How Rikers Island Made New York

In “Captives,” former Rikers detainee Jarrod Shanahan traces the history of New York City’s sprawling jail complex, and its centrality to New York’s brutal class struggle.

How Rikers Island Made New York
"Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage," a new book by Jarrod Shanahan, is out on Tuesday, May 17. (Verso Books)

The humanitarian crisis on Rikers Island has reached a tipping point amid escalating violence, crumbling infrastructure, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a largely absent workforce. A judge is now weighing the possibility of a federal takeover of New York City's jails unless the Adams administration can present a plan to drastically improve conditions. To some, this heralds progress, but "Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage," a new book by the writer, activist, and educator Jarrod Shanahan that traces the history of Rikers Island from its founding to the present day, argues that reforming jails is nearly impossible under our current system.

As the title suggests, Rikers Island is foundational to the identity of New York City in a way that few grasp. Shanahan, himself formerly incarcerated at Rikers, outlines the history of the island and the political forces that forged it into a monument to austerity, law-and-order policing, and state-sanctioned violence. "Rikers Island is a place that just about everybody thinks they know all about," Shanahan told Hell Gate. "But in reality, many New Yorkers who have not had direct experience with the City's jail system can’t even find it on the map."

In an idealistic post-war era, reformists had led the charge to expand Rikers from a remote, overcrowded prison to a complex with facilities for women and children. But that vision quickly curdled, as political power became concentrated in the hands of agents of the carceral state. Shanahan demonstrates how, under these conditions, so-called reform efforts inadvertently laid the groundwork for Rikers to expand into the miserable behemoth it is today, creating an appetite for more jails that has yet to be satisfied.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


Alana Mohamed: How has Rikers evolved from its origins to now?

Jarrod Shanahan: Rikers was part of a modernizing effort—a program of reform that was meant to modernize the City’s social institutions to make them more humane, to make them more scientific, to make them more progressive. The problem with Rikers was that when it was purchased by the City, it was only 90 acres—a sliver of low-lying land—and there was not enough of a foundation and there wasn't enough space to build the very large modern penitentiary that the City wanted to build there.

Simultaneously, City politicians were not willing to spend a lot of money on improving conditions for prisoners, using much of the same rhetoric that we see today, saying, "They don't deserve it." And so what the City did was, beginning in the late 1890s up until the first penitentiary opened on Rikers in 1935, use forced prison labor from Blackwell's Island to engage in dangerous, miserable work, leveling off the land and expanding Rikers' shoreline from 90 acres to the 440 acres that it is today.

In doing so, they used mostly garbage from the city and also the rubble that was left from the construction of the New York City subways. You had people working under disgusting conditions—you could smell the landfill from miles away, people in Astoria and the South Bronx would complain about how bad it smelled—and a lot of it was highly combustible material that was often catching on fire. It’s common to hear that Rikers has been a penal colony since 1935 when the penitentiary opened, but in reality, the real birthday is 1903, when they opened up a small complex of wooden jails and ancillary buildings for the prisoners who were doing this kind of work.

One of the figures you zoom in on is Anna M. Kross, who became the head of the Department of Corrections in 1953 and imagined herself as a reformist who was going to use her position to make conditions more humane. How did she see Rikers fitting into this vision of a more humane jailing system?

Anna Kross believed that you could repurpose jails to be agents of social service. She was guided by the same Progressive-era beliefs that led to the creation of Rikers in the first place. Namely, that you can use human cages to make the people who are locked up in them better citizens in a capitalist society. For Kross, who inherited an antiquated and overcrowded jail system, she had to undertake considerable jail construction in order to realize this vision. And not just construction of jails, but jail infrastructure: specifically, the bridge connecting Rikers Island to East Elmhurst, Queens. This might be because I'm a nerd, but I think that’s the most important part of the entire story.

Once they opened up the bridge to Rikers, it became the easiest way for the City to build a high volume of human cages. Within 25 years, virtually every surface of the island was covered in jails.

There are a couple of moments in the book where you quote one DOC official or another saying something along the lines of, "Once we build more jails, we can really get to the task of reforming our prisoners." Did that strike you as a sincere belief?

I took the reformers at their word. I have met a number of liberal jail reformers. They have struck me as intelligent, conscientious, and well-meaning people. The purpose of this book was not to argue that they secretly wanted to uphold a violent, racist social order. I wanted to show that, quite contrary to their own intentions, that is exactly what they did. And it’s because they placed their faith in the idea that you can remedy social problems by building better human cages.

It's hard not to think about the tensions that arose a few years ago between the abolitionist-minded Campaign to Shut Down Rikers and the CLOSErikers movement, which has a more reformist bent and supported reducing the Rikers population and building community-based jails. What makes the appeal of reformism so enduring if past efforts have not succeeded?

"Captives" is an unmistakable product of that curious moment in New York City history when a coalition of activists and social justice non-profits came together to demand the construction of new jails, albeit under the pretext of closing the old ones. As a side note, as many abolitionists at the time warned, including the tireless attorney M.J. Williams, the motion passed by the City Council only guaranteed the new jails, not the closure of Rikers. I was actually involved in CLOSErikers before they came out in support of new jails. Their basic position is akin to Margaret Thatcher's famous hymn to capitalist hegemony: "There is no alternative." Decades of austerity and co-optation of social movement activism by elites has engendered a dismal political horizon for what is possible among most people in our society. Meanwhile, a lot of jail reformers could tell you more awful things about the system, and its failures, than I could. But they believe it is the only game in town.

While it is fashionable in some activist circles to dismiss and deride jail reformers, I think the onus is actually on us abolitionists to prove, through actions and not just rhetoric, that radical alternatives are actually viable.

You cite many examples of fawning media coverage of new jails throughout "Captives." Has there been any shift in the coverage of or rhetoric about new jails?

As my colleague Zhandarka Kurti likes to emphasize, we are living through a sustained crisis of legitimacy for the police, courts, and carceral facilities. These institutions enjoyed an unrivaled dominance of American life for decades under a bipartisan consensus, from the 1970s until roughly ten years ago.

Today, decades of local activism against the buildup of America's system of policing and prisons have entered the mainstream. With all due respect, most media outlets are ultimately capitalist enterprises; they may seek to shape public opinion, but they also chase after it, because if one publication doesn’t give the public what it wants, another will. Politicians are the same way; they don't lead anyone, they generally avoid risks and simply serve up what they think people already want to hear. The growth of scathing rhetorical treatment of police and prisons among the press and in politics—and that’s all it really amounts to in the end—indicates to me that there's a widespread and growing consensus that these institutions are rotten and should be rejected. Of course, at the end of the day, publications and politicians have their class allegiances, most often to the ruling class. So the New York Times will pursue so-called social justice, provided it is largely symbolic or rhetorical, and doesn't interfere with business, but is not going to advocate any measures that disrupt the balance of forces in New York City's class society. That's up to activists. And by all appearances, the water is inviting.

You write about plans in prior decades to close Rikers and move into a couple of borough-based jails, and mention that the rank-and-file guards did not love this idea. Why were they so attached to Rikers, specifically, and so opposed to the opening of these neighborhood jails?

The Department of Corrections is a paramilitary organization and the rank-and-file guards control a fortified island in the East River. There's one way on and off of it that they control. If they want to prevent the mayor from going there, they probably could. On that island, they have almost complete control. They control not just what happens on a day-to-day basis, but who is even around to observe it. Why on earth would they give that up?

Speaking of the jail's guards, you write about the rise of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association and their counterparts in the NYPD, the Police Benevolent Association. How did they come to wield so much power?

In my mind, the centerpiece of the book is how it came to be that the organized political power of the city's cops and guards exercised such an outsized role in city politics. Drawing on the work of some excellent scholars like Rebecca Hill and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, I attempted to sketch how the rising star of political power for police and guards was bound up in their enforcement of austerity politics.

In particular, the PBA and COBA, in the 1970s, openly argued that their role in the city was so important and central to public order that they should be spared the cuts that the City was making. They effectively advocated for gutting other City agencies, while allowing them to retain their membership, and even expand. It was very explicitly expressed by these unions: They were willing to pick up the slack that was being dropped by cuts throughout much of the public sector. Whereas the traditional New Deal Liberal version for managing the American working class was this kind of Keynesian approach, where you invest in public employment, public services, the arts, and the like in order to produce a docile and productive workforce, this new paradigm advocated effectively gutting much of that public expenditure and replacing it with the management of working class people by police, courts, prisons, and jails.

Since the 1950s and 1960s, there has been a ceaseless campaign waged by police unions in particular, but also guard unions, to push back against any check on how they go about their interactions with the people whom they police and guard, to such an extent that, if you look closely at the 1990 wildcat strike that I write a lot about in the book, it’s very clear that the elimination of policies regarding force against prisoners was far and away the most important issue. In New York City, in the jail guards' view, their ability to use as much violence as they see fit against the prisoners in their custody is a metric of their political and social power—it's how they measure it.

You end on that action staged by COBA at the bridge to Rikers in August 1990, which became violent and encouraged more violence on the island itself, directed toward the inmates. Why did you choose to close on that scene?

The story begins with a plan to expand the City's carceral capacity on the wager that a jail could be made into anything else besides a squalid human cage. Anna Kross and her cohort believed that jails could be run by civilians, trained in social sciences and medicine, that could serve a social good—at least, from the ruling class perspective of turning people into obedient workers. Kross struggled throughout her tenure to rein in the power of the uniformed guards—the custodians, as they were called—and this book is largely an effort to demonstrate how political forces outside of the jails, coupled with daily struggles inside the jail, ultimately demonstrated that Kross's wager had been wrong. And that, in a city characterized by a violent and racist capitalist order, human cages cannot be anything besides what we see on Rikers Island today.

An opposing force that emerges is this focus on law-and-order policing in the '60s and '70s. Who or what was galvanizing this movement?

There was a general sense of open class war, in which the American ruling class was growing restless with the social spending to mitigate economic and racial inequality that had characterized state policy since the New Deal.

Most people in America were experiencing, in their day-to-day lives, a kind of turbulence that was a part of global capitalism in crisis. And this manifested itself in a rise of antisocial behavior, the collapse of public services, the growth of structural unemployment in the manufacturing sector, and a whole host of other changes that made people profoundly uneasy about the world and their place in it. The so-called law and order movement, much like conservatives today, appealed to this unease within working-class and middle-class white voters, saying, "We know that the world is changing in a way you don't like. What we need to do is: We need to crack down, we need to reel in social spending, we need to abandon these efforts to mitigate structural racism, we need to be harsher on law breakers, and we generally need to be more austere as a society."

And this is, of course, the ideological expression of the social transformation that the ruling class was pushing, in which they wanted to pay fewer taxes, follow fewer laws, and be more free in how they dominated the American working class. And so, this is all to say that the best laid plans of New York City jail reformers ran up against a tidal wave of world historical changes that largely came from outside the jails. To me, this demonstrates that you cannot fix the problems one finds in a jail by looking at the jail itself. You have to look at the broader social context in which the jail is built.

Outside the jails, the twin figures of law-and-order politics and austerity policies wreaked havoc throughout working-class New York, but in particular, in working-class Black and brown communities. You can see how this constituted a kind of feedback loop, as the City's response to the rise of crime—attendant to segregation, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, and so forth—was punitive. More police, stricter laws, more jails. Yet the presence of highly punitive policies in working-class communities only makes them worse. If this wasn’t true, then places like Chicago's South Side would be among the safest and most prosperous places in the country. If intensive policing and incarceration make communities better, we would see evidence of that after 50 years of punitive policy, but the opposite is true.

This transition really set the table for the balance of power that we still are stuck with in the present today. Our social problems are dealt with largely by police and prisons, and some of society's most powerless people are blamed for its problems.

As the influence of police and prisons grew, what role did civilian oversight boards play in pushing back?

There were attempts by civilian agencies to rein in the power of the guards, but, as you saw in the austerity regime of Mayor Ed Koch, the guards and the cops were simply providing a service that was too valuable for the city, and so as a result they effectively had a political blank check to do whatever they want.

Individual members of the Board of Correction, for example, have worked valiantly over the years to publicize bad conditions, abuse, and general misery of life in the jails. And they have also worked hard to improve conditions for individual people locked up in City custody, but on the whole they have failed to effectively oppose the Department of Corrections.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been consistent and alarming reports of conditions in New York City's jails. Recently, the U.S. Attorney's office has said that Rikers is in a state of crisis and that the City may be forced to implement "sweeping reforms." Is there precedence for this? What do you imagine federal oversight would be able to impact and where might it fall short?

The closest precedent I can think of comes from the 1983 action undertaken by Judge Morris Lasker, who oversaw a number of class action suits against the Department of Correction in the 1970s and 1980s. The DOC delayed, stonewalled, and ultimately made a mockery of compliance.

In the end, Lasker was effectively forced to take action, and freed 613 prisoners from City custody. These people were mostly locked up for minor offenses, shouldn't have been locked in a cage in the first place, and would be likely out on the street soon enough anyway. But as far as Mayor Koch and his base were concerned, Lasker, like some character from Lucio Fulci’s "The Beyond," had thrown open one of the seven gates of Hell right there in East Elmhurst, Queens. Koch's response was part of what his aides called the "never again" policy. He resolved to build so many cages in New York City that the federal judiciary could never say there weren’t enough. This precipitated a massive infrastructural buildup on Rikers Island throughout the 1980s that resulted in what you see today, when virtually every surface of the island is covered with some kind of jail.

At the same time, Judge Lasker was pushing for the City to adopt stringent policies surrounding "use of force" by guards against prisoners. Much like today, guards were able to use bureaucratic word magic to justify just about any act of violence committed against a prisoner. Guard resistance to stricter standards became the focus of the violent 1990 wildcat guard strike and staff riot, in which the guards triumphed. To this day, they can do pretty much whatever they want to a prisoner, write in the paperwork that the prisoner slipped in the shower, and so forth, and be reasonably sure they’ll find support up and down the chain of command.

In short, the federal government can intervene, and maybe make life better for some prisoners for a short period of time. But history tells us that this intervention will not challenge the violence at the core of New York City's class structure, of which Rikers Island is simply a symptom. And the guard power that controls Rikers will not take opposition sitting down; federal intervention is most likely to simply strengthen the guards' solidarity and militancy, and we could see a repeat of the 1990 staff riot which I describe in detail in the book, or something worse.

Ultimately, Rikers is run by the pincer-like cooperation of a politically-organized workforce of guards, acting out the wishes of the city's elite, which finds it much cheaper to manage social problems with police and jails than with programs that redistribute wealth and power. This arrangement cannot be upset by the federal government—after all, it's run the same way. The current mess in New York City can only be upset by mass movement activity from below, tens of thousands of people, if not more, taking risks in concert and fighting together to take control of their daily lives.