was sold to the city of New York for $180,000. Rikers indeed has a story to tell (well, thousands to be more accurate), and its history is foul to say the least.
It Was Initially a Military Training Ground
The thing is, Rikers Island wasn’t initially a foul place. It started out as a military training ground during the Civil War. The first regiment there was in 1861 when the 9th New York Infantry, also known as Hawkins’ Zouaves, arrived. John Lafayette Riker, one of the first commanders, was related to the owners of the island.
The island was later used as a training ground – the last stop before troops headed south to face the enemy. When the island was free of infantries, the place was used for raising pigs. The land was then purchased from John T. Wilson.
$180,000 and 30 Years Later
Wilson, the last of the Riker family owners sold it for $180,000 as it was supposed to become a workhouse. Instead, the land laid untouched for the next 30 years. Once the 1920s rolled in, the city decided it would be the perfect spot for a jail.
They wanted to replace the small, dilapidated Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary (which was located on what’s now Roosevelt Island). At that point, Rikers Island was only 87.5 acres in size, engulfed by shoals just under the waterline. The problem was a jail needed more land than that. The solution? Garbage and convict labor.
It Took Convict Labor and Heaps of Garbage
There was another problem that needed fixing. You see, NYC was banned by the courts in 1922 from dumping garbage in the ocean. And so, most of that trash (delivered by barge from Manhattan) ended up on Rikers Island, and they used convict labor to make it happen.
The island took in 1.5 million cubic yards of additional landfill, which is apparently more than the amount of dirt displaced by the World Trade Center buildings. Since the garbage included a lot of ash from coal heating and incinerators, there were frequent and sudden fires, even in the winter.
One Man’s “Beautiful” Garbage Fire…
In 1934, one prison warden described the sight: “At night, it is like a forest of Christmas trees – first one little light, then another, until the whole hillside is lit up with little fires. It was beautiful.” For this warden, evidently, it was beautiful, but for most the place looked like hell on earth.
It was around this time that the whole rats-dogs-pigs fiasco was happening. Eventually, “master builder” Robert Moses, who didn’t want the unsightly island to be the setting for his 1939 World’s Fair, got the island cleaned up.
Despite the Dogs, the Rats Were Multiplying
Moses made sure the city’s garbage was sent elsewhere, and by elsewhere he meant another island, specifically the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. The trash was still there, though, and it became a huge problem.
With all the rats hanging around, and the dogs sent there to “eliminate” them, another issue arose. The dogs were living solely on rats as their food. But the rats weren’t going away; on the contrary, they were multiplying. And with this ghastly site sprang up the Rikers Island we know today.
It Was Meant to Be a Self-Sustaining Facility
In 1932, the prison opened its doors for the first time to inmates, after seven years of debating whether or not it should be a prison. The prison, built by inmates, was envisioned as a self-sustaining facility, with inmates meant to work 8-hour days farming, making clothes, baking, and performing other work for the city.
Of course, that isn’t exactly what happened. By 1954, the complex was already being noted for its disgusting conditions. A Bronx court condemned the conditions inside, saying it was filthy, overcrowded and plagued by drug dealers.
1935: The Earliest Escape From Rikers
The truth is that escapes occur all the time, at least attempts do. Whether the escapees succeed or not, the sometimes clever (and sometime foolish) ways they do it are quite interesting. Take the early escape of Walter Zell, 33, in 1935.
While serving a sentence for petit larceny, he escaped Rikers through a coal chute, diving straight into the East River. He was caught and detained by a lighthouse keeper on North Brother Island, only a quarter mile away. He reportedly returned without incident to the jail.
1941: One Chickens Out, One Goes MIA
Two prisoners, Joseph Grimm and Paul Dronke, tried to escape from Rikers in October 1941. Considering it’s an actual island, swimming is typically involved in the process. The problem for Dronke was that he couldn’t swim. He tried using a six-foot board to float on, but it started to sink.
He quickly turned back, only to be caught hiding behind a barn on the island. Grimm, however, was never found. According to Dronke, they were going to “steal a car, commit a holdup for money, and then head west.”
1949: Hiding Out in a “Cave”
In 1949, four convicts escaped Rikers by first making a makeshift key with a confiscated steel ruler, a small file, and soap. With the “key,” they entered the maintenance hallway and from there, they used stolen garden cutters to cut their way through a screen covering a ventilator shaft.
They took shelter under a sort of cave, which was really just a collapsed foundation of an abandoned dumping pier. Guards found the four men after 36 hours on the loose without food. Two of them were too weak to leave the cave on their own and had to be tugged out by the first two prisoners. The whole ordeal involved a helicopter and 150 police and correction officials.
Rikers Island in the 1950s: Overcrowded and Overworked
In the mid-1950s, overcrowding in city jails reached crisis levels. 7,900 men and women were being held in facilities that had a capacity for 4,200. Two, sometimes three, beds were being crammed into cells. Nonetheless, the inmates were busy.
The following year, they turned one of the many garbage dumps into a tree farm. It was successful, at first, as thousands of shrubs and trees grew. They were even transplanted into city parks. The inmates were issued a certificate of appreciation from the Red Cross after having donated their 5,000th pint of blood.
5 to 10 Cents a Day
They also raised 10,900 pounds of chicken, 5,900 dozen eggs, baked 2 million loaves of bread and harvested 59,300 pounds of vegetables, in addition to the 75,000 trees for the parks department. (Look at that – not all of Rikers’ history is nasty.)
The city converted a storehouse on Rikers into a school, (creatively called) PS 616, to help educate its prisoners. A few years later, inmates were getting paid 5 to 10 cents a day for their work, including farming, cooking, repairing and making clothes.
The Time a Plane Crashed Into Rikers Island
But then, one night in February of 1957, a Miami-bound airplane carrying 95 passengers from La Guardia Airport crashed into the island. Minutes later, it exploded. 20 people died as a result. Inmates rushed to the scene to rescue people. The city then rewarded 81 of those prisoners with time off their sentences.
The correction officers on duty on the night of the crash allowed the 69 inmates who were assigned for snow removal duty to help rescue the remaining passengers from the burning wreckage. “I don’t know if all of us would’ve even gotten out without them,” passenger Kenneth Kronen, now in his 90s, told The Post.
1954: Lester Johnson Almost Makes It Out
A convicted forger named Lester Johnson (his alias name was Steve Lopez), 35, escaped Rikers by the river. The theory is that he somehow unlocked a door to a utility corridor, climbed up 40 feet to the roof, and made his way to the water. He then constructed a raft but was sighted by a tugboat and taken to shore. They didn’t know he was on the loose.
When the police arrived, Johnson pretended to be a deckhand, explaining that his raft broke while doing maintenance work on the pier. He was treated at Lincoln Hospital for exposure. Only in the morning did the guards and crew put two and two together. Johnson was taken in a day later with the help of the girlfriend he was supposed to meet at Columbus Circle station.
Rikers Island in the 1960s: Women, Children and a Bridge of Hope
In 1964, the lovely tree farm was bulldozed to make way for some new jails – ones that would house women and adolescents. At the beginning of the decade, a bridge was proposed to connect the island to the city.
In 1966, the Francis R. Buono Memorial Bridge was built, connecting Rikers to Queens, and christened as the “Bridge of Hope.” It was also in the mid-‘60s that famed surrealist artist Salvador Dalí donated one of his drawings as an apology because he was unable to attend a talk for the prisoners about art.
Salvador Dali’s Donated Drawing Gets Stolen
The drawing was hung in the inmate dining room from 1965 to 1981, when it was moved to the prison lobby for safekeeping. It was then stolen in 2003 and replaced with a fake. You might be thinking that the inmates stole it, but you would be wrong.
Three Correction Officers and an Assistant Deputy Warden were charged with the theft. (What? Corrupt prison authorities? No way…) Although the trio later pleaded guilty (and one was acquitted), the drawing was ultimately never found.
A “Dumping Ground” for Criminal Youth
By the end of the decade, city jails were getting even more overcrowded than they had been in the ‘50s. By 1969, the prisons were at nearly twice their capacity, hosing 14,000 inmates in 8,000 beds. The state relocated 1,000 inmates from Rikers, but it didn’t really make a dent.
Suicides by prisoners were becoming a thing, with eight that year alone. One group of NYU students released a report calling the Rikers’ adolescent unit a “dumping ground.” The Bronx DA and Correction Commissioner launched an investigation into the prison’s suicides, beatings, sexual abuse and drug trafficking.
Rikers Island in the 1970s: Let the Hunger Games Begin
In 1970, 1,500 Rikers inmates embarked on a hunger strike to protest a law that cut in half the number of time-off sentences inmates were entitled to receive for good behavior. This set off a decade marked by inmate strikes, riots and even hostage situations – not just in Rikers but in jails across the city.
Also in 1970, three new facilities were being built on Rikers to handle over-capacity. Then there was a four-day riot in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Rikers’ jails. Inmates were protesting court delays, high bail and poor living conditions.
The Youth in Rebellion
In 1972, the city was threatened with loss of certification if Rikers’ housing, health and educational conditions for young people didn’t improve. It turns out, it wasn’t only the veteran prisoners who were making a mess.
The Bronx DA found over 100 weapons in the adolescent jail. In one of the several hostage situations that year, 75 inmates and 20 officers were injured in the adolescent facility alone. In response to all the inmate rebellion, the city set up “prisoners unions” on Rikers Island for them to formally air their grievances.
Five Guards Were Held Hostage
In 1975, after one of the wardens warned of riots if the conditions didn’t improve, inmates at the men’s jail held five guards hostage. The event that caused $1 million in damage was to protest excessive bail, court delays and inadequate legal representation.
Crowding got worse and assaults on officers grew exponentially. At one point, correction officers who were laid off in budget cuts blocked access to the bridge for an hour. So much for the “Bridge of Hope.” In the ‘70s, a number of famous names wound up on Rikers…
Son of Sam’s Stint in Rikers
Plenty of famous criminals wound up in Rikers, locked up with common thieves and violent felons. “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz was one of them. You might have already heard of the serial killer who got busted in 1977 after terrorizing New York City and killing six women.
The 24-year-old postal worker from Yonkers served time at Rikers until pleading guilty in 1978, when he was then transferred to a prison upstate. There’s actually a law called “The Son of Sam Law,” which was passed after Berkowitz received multiple payment offers for the rights to his story. The law, also known as a notoriety-for-profit law, was designed to keep criminals from profiting from the publicity of their crimes.
Sid Vicious Spent Seven Weeks There
Another famous inmate was Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, who spent seven weeks in 1978 in Rikers after authorities discovered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen was stabbed to death in the Chelsea Hotel. Vicious was charged with second-degree murder only to be released on bail.
He did, however, get sent back to the slammer while he was on probation. He was caught in a pub brawl. He eventually got out in early 1979 while awaiting trial. His story didn’t end well, though. Like his girlfriend, Vicious was also found dead (of an overdose) after a night of celebrating.
Rikers Island in the 1980s: Escapes, Violence and Lennon’s Assassin
The ‘80s saw no fewer strikes and rebellions in Rikers than the previous decade. In 1980, over 90 inmates refused to leave their cells for their appointed court appearances because they claimed that their attorneys didn’t visit them.
Escapes from the island were rampant and the violence within the prison walls was soaring. What made matters worse was the crack epidemic of the decade. One of the inmates in the early ‘80s was Mark David Chapman, the man who assassinated John Lennon outside his apartment in December 1980. He was initially sent to Rikers before getting transferred upstate to Attica.
The Bibby and the Bobby
By the end of the ‘80s, New York City’s jail population was nearly 19,000, leading to the decision to transform two warships, the Bibby Venture and the Bobby Resolution, into jails. Meanwhile, Rikers’ drug arrests were climbing, and overcrowding was worse than ever before.
In 1989, inmates shut down the island in a two-hour riot that left 35 inmates and 12 officers injured. It took place on the same day that hundreds of officers were holding their own protest. They blocked the entrance of the island’s bridge in their fight against the “lenient” treatment of inmates.
1987: Digging a Hole in the Wall
In 1987, inmate James Diguglielmo, 27, escaped while awaiting trial on a charge of first-degree assault for shooting a friend “in the buttocks with a crossbow.” He did it by digging a hole in a wall. It didn’t take long for correction officials, the police, and the Coast Guard to launch a land and water manhunt.
The cops found Diguglielmo a month later, but the fugitive had been killed. He was found with “a fusillade of bullets” in a parking lot in Staten Island. The shooter, a former friend of his, jumped off his motorcycle to shoot 18 bullets into Diguglielmo’s Cadillac, also seriously injuring a female passenger.
1989: Fleeing by Garbage Truck
Michael DiCarluccio, 28, fled Rikers in 1989 when he managed to hide in a garbage truck. The truck driver noticed a man leaping from the truck as he was approaching the dump. DiCarluccio was later spotted 70 miles from Rikers, when a full-on hot pursuit began.
DiCarluccio was speeding in a stolen van, crashed it, and then hitchhiked to Queens. There, he dyed his blond hair black, shaved his mustache and wore a fake beard “to remain free for three days.” He was finally arrested in a basement in Queens. (He escaped again in 2000.)
1989: Escaping the “Absconder” Way
That same year, another notable escape occurred. George Suarez, 35, chose a more bureaucratic way to flee. Suarez was released from jail after “an accomplice falsified jail records,” meaning someone was able to post bail on Suarez’s behalf.
This was despite the fact that the judge’s official ruling prohibited Suarez from posting bail at all. These kinds of escapees are known as “absconders.” Bernie Kerik, a former correction commissioner (1998 to 2000) who later served time in prison, explained it: “Guys faked to be another guy, at the courthouse while they’re posting bail—and the guy gets out—he poses as another guy. He’s sittin’ in his cell, he gets out.”
Rikers Island in the 1990s: Everything Gets Closer
At the beginning of the decade, in order to ease overcrowding, the city moved cell beds closer together. And to make logistics easier, two courtrooms were opened on the island. Just as everything was getting closer, so did the gangs.
By 1993, the notorious Bloods gang started recruiting members from Rikers. Before them, the prison complex was dominated by the Latin Kings and the Netas. It was in the mid-‘90s that Rikers and other NYC jails started becoming more corporate, and you can thank Mayor Rudy Giuliani for that…
The Warden’s Abuse of Prisoners Gets Exposed
In 1995, Mayor Giuliani proposed that private companies take over at least some – if not all – of the city’s jail operations to save money. Meanwhile, in response to an ACLU lawsuit, the Feds launched an investigation into the allegedly excessive use of force on Rikers inmates in solitary confinement.
In 1996, evidence was found of “deliberate beatings” of inmates in solitary confinement on Rikers. 60 guards were transferred as a result. Since the ‘80s and ‘90s were plagued with the AIDS crisis, the prison granted early release to prisoners who were terminally HIV-positive so they could die peacefully in their own homes.
Rikers Island in the 2000s: From Rappers to Baseball Players
The 2000s saw some more famous inmates within the Rikers walls. For one, GOP state Senator Guy Velella was forced to step down in 2004 after being convicted of taking $137,000 in bribes. He was sentenced to a year in Rikers but spent only 182 days there.
Then there are the rappers DMX and Lil Wayne who also did their time on the island. DMX was busted in 2005 after refusing a mandated drug test and treatment. He spent 40 days in Rikers. As for Lil Wayne, he was sentenced to a year at Rikers for weapons charges in 2010. Ex-New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress was there in 2009 after he accidentally shot himself inside a Manhattan club.
2000: DiCarluccio’s Second Escape
After failing at the garbage truck escape in 1989, DiCarluccio tried his luck again, although this time he wasn’t at Rikers. While serving his sentence upstate, he faked suicide, but he cut himself so badly he needed 70 stitches.
He was admitted to Brooklyn’s Lutheran Medical Center psychiatric ward, where he kicked through the wall of a bathroom that was hollowed out for repairs. He climbed out the window, fled on foot to a white Ford Mustang that was waiting for him. But, of course, he was caught the next day in a cab. The funny thing is he was carrying a water gun, which he apparently tried to use in a series of hold-ups.
A Culture of Brutality
Just as things can’t seem to get worse in Rikers, more and more lawsuits and overall mayhem continued. In 2002, Legal Aid filed a lawsuit on behalf of 22 inmates, citing a culture of brutality at not just Rikers but other city jails.
Reportedly, “headshots” (blows to the head) were being used as a means of punishment. The city settled the suit by paying $2.2 million and agreeing to a series of reforms. Over a three-year investigation in six Rikers jails, it was found that inmates had suffered 703 head injuries and 113 facial cuts requiring stitches.
A Corrupt Penal System
It was becoming increasingly clear that the penal system was corrupt. In 2005, the private health contractor Prison Health Services and the Correction Department was accused of being responsible for a string of prisoner suicides. It turns out, the contract was illegal.
By the end of the decade, Rikers guards were being charged with taking bribes and smuggling drugs into the jails. They were even ordering teen inmates to assault other inmates to keep order. For lack of better words, Rikers Island was a full-blown sh*t show.
Rikers Island in the 2010s: An Era of Solitary Confinement
Rikers Island was condemned for using solitary too frequently. In, 2014 Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara released a 79-page report describing the “deep-seated culture of violence” at Rikers. Officers were beating teenagers and putting them in solitary confinement for months at a time.
In the meantime, the issue of the culture of violence was becoming more and more public. Thanks (mostly) to the internet and the constant reports of both prisoner and warden behavior, Rikers’ poor reputation was becoming common knowledge. The correction officers were coming off as evil.
Ex-Cons Hired as Correction Officers
In 2015, it was discovered that dozens of correction officers were being hired without background checks. Men with red flags in their past, like gang affiliations, were hired by the private health contractor Corizon.
The company hired doctors and mental health workers with prior criminal convictions, including murder and kidnapping. It was around this time that Rikers’ closure started becoming a debate. While some agreed that it was worth considering, others called it unrealistic. After all, with such a violent history, closing down a seemingly cursed prison isn’t such a bad idea.
Is Rikers Island Closed?
After years of debating its closure, Rikers Island is set to be closed down by 2026. But then the city of New York postponed the prison’s death sentence to 2027. Mayor Bill de Blasio supports the closure of the island, but as always, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
If there’s anything that will push the closure to happen sooner than later, it’s the pandemic. COVID hasn’t been kind to anyone, but the virus took a toll on Rikers in a whole other way.
Rikers on COVID
As the pandemic carried on, Rikers inmates were evidently unable to follow the safety measures suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As you probably heard on the news, inmates were contracting the virus at a swift speed.
One inmate said, “The hygiene in here is really nasty. There are roaches and mice in the dorms and rats in the hallway. It’s a good place for disease to hang out.” There was a suggestion that non-violent inmates should be released, which obviously led to a whole slew of arguments.
Inmates Are Running the Jail
In March of 2020, two dorms in Rikers with 45 inmates each carried out a strike in protest of the lack of PPE, social distancing, and cleaning supplies. All in all, they wanted out. The virus has infected over 2,200 employees of the Department of Correction so far.
By October 2021, as a result of staff shortages made worse by the pandemic, inmates were “virtually running the jail and lawlessness, violence, and chaos reigned,” as reported by The New York Times. The pandemic has basically turned Rikers into the Wild West.
A Snowball Effect
Already terrible conditions grew even worse since a large number of staff members are out of commission. Of course, it caused a snowball effect as many correction officers — who are granted unlimited sick time — started to call in sick or simply stopped showing up.
As more and more staff are not showing up to work, the population of inmates keeps growing. Over 1,500 inmates have reportedly been released to curb the spread of the virus, but the jail population was still too high. And self-harm among the incarcerated also rose.
From Birth to Death
In general, most Rikers’ residents are poor and awaiting trial for low-level (or petty) offenses. Most are unable to afford bail and are thus stuck in a limbo that can last from weeks to years. There are both official and nonofficial hierarchies in the system.
Gangs don’t even try to hide the fact that they run the show. Correction officers often form transactional relationships with the inmates, too, whether for sex, drugs or cigarettes. And believe it or not, people are born on Rikers (there are beds for babies next to the women’s dorm) — and they die there, too.
The Case of Bradley Ballard
The sheer number of deaths that occur in Rikers is striking. And the stories behind them are sometimes hard to hear, even if we’re talking about criminals. You may have heard about the schizophrenic, diabetic inmate Bradley Ballard, for one.
Ballard was locked in his cell, alone, for six days without food, water, medication, or insulin. The officers and health workers noted a smell coming from his cell, but no one helped him until he went into cardiac arrest. Criminal or not, that’s no way to go.
The Case of Kalief Browder
In 2010, 22-year-old Kalief Browder was accused of stealing a backpack when he was 16. His family wasn’t able to make his $3,000 bail, so he was incarcerated without trial nor conviction. His trial kept getting postponed.
The case was eventually dismissed after numerous postponements and 31 hearings for his case alone. For two of the three years that Browder was in Rikers, he was put in solitary confinement or punitive segregation. In 2015, after his release, he hanged himself, as he’d tried to do while in jail.
“Jail Has a Smell”
Unfortunately, cases like Browder’s or Ballard’s aren’t uncommon. There was an inmate named Victor Woods, who endured a violent seizure while a prison guard sat and watched him while drinking a cup of coffee.
If you’re curious as to what it’s really like to be inside Rikers, take this one description by a correction officer: “Jail has a smell,” he stated. “I can’t even describe it… Worse than a sewer. The island is its own island that people on the outside could never understand.”