For the last 21 years, I have been locked up, mostly in maximum security prisons: Clinton, Attica, Sing Sing, and now Sullivan, in the Catskills. But before my sentence, I spent a few years on Rikers Island in New York City. That period, and the year I spent on the island as a teenager, was by far the most brutal.
You go to prison after you are sentenced. You go to a jail, like the ones at the sprawling mega-complex in Rikers, after you’re arrested and denied bail or can’t afford bail. Jail is a tension-filled place, with months-long periods between court dates, hours of nothingness, clashes over who’s next on the phone or who didn’t get extras on chicken day. What makes prison so hard is not knowing what will become of you.
Rikers is an entire island full of people in the worst moment of their lives. In his new book, Rikers: An Oral History, Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau reveal that the jail steals something from the people who live and work there. Through thematic chapters (“Bullpen Therapy,” “Race,” “Gangs,” “Mental Health”), the authors create a vivid picture of what life is like on the island. What is clear is that it is not the people that make it bad, but the environment.
There are specific elements, unique to Rikers, that make it so unbearable. For one thing, it’s an entire island dedicated to housing the city’s undesirables. A narrow bridge (which Mayor John Lindsay dubbed the “Bridge of Hope” and rapper Flavor Flav more accurately dubbed the “Bridge of Sorrow”) is the only way to get on or off the island, making traveling to it is so difficult that lawyers, even the ones you are paying for, will not visit you much. And the facilities include mostly makeshift trailers, built for temporary housing, with walkways that stretch out into long, hair-raising corridors. But it is the general atmosphere of Rikers, with its mythical reputation as the most dangerous place to be detained in the United States, that affects the psyche the most.
I was first sent to Rikers in 1995, at the age of 18, after I was caught with a gun. After violating my probation, I ended up serving a year in a jail for teenagers: C-74, which we called “teens at war.” On my first day, a group of Ñetas (a Puerto Rican gang) beat me up because I refused to give them my sneakers. As a white kid, I was in the minority at C-74; the sick paradox was that I only felt safe when I acted violently.
I left at 19, but returned to the island after I shot and killed a man on a Brooklyn street at 24. This time, I spent two and a half years there, before finally being convicted and sentenced to 28 years for life In 2004, handcuffed and chained to the back of a bus, about 40 of us being transported upstate to prison, I was relieved. Leaving Rikers feels like a better chapter of his life is about to begin, even if the next chapter is a prison sentence.
I was hesitant when I first came across Rayman and Blau’s book. The authors are tabloid reporters who cover the prison complex, usually from afar, and I’m skeptical of journalists who rarely dive into the worlds they write about. Rayman and Blau don’t offer a clear explanation of why we need another Rikers book at this point, but the stories they include prompted me to find my own reasons for the book’s existence. And, to be fair to the authors, they spoke to about 130 people with experiences on the island: prison officers, wardens, commissioners, activists, lawyers, loved ones of those incarcerated, and people who have been incarcerated there, including some with whom I have served time. The portrayal of opposing voices side by side allows the reader to levitate and experience Rikers from different points of view. Even as someone who has witnessed firsthand much of what the authors write about, I appreciated the juxtaposed perspectives, which capture the complexity of island life.
In the chapter on gangs, James “Shaquell” Forbes, who I bumped into in 2016 while we were both in Attica, explains how the New York faction of the Bloods (originally a West Coast gang) started in Rikers to unite gangs. blacks. against two of the main Latino gangs: the Latin Kings and the Ñetas, who frequently jumped and stabbed outsiders. To challenge that dominance, Shaquell became the leader of one of the first New York Bloods subgroups. He reflected on how the gang, born in the chaos of Rikers, spilled over into society: “We never wanted it to hit the streets… And then we started hearing people cut themselves [in the streets] because they wear red dresses or it is part of an initiation. Why is this happening?”
In a chapter on “bullpen therapy,” the term for the endless hours people spend waiting together in large cells, whether in Rikers bullpens or in courthouses, the authors accurately describe the logistical nightmare of transporting hundreds of people in and out of the room. island every day for their court appointments. It all starts at 4 a.m.: caged bus rides, crowded bullpens, cluttered files and constant case backlogs — “a form of torture,” as Rayman and Blau put it.
Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of a criminal justice nonprofit called the Alliance of Families for Justice, explains how prosecutors take advantage of Rikers’ notoriety, specifically the horror of bullpen therapy, to wear down defendants. until they plead guilty. “In fact, their entire plea negotiation changes if they know their client is waiting, waiting for the disposition of their case at Rikers… The likelihood that they’ll take a plea to get out of that situation increases significantly.”
The notion that Rikers brings out the worst in human behavior is particularly evident in the way he can corrupt those in power. In one of the most disturbing examples in the book, retired corrections officer Thomas Cinquemani openly boasts about violating the civil rights of a young man he says disrespected him in front of his colleagues by calling him a “white bitch.” Cinquemani goes on to tell the authors how he later saw the boy get off the court bus and beat him in a cell for an hour. “Do you remember the old James Cagney movies when you see the head in the toilet? I did that with my black bitch of the day too… I threw his head in the toilet more than once and hit him hard enough to let him know what he did was wrong”. Cinquemani adds: “You have to become part of your environment.”
cyclists It is a book of horror stories. It’s enough to make you feel like the only solution is to shut down the complex entirely. To that end, the authors offer a succinct history of recent efforts to do so. In 2015, a federal monitor was appointed to oversee the city’s jails following widespread reports of violence and abuse on the island. In 2017, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio approved an $8.3 billion “county-based jail” plan to rebuild existing jails next to courthouses in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, and to build a new jail from the ground up in the Bronx. . In 2019, the city council passed legislation to put it all in motion, but the plan hinged on keeping the prison population low. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, that number has been on the rise, and Mayor Eric Adams, who campaigned on promises to improve public safety, has spoken about a possible “Plan B” for the legally mandated closing date of Rickers in 2027.
Reading this book took me back to my worst years, when I was my worst self. My own time at Rikers is still traumatizing to look back on, even now, living in a prison cell. After I finished the book, a comment made by a bureaucrat, of all people, stuck with me the most. Eve Kessler, former director of public affairs for the New York City Department of Corrections, tells the authors how Rikers is commonly known as the largest mental health hospital on the East Coast. “This is not about prisons. It’s about our society that is leaving so many people behind with so many problems that we don’t have the right kind of help to [to] prisons,” he said. “It’s like everyone is talking about prisons being so brutal… it’s society that’s brutal.” She is correct. A violent crime occurs, the tabloids report, and we send the person, often someone who is sick and suffering, to Rikers, where he is likely to get sicker and suffer even more. The brutality of society lies in its indifference to this cycle, in its inability to imagine a world in which Rikers is not the only solution.