Rikers Island Has Made Us All Prisoners

New York City’s infamous jail on Rikers Island is one of the most brutal institutions of incarceration in America. Its conditions are the product not just of “tough-on-crime” policies but also of the best intentions of liberal criminal-justice reformers.

Prisoners sit handcuffed on the ground along the hallway after riots at Rikers Island on November 25, 1975. (Leonard Jackson / NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

In 2014, a young man named Jarrod Shanahan arrived at Rikers Island, the infamous spit of land that houses New York’s primary jail complex. Shanahan had been arrested during a violent state crackdown on anti-police uprisings that characterized the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. For the next several weeks, he “beheld and experienced the degrading treatment to which tens of thousands of New Yorkers are subjected each year by guards who answer to nobody,” he later reflected.

The guards harassed, intimidated, and outright assaulted prisoners and visitors alike; they ignored prisoners’ medical emergencies and sought to bait them into fights; boredom characterized the hours that were free of violence. It was frightening, demoralizing. Yet Shanahan also began to hear talk of a campaign to close down the penal complex, an organizing effort that a year later would expand greatly following the suicide of Kalief Browder, who had spent three wretched years at Rikers (half that time in solitary confinement) despite not having been convicted of a crime.

Over the course of his forty-five-day sentence, Shanahan decided to learn more about the institution in which he was caged. Five years later, his research had become a doctoral dissertation at the CUNY Graduate Center; three years after that, it has become his first book, Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage. It is a vivid, vital, and terrifying volume.

Jails and prisons have long been popular case studies for academics, but in recent years, several historians have seized on new archives and original oral histories to reframe these accounts along expressly abolitionist lines. Last year, Jessica Ordaz told the remarkable, decades-long story of an immigration detention center at El Centro, California. Last month, Hugh Ryan published his brilliant “queer history” of the Women’s House of Detention, which stood for half a century in Greenwich Village. Shanahan’s book joins these efforts, unearthing the history of one of the most famous — and notorious — jails in the world (its notoriety due in part to its location in New York City, but probably in larger part because of the unending series of stomach-turning scandals in which the penal island has been embroiled).

For generations, “Rikers” has been a byword for official impunity, state-sanctioned violence, racialized mass incarceration, and the criminalization of the poor. In 2019, the New York City Council finally voted to close Rikers by 2026, a plan Eric Adams claimed to support while running to be the city’s mayor last year. For now, though, the facility remains open — and an absolute nightmare. With more than a third of the guards playing hooky every day, with routine deprivations of food, water, and medicine, and with stabbings, assaults, and even murders a routine affair, the federal government has recently threatened to take over the jail complex entirely.

According to Shanahan, the history of Rikers contains “the story of the postwar struggle for who would run New York City” — and by extension, cities across the United States. Shanahan frames New York’s governance as defined by two increasingly polarized camps: reformist liberals on the one side, and the “forces of brute repression,” of “law and order,” on the other.

But “make no mistake,” he writes: “both camps swore allegiance to the capitalist order and believed in the ultimate legitimacy of whatever means were necessary to protect it.” Captives tells a story about the inherent limitations of liberal reform: about how every effort to make human caging more humane only served to expand incarceration, to make it more profitable for a small elite, and to render it more necessary to the administration of American cities.

It has always been a vile place. “Rikers Island is a patch of reeking landfill plopped into the East River between LaGuardia Airport in Queens and Hunts Point in the Bronx,” Shanahan writes, with evident disgust. The name traces back to a seventeenth-century Dutch landowner, Abraham Rycken, although the most famous of his descendants, Richard Riker, was a key player in the nineteenth-century Kidnapping Club, in which corrupt, wealthy New Yorkers would kidnap free and fugitive black people and sell them south into slavery.

Two decades after the end of the Civil War, New York officials purchased Rikers Island “to build a bigger jail” (as the New York Times approvingly wrote) and set to work shoring up its unstable soil. At first, Rikers was just a miserable daytime worksite for inmates of the overcrowded jail on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), with the disproportionately poor and black prisoners literally laying the groundwork for the future penal colony. In the early 1930s, a new jail opened on the island, and progressive penologists rejoiced. It had a large library, a state-of-the-art hospital, and offered an array of “rehabilitative programming.”

The fantasy was not to last for long. Insufficient budgets and overzealous policing soon led to a corrupt, overcrowded jail system. By the time Anna Moscowitz Kross took over as New York’s commissioner of correction in 1954, Rikers was cluttered with beds, running short on clothing, disproportionately packed with poor people and New Yorkers of color, and individual guards were responsible for more than two hundred prisoners at a time.

Kross, though, had a vision for Rikers, as well as the city’s other jails and prisons. It is because of that vision — and her decades at the head of the Department of Corrections (DOC) — that she emerges as perhaps Shanahan’s main character, a well-meaning, deeply harmful protagonist. (She is also profiled at length in Ryan’s aforementioned The Women’s House of Detention; at long last, Kross is having a moment.)

The working-class daughter of Russian Jewish refugees, Kross sped through public schools, Columbia’s Teachers College, and New York University’s law school all before the age of nineteen. As a teenage law student, she had become interested in the plight of poor women (many of them accused sex workers) appearing in New York’s “night court.” In the years that followed, as she rose through the ranks of Tammany Hall, eventually becoming a judge, Kross never lost her determination to reform the city’s penal system. She believed that, with compassion and expert guidance, the courts and the prisons could become “a site of potential social good.” In seeking to realize this vision, Shanahan argues, she “significantly expanded the role of the courts in the lives of working people.”

Kross was appointed DOC commissioner amid a brutal police crackdown on black and brown New Yorkers. Just a month after she took office, the number of incarcerated people in the city reached a fifteen-year high. In response, Kross sought to increase the DOC’s reliance on civilian experts, well-credentialed social scientists with a particular focus on supposedly reformable women and children. She created educational programs and introduced classificatory schemes, seeking to “make carceral facilities more easily governable.” She also brought in private charities and nonprofit and religious organizations to offer benevolent services to incarcerated individuals.

Such policies no doubt improved the lives of some prisoners, but they also served to enmesh liberal actors in the prison-industrial complex, leading the nonprofits and the charities to defend the prison system and their own roles within it.

“As interested citizens and volunteers, we have worked thousands of hours yearly in every corner of this institution,” read one letter to every city newspaper, signed by a who’s who of New York’s nonprofit establishment. “We have been appalled by the exaggerated and distorted descriptions [of jails] given by news media. . . . We are qualified to set the record straight!”

At every turn, however, Kross ran into resistance from the New York Police Department — especially from the legions of guards that patrolled the city’s jails and prisons. She strove valiantly to keep the guards on her side, offering higher wages, greater benefits, and more jobs, but this did little to control the guards’ violence. When she sought to institute a policy with which they disagreed, many guards simply ignored her.

And conditions only grew worse. At the Women’s House of Detention, the incarcerated were subjected to violent medical searches, filthy blankets and mattresses, rats and roaches everywhere, toothpaste and soap nowhere, rampant sexual abuse, and consistent racist treatment. Facilities like this one (located in the heart of Manhattan) were “a great shame” for New York; pissed-off prisoners were within shouting distance of the streets below. Kross and her colleagues at DOC decided that it would be better to relocate incarcerated people away from the city proper, from the old jails and workhouses of Brooklyn and the Bronx and onto far-off islands.

Throughout the 1960s, therefore, Kross led a massive infrastructure expansion on Rikers Island, unveiling new, “modern” penal facilities. The “final piece of the puzzle,” Shanahan writes, was replacing the ferry to the island with a bridge, so greater quantities of supplies and humans could be shipped to Rikers more easily. “With the best of intentions, Anna M. Kross had paved the road, quite literally, to the Rikers Island of today.”

Kross served as DOC commissioner for well over a decade, but her tenure did not last long enough for her to oversee the modern monstrosity that Rikers became. By the time Mayor John Lindsay — another liberal reformer — officially opened the bridge to Rikers in 1966, he had replaced Kross with a new commissioner, albeit one whom Kross praised as “rehabilitation minded.”

In 1967, DOC broke ground on a new facility for women at Rikers. By 1968, all adolescent prisoners were housed there as well. In large part, these expansions were motivated by a continued surge in arrests across New York City during these years. Throughout the 1960s, the DOC population had shifted from majority-white to majority-nonwhite. This shift reflected a widening economic gap between the white and nonwhite segments of the labor force, itself reflective of postwar municipal policies that favored white workers.

Rikers Island, New York, New York. (Theodore Parisienne / New York Daily News / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The shift was also attributable to a violent backlash to the civil rights movement and urban uprisings, which led the NYPD to step up arrests of black and brown people across the city. As working-class white New Yorkers moved to the right and as a significant number of working-class people of color embraced revolutionary movements, the police became more and more violent. Explicitly embracing white supremacy and Klan-like tactics, the cops relentlessly (and often illegally) targeted the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Rikers was needed to house all of the people that the cops were hauling off the streets.

Kross’s successor strove to maintain her reform-minded policies, continuing the partnerships with private nonprofits like the Ford Foundation, busing in social science graduate students, and even constructing the new penal facilities according to modern design principles. The DOC began working closely with the newly founded Vera Institute of Justice, another organization that sincerely sought to improve prisoners’ lives but ended up providing the city with detailed plans for how penal facilities could be used as essentially a counterinsurgent mechanism to quell black and brown revolt.

And Rikers remained a horrendous place, overcrowded, violent, rife with suicides. “It was as if Kross had never come along at all,” Shanahan comments dryly, “except for the bridge, the new jails, and plans for still more jail expansion.” An increasing proportion of the prisoners were black and brown, an increasing share of these having been arrested not for “crimes” but for activism.

In response to the rash of arrests, the rising rates of incarceration, the police violence, and the atrocious conditions within, rebellions flared inside the city’s jails and prisons. In 1970, a hunger strike erupted at one of Rikers’s facilities for male inmates, followed by a work stoppage at the Tombs in solidarity. Other uprisings soon followed at the Brooklyn House of Detention, multiple houses of detention in Queens, the Adolescent Reformatory at Rikers, and the Tombs (again). Almost invariably, these rebellions led to vicious reactions from the guards and NYPD, wielding clubs, blasting music, setting fires, indiscriminately spraying teargas, and beating prisoners almost to death.

In the aftermath of the unrest, the guards embraced a newfound “militancy,” Shanahan notes. The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), the guards’ main union, demanded more power to “clean up our institutions” — that is, virtually unchecked impunity to assault and torture inmates — and won greater pay, benefits, and new riot gear for its members by threatening to quit en masse. The guards imposed twenty-four-hour lockdowns, blocked prisoner communication with the outside world, and denied access to medical care. Prisoners returned to find their cells “completely wrecked and all their belongings destroyed by guards.”

Never again would New York City prisoner resistance reach the widespread levels that it did in 1970, but struggle continued at a smaller scale, violently contested by guards yet ultimately ineradicable. Prisoners smuggled in revolutionary literature, organized for better conditions, escaped in droves, and occasionally set up barricades. They and their allies won some reforms, including the abolition of the “bread and water” disciplinary diet and the introduction of methadone; and the rise of litigation challenging unconstitutionally dire conditions within prisons also led to some changes, including the closure of the Tombs.

Yet the guards never stopped pushing for their own interests, either. And they enjoyed considerably greater success.

Indeed, the second half of Captives is a demoralizing, twinned narrative about brutal economic austerity on the part of the city and militant labor organizing on the part of the guards. The two forces functioned in tandem. Economic troubles in New York led to overcrowding behind bars, which led to conditions that the guards used to demand greater authority and control, which led to more prisoner maltreatment; austerity governance cut programs that benefited the poor, which led to more crime, more arrests, and more people in jail, which led to still greater construction at Rikers; tightening city budgets led to greater reliance on private organizations, which led incarceration to become even less accountable to the public; layoffs in the wake of the financial crisis led the guards to protest, which led those in power to classify the guards as “essential” and “special,” effectively immunizing them from future layoffs.

Over time, COBA became more and more confrontational. Aware of its increasing centrality to New York’s new order, it staged repeated wildcat actions, belligerently marched on city hall, and conspicuously displayed guns and knives. It violently resisted each concession or reform that the prisoners won. COBA opposed the searches of its members for contraband, despite evidence that guards were smuggling drugs into Rikers, promoting more invasive searches of prisoners instead.

“In short, COBA members’ carte blanche remained the organization’s bottom line,” Shanahan notes, “for which it was willing to trade away not only the dignity and well-being of the city’s prisoners, but also the safety of its own members.”

In the 1980s, the municipal government (led first by Mayor Ed Koch and then by Mayor David Dinkins) turned away from liberalism and toward tough-on-crime policies and the “war on drugs.” (Ironically, and fittingly, Koch’s deputy mayor was the founder of the Vera Institute.) Rikers expanded and then expanded again; one new facility on the island was named after Anna Kross. To those in power, enhanced policing and imprisoning also suited the imperatives of austerity (even as the DOC’s budget increased 3,000 percent).

“In the end, policing and jails were a less expensive, and thoroughly disempowering, alternative to welfare state spending,” Shanahan writes, echoing Ruth Wilson Gilmore and other abolitionist scholars. “Human costs notwithstanding, jails were politically expedient, and a good investment to boot.”

Shanahan largely concludes his story in the summer of 1990, with a massive protest in which hundreds of guards blocked access to the bridge to Rikers. Armed and drunk, the guards picketed for hours (at one point assaulting EMTs who were trying to get to Rikers to assist a prisoner having a seizure). COBA made more than thirty demands, including greater hiring, harsher penalties for prisoners that assaulted guards, and — most significantly — “an end to stringent oversight of how and when they chose to inflict violence.” The action ended with a nonbinding agreement, although COBA’s president told the rank-and-file via bullhorn that the oversight protocol had been eliminated.

Meanwhile, a meltdown in humanitarian conditions within Rikers as a result of the blockade led the prisoners to rise up, which the guards brutally repressed. In the end, no guards faced any criminal charges. The city would not hold them accountable at all. They had proved a bloody point.

In one sense, Captives is mistitled. It tells the story of the captors, not the captives. It is not a people’s history; it the guards’ history. Their struggles, their budgets, their internecine disputes, even the racially disparate violence meted out by a majority-black workforce — this is the focus of Shanahan’s book. Such an approach is highly revelatory, although it stands in contrast with the approach of, say, Hugh Ryan or Heather Ann Thompson (acclaimed historian of the Attica prison uprising), who largely looked past the guards in their penal histories, instead lavishing attention on the prisoners, both the famous and the unknown.

This is not a criticism of Shanahan, however. In a review published more than twenty years ago, the historian Nell Irvin Painter critiqued Diane McWhorter for failing to sustain a “clear-eyed focus on white supremacy’s power structure” across her epic, 700-page account of the struggle over civil rights in mid-century Birmingham. McWhorter began her book by carefully tracing the connections among the white supremacist “country clubbers,” the Klansmen, and all levels of law enforcement. But in her quest to also track black resistance and give her book a “happy ending,” Painter writes, McWhorter lost sight of her most significant intervention.

The same cannot be said of Shanahan. He never loses track of the racist and capitalist power structure that is his book’s primary focus. He never lets the guards out of his sight.

In another sense, Captives is perfectly titled. Looking to its subtitle, it’s clear that its titular captives are not just the individuals incarcerated in Rikers. Rather, this book is about how Rikers — and the politics of surveillance, policing, and carceral punishment—made captives of us all. We are all at the mercy of the system it emblematizes — not equally at risk, to be sure, but captives to its inexorable logic, nonetheless.

In the aftermath of the 1990 uprising, Shanahan argues, the modern status quo prevailed. “Built by jail reformers to be a world-renowned hub of penal welfarism,” he writes, “Rikers Island was now the domain of a violent custodial force that demanded — and won — almost-untrammeled city recognition of their freedom to dispose of the city’s prisoners however they saw fit.” Rikers overflowed with prisoners structurally consigned to poverty, “the vast majority of whom had not been convicted of any crime.

Indeed, the authorities warehoused so many people at Rikers that it became famous for its ad hoc structure (tents, modules) meant to facilitate ever more rapid expansion; so many prisoners filed civil rights suits that DOC constructed its own courthouse on the island. The number of captives has grown over the last thirty years, but the violence of their captors has not relented.

Shanahan closes the book, however, with one last look at liberal reformers (a different set of captors). Nonprofit organizations, he writes, have remained “highly specialized partners to the administration of punishment and surveillance.” In the aftermath of Kalief Browder’s death, a powerful abolitionist movement rose up, wielding a simple demand: “Shut Down Rikers” and replace it with nothing. “To this demand, however, emissaries of the city’s nonprofit sector” — including the Ford Foundation, the Vera Institute, and others, Shanahan notes — “would add another. The city should shut down Rikers, they argued, and replace it with new, state-of-the-art penal welfarist jails. . . . This time around, they assured the public, the city would get it right.”