A Jail to End All Jails

Mayor de Blasio’s recent pledge to close the Rikers Island jail complex within ten years was met with celebration by many — and skepticism by others. After 85 years in the public imagination, it has become hard to believe that the East River behemoth could ever really be slain. But the reality of a post-Rikers future is coming into focus: following the recommendation of the Lippman Commission in calling for a system of local jails to replace the central complex, de Blasio has released a plan for Rikers’ closure and sought support from consultants and City Council members in siting new jails or expanding existing borough facilities to accommodate more prisoners. The logic goes that jails in the boroughs will be closer to courts, helping cases move through the system more efficiently, and closer to the support of family and social services, helping prisoners stay out of the system once released. On some level, these arguments add a functional gloss to a fundamentally emotional impulse, on which the public and politicians finally agree: Rikers is toxic, and its era is done. A change is on the wind, it seems, and the island’s aura of inevitability is finally dispersing.

But that inevitability was always only an illusion, argue geographers Jarrod Shanahan and Jack Norton. Rather than the regrettable but foregone conclusion to years of crime and crisis, Rikers as it exists today represents the best thinking of earlier attempts to mend the city’s carceral environments. Rikers arose in the 1930s, as another broken jail on another toxic island fell. Like those for whom Rikers is a symbol of broader societal violence today, Progressive Era activists saw the inhumane treatment of prisoners on Blackwell’s Island as a referendum on vast social failings. And like the dogged reformers of the present, those of the past attributed the prison’s violence to neglectful and regressive policies. Department of Corrections Commissioner Anna Kross saw the construction of a new penal complex as an opportunity to put her highest rehabilitative ideals into practice — and erected Rikers’ sprawling campus as the staging ground. Since the very beginning of the practice of incarceration, prison-keepers have sought to solve their problems by building new ones. Shanahan and Norton’s account invites the question: When the sea change of the past has fed the trap of the present, how can the future look any different?

The legitimacy of Rikers Island as a center for imprisonment and detention — “a de-facto penal colony” where people are kept out of sight and out of mind — has been in crisis for some time. On the last day of March, 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would back a plan to close the complex of jails on Rikers Island within ten years, and on June 22nd, he released a program for carrying it out. The product of years of hard work and political pressure from community organizers, the announcement was welcomed by many who view the jails on Rikers Island as a keystone in the state’s capacity to criminalize and to inflict violence upon poor people in New York City through forced confinement. The Lippman Commission report on Rikers, which prompted the Mayor’s initial announcement and from which his program draws heavily, described the jail complex on Rikers as “an international symbol of despair and damage.” After decades of documented abuse on the island, and after hundreds of thousands of lives have been interrupted and shortened through the violence of imprisonment, the Commission’s report represents the culmination of a growing consensus around the need to abolish the jails on Rikers. At the same time, the Commission’s emphasis on building new and more humane jails across the city, central to de Blasio’s ten-year plan, is part of a longer history of crisis and reform that led to the creation of Rikers Island in the first place.

A century ago, progressive reformers made another New York City island notorious through criticism of its violent, unsanitary, and overcrowded prison facilities. Welfare Island, known as Blackwells Island prior to 1921 and as Roosevelt Island today, was home to a cluster of institutions for sentenced prisoners, psychiatric patients, and the city’s destitute. The New York County Penitentiary — the city jail — had a reputation for being dangerous and unsanitary. In 1927, the State Commission of Correction released a report in which the penitentiary on Welfare Island was denounced for its ‘deplorable’ conditions. “The cells are small, poorly ventilated, and without modern sanitary conveniences,” the report stated. “Legislative committees, grand juries, prison associations and other interested organizations and individuals have heaped criticism upon the institution year after year.” The prison on the island was overcrowded, mixed adolescents and adults, and failed to meet the minimum standard for fire safety that had been passed after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911. A progressive consensus began to coalesce around the idea that Welfare Island was in serious need of reform. Rikers Island would be that reform.

A depiction of daily life on the Blackwell’s Island penitentiary, whose unsafe, unsanitary, and overcrowded conditions inspired calls for reform and the construction of Rikers Island. Felix Régamey, Prison Life on Blackwell’s Island: The Breakfast Hour, 1875. Picture Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

Plans for the conversion of Rikers to carceral use dated back to at least 1884, when the New York City Department of Public Charities and Correction, a precursor to the modern-day Department of Correction (DOC), acquired the land and in the following decade began using prison labor to expand the island’s 90 acres to its current 440 acres. The commissioners of Charities and Correction, along with other reformers at that time, took issue with the proximity of mental health asylums, poor houses, and penitentiaries to one another on Blackwells (Welfare) Island. They argued that the adjacency of prisons to institutions of charity fueled popular misconceptions of the poor or mentally ill as criminal. In 1886, The New York Times heralded the City’s purchase of Rikers as a move toward drawing “a distinct line of demarcation by territorial restriction between institutions for the relief of the distressed,” who would remain on Blackwells Island, “and those for punishment of the guilty.” In the evolving carceral archipelago of New York, Rikers Island would become the home for those marked as criminal.

The crisis of legitimacy at Blackwells — the widespread view of the island’s prison as antiquated and physically outdated, the small cells made even more claustrophobic by double-bunking — served as an opportunity for the Department of Correction. The Commissioner at the time, Thomas W. Hynes, told the press of his intention to create a new prison settlement on Rikers, “as complete as any other similar institution,” as a supplemental branch of the Blackwells Island penitentiary. To these ends, DOC used prison labor to build a chapel, “a blacksmith’s shop, a residence for the headkeeper, a stable, and a ‘cooler’ for troublesome prisoners.” Not only would Rikers Island serve as the site of a new, larger, and more spacious prison colony, with larger cells, but the value of the DOC’s newest asset could be increased by using prison labor to physically enlarge and improve the island itself, by erecting a seawall and building roads. DOC also created a series of buildings to enhance this expansion, including a work camp for inmate laborers.

A tractor dumps trash on Rikers Island, ca. 1937. Incinerated refuse was used to expand the island’s land mass from its original 90 acres to an area of 440 acres today. Municipal Archives Collection, NYC Department of Records.

The raw material for the impressive enlargement of the island came, for the most part, from the Department of Street Cleaning, which is to say that Rikers Island is an island made of the refuse produced in the daily life of New York City. Disposing of waste in this way was cost-effective for the city, and improved the value of its newest geographic asset. Later material used as fill included rock and soil excavated from the new subway system, as well as decommissioned ships, which were sunk off the coast in order to expand the shoreline. The deplorable conditions on Welfare Island provided the opportunity for a series of capital projects meant to reform the New York City jail system; projects that built upon the city’s waste and utilized devalued labor in order to expand the capacity of the city to lock people up. This is how Rikers, as we know it, was born.

The first official penitentiary at Rikers opened in 1935, though inmates housed on the island had been working for years on the facility, for which Mayor Jimmy Walker had laid the cornerstone in 1931. The Blackwells Island penitentiary was demolished in 1936, under Commissioner Austin MacCormick, who was praised by the Prison Association of New York for his achievements in finally shifting the center of carceral gravity up the East River. Unlike the fortress structure of the Blackwells Island Penitentiary, the jail at Rikers was designed with low buildings in rows. The Department of Sanitation continued to enlarge the island with the burnt remains of street sweepings and garbage, until Robert Moses demanded that the practice be halted in anticipation of the 1939 World’s Fair. So that the island would look bucolic from the nearby fairgrounds in Flushing, Works Progress Administration crews leveled off and landscaped the trash that covered the island in 1939.

A model of the original City Penitentiary on Rikers Island, now known as the James A. Thomas Center. Its opening in 1935 marked Rikers Island as the new center of the city’s jail system. Photo by Edwin Levick, ca. 1931. Municipal Archives Collection, NYC Department of Records.

From its inception, Rikers was a place of abuse and corruption. Construction cost overruns totaled some $2.5 million in 1934 (about $46 million in today’s dollars), prompting the City Comptroller to decry Tammany waste. Built atop an unstable landfill that emitted noxious fumes and caught fire spontaneously, the jail was also an environmental hazard. By the mid-1950s the island facilities were in the throes of overcrowding — with concomitant violence, neglect, and deprivation of basic services. Into this crisis stepped Anna Moscowitz Kross, a champion of prison reform who became commissioner of the Department of Corrections in 1954. Kross was a veteran of the movement for women’s suffrage and a longtime judge who had pioneered the modern family court while advancing the integration of the city’s social work infrastructure into the legal system. Kross brought this spirit of reform to the DOC, an institution which she aimed to transform into the model for a revolution in rehabilitative penology.

Anna M. Kross seated at her desk. In her twelve years as Corrections Commissioner, Kross enacted a number of reforms to emphasize rehabilitation over punishment, and oversaw the expansion of facilities on Rikers Island. The City of New York Department of Corrections, Progress Through Crisis, 1954-1965.

By Kross’s own account, in 1954 the DOC was still in the 19th century, lacking any interest in rehabilitation of the inmates in its care, a majority of whom had been sentenced for misdemeanor charges or else were confined voluntarily for alcoholism or drug addiction during the heroin epidemic of the 1950s. Kross proposed a bold restructuring of the city jail system based on a medical model of rehabilitation and open dormitory-style facilities, and guided by a modernist imperative to “do a job of human engineering”: identifying the pathological causes of deviant behavior within the individual, and correcting them with the full weight of the human sciences. Kross spent over a decade pushing the DOC in this direction, all the while building up the penal colony at Rikers Island and normalizing the centrality of corrections in responding to social crisis in New York City. For example, as part of the rehabilitative model, Kross increased the number of clinicians, educators, and social workers in the DOC. Kross also opened PS 616 — a school for adolescents — the first of its kind in a jail. Though the C-76 facility was originally slated to be a traditional workhouse like those on nearby Hart’s Island, Kross took the project over and turned it into the New York City Reception and Classification Center (present-day Eric M. Taylor Center). In designing this facility, Kross championed the use of open dormitories over isolated cells, so as not to have the feeling of a prison. The rectangular dormitories of upwards of 80 beds would be surveilled from a guard booth at the entrance.

Between 1945 and 1960, the New York City jail population nearly tripled. The Department of Corrections rapidly added beds to Rikers Island to accommodate spikes in daily occupancy. The City of New York Department of Correction, Seventh Annual Report, 1960.

The population of the city’s jails increased from a daily average of 6,667 in 1954, to around 9,000 in 1960, around 50 percent over capacity. Kross called for a number of big budget capital projects that added jail beds to the island, and established Rikers as the central facility in the DOC’s citywide operation. Kross’s intention was to deemphasize the role of corrections officers in prison life, and put behavioral specialists in charge of measuring rehabilitative outcomes, while building new jails and investing in carceral infrastructure more generally. Perhaps the most important piece of Kross’s plan was the so-called “Bridge of Hope,” the mile-long span connecting Rikers to Queens, known today as the Francis R. Buono Bridge, or more colloquially, the “Bridge of Pain.” Prior to the bridge’s completion in 1964, inmates and supplies were ferried across the East River, a logistical headache which proved impossible during inclement weather, and which posed a serious obstacle to further expansion of the incarcerated population of the island. By Kross’s own estimation, the bridge was the keystone in building up the island as a center for pioneering rehabilitation, and it came packaged along with the Classification Center and a new center for adolescents, the Corrections Institution for Men, Adolescent Division. Along with PS 616, this new center reinforced the trend of using Rikers to house the DOC’s adolescent population. Once again, reform meant expansion and new facilities.

The Rikers Island Bridge, connecting Astoria, Queens to the island, opened on October 31, 1966. An almost $10,000,000 project, the DOC expected it to pay for itself by eliminating the high costs of transporting inmates and employees of Rikers by ferry. The City of New York Department of Correction, 1966 Annual Report.

In 1965, the House of Detention for Women in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village was thrust into the international spotlight by a young Bennington College student named Andrea Dworkin. Following a short stint of incarceration stemming from a protest against the escalating war in Vietnam, Dworkin spoke publicly about overcrowding, squalid conditions, and rampant sexual abuse at the facility. Again, the answer to criticism would come in the expansion of the city’s carceral capacity on Rikers Island. By the time Dworkin spoke out, the problems at the House of Detention for Women were well-known to the DOC and had become something of a local scandal. Kross had long campaigned for its closure, and for the establishment of a new women’s facility on Rikers. After receiving a letter from Dworkin, Kross cited the story as evidence in favor of closing the jail as quickly as possible. Following Kross’s design, a new facility, the Correctional Institution for Women, opened in 1971. The new women’s jail was closely followed by a new adolescent facility in 1972 and by the expansion in 1973 of the Classification Center. At the same time, the notorious Tombs in Manhattan was shut down, due to ‘antiquated’ conditions, and Rikers absorbed this surplus.

Plans for Rikers Island as “a city in itself,” projected five separate institutions for men, women, and adolescents, with a total capacity of 6,780 people. The plan’s caption promised “natural island security”, centralized facilities and staff, and “centralized control of employees and visitors to the island.” The City of New York Department of Correction, 1966 Annual Report.

When Anna M. Kross left the Department of Corrections in 1966, she took with her the department’s outward commitment to progressive reform. What remained, however, was the physical infrastructure built and planned during her tenure, most importantly the bridge which now made Rikers the most logical place to further expand the city’s jail system. And it kept expanding; only instead of a laboratory for a new science of rehabilitative corrections, Rikers would in the following decades become an isolated paramilitary compound where brutality trumped altruism and rehabilitation, and where the DOC’s total control of a geographically isolated cluster of facilities gave DOC employees, up and down the corrections chain of command, the rightful impression that they, not the experts, were in control. There is no single answer to why this happened, but the explanation is inescapably political. Policing and incarceration in the late 60s and 70s became a central part of the state response to urban uprisings and radical consciousness.[1] In 1974, Benjamin Malcolm, the DOC’s first black commissioner, attributed earlier eras’ reformist impulses to their comparatively quiet political moments. “[Anna Kross] was a humane individual, but she was dealing with a docile population of prisoners. Most of them were sentenced inmates, mostly for misdemeanors. We heard nothing of political prisoners then, nothing of riots, militance,” Malcolm said. Citing a magazine article he had read, which traced the movement of urban unrest in the 60s and 70s “to the campus and then to the prison,” Malcolm suggested the significance of these political trends for the New York City DOC: “The year 1970 was critical in New York because you had the emergence of the political prisoner, the emergence of groups who decide they’re victims of society.

Meanwhile, nationwide, a perceived crisis of urban crime lent political momentum to the intensified criminalization of drug addiction and punishment of drug-related crimes. In 1973, New York State passed the first of a series of what were the most punitive drug laws in the country, known subsequently as the Rockefeller Drug Laws. These were followed by a series of crime bills at the state level which imposed mandatory minimum sentences for a number of offenses, both related and unrelated to drug prohibition. The state prison population began to rise, with the majority of the prisoners passing through the City court system, and thus through the facilities on Rikers. As deindustrialization, recession, and austerity deepened in New York, the DOC was among few city agencies that escaped extreme budget cuts. City, State, and Federal officials responded to worsening conditions in the 1980s by further penalizing drug offenses, violent offenses, and property crime. Longer sentences were complemented with greater numbers of arrests: politicians at every level devoted more resources to policing poor people of color, and the courts struggled to keep up with the high volume of cases. Those unable to make bail sat in jail for longer periods awaiting trial, or were locked up on the island, awaiting transfer to Upstate prisons. The population at Rikers exploded.

By 1983 about 70 percent of prisoners in New York City jail were simply awaiting trial. In Benjamin v. Malcolm, and later Fisher v. Koehler, federal judge Morris Lasker repeatedly ruled to restrict the population capacity at Rikers in response to severe overcrowding, on the grounds of the island’s conditions violating the Eighth Amendment prohibitions on excessive bail, fines, and “cruel and unusual punishment.” These cases, pushed by prisoner rights activists and prisoners themselves seeking reforms in the city jail system, entered into consent decrees, which bound the DOC to regular evaluations of its compliance with minimum legal standards. The inability of the DOC to keep the mushrooming population housed at a minimum legal standard — “non punitive conditions for nonconvicted prisoners” — resulted in Lasker’s 1983 order to release over 400 prisoners held on low bail. These prisoners were detainees, and while they had not yet been convicted or acquitted of any crime, politicians across the state used the release to enflame public fears about criminality and violence, and both Mayor Koch and the DOC vowed never to repeat it.

To keep the facility from running afoul of the federal court, temporary structures known as modules were installed at the CIFM (now the Eric M. Taylor Center). Modules are effectively double wide trailers, filled with beds like dormitories. They are narrow and difficult for corrections officers to surveil with an unobstructed view, as opposed to open dormitories. Two modules, which run together like a train, were surveilled by one guard, with the guard able to look into only one at a time. These “temporary” structures, some of which stand to this day, empty and crumbling, made for dangerous, cramped settings.

The Vernon C. Bain Center, the only prison barge currently in use by the New York Department of Corrections, houses 870 beds and is docked in the East River north of Rikers Island. Photo by James Tuttle via Flickr.

After Lasker’s 1983 order, Mayor Koch and the DOC began campaigning aggressively for the expansion of Rikers’s carceral capacity. They argued that such an expansion was necessary in order to maintain the basic legal requirements in the context of rising detention and incarceration, and that it would ease the violence and tension throughout the island. Perhaps the most unusual addition to New York’s carceral archipelago during the years that followed was the Vernon C. Bain Center, a floating barge docked in the East River, custom-built in a Louisiana shipyard in the wake of various failed experiments in using decommissioned Staten Island Ferries and troop barges (bought from the UK after the Falkland Island War) as emergency floating jails. By the early 1990s, when Rikers reached a record population exceeding 20,000 inmates, the DOC had constructed a new women’s facility, the Rose M. Singer Center (with CIFW repurposed as the men’s facility known today as the George Motchan Detention Center), the George R. Vierno Center, the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, the West Facility, as well as a courtroom on the island. Today, the island’s largest facility, and the site of many charges of brutality and neglect, bears the name of Anna M. Kross. Over the course of a century, as a result of progressive reform, Rikers Island had been transformed from a 90-acre landfill in the East River to one of the world’s largest penal colonies.

Over the last forty years, the jail facilities on Rikers Island have become one of the key nodes in what is often referred to as mass incarceration in New York State. In 1978, there was a daily average of 6,382 people in jail in New York City. In 1983, it was 9,217. By 1991, when the number of people jailed in New York City reached its peak, there were well over 20,000 people locked up on any given day, the vast majority held on Rikers Island. The extra-legal violence on Rikers Island, as well as the violence of imprisonment itself, multiplied. In 1990, there were increased reports of “slashings, stabbings, and assaults” on the island. In August of 1990, guards blocked the bridge to the island to protest an assault on one of their own in this context of mounting violence. Prisoners at the Otis Barnum Center, a maximum security jail on the island, responded with an uprising, and were met with tear gas and beatings. Forty-seven people were injured. After the uprising, according to a lawyer for the prisoners, guards “lined up the prisoners, faces to the wall, and [went] down the line, clubbing them from behind.” This was one of a series of bloody ‘disturbances’ on Rikers Island that summer.

The number of people locked up in New York City jails fell, rose again in 1997, and declined again. In 2017, the average daily incarcerated population in New York City was 9,400. During his announcement in March of this year, Mayor de Blasio stated that in order to close the facilities on Rikers Island, the number of people incarcerated by the city would have to fall to below 5,000. The closure of the jail complex on Rikers Island could be a paradigm shift for the carceral infrastructure of New York City; a new geographic dispersal of carceral institutions following decades of concentrated, island-based penal colonies in the East River. Yet, with the plan to build new borough-based facilities, the mayor joins a longer history of progressive reformers who, in addressing the injustice of forced confinement, ended up building newer and more numerous jails. Once again, the city intends to use incarceration to ostensibly fix all that is wrong with incarceration.

Can jail really fix the problem of jail? At the very least, today’s would-be reformers would do well to learn from the history of Rikers Island, an object lesson in reform efforts gone awry, at incredible capital expense and human cost. At each crisis in the jail system, vast sums of money have been allocated to the capital budget of the Department of Correction. The Lippman Commission report anticipates that the cost of constructing new borough-based jail facilities will come in at approximately $10.6 billion. How might those funds be used to address the inequality and violence of mass incarceration in New York? It remains to be seen whether the plan to close Rikers will come to fruition, and whether it will indeed be a step towards ending mass incarceration, or will spread the violence and indignity of incarceration from Rikers Island across the entire city.


Jordan T. Camp, Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016.

Jarrod Shanahan is a writer, activist, and doctoral student in Environmental Psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Jarrod’s work focuses on social history of the New York City jail system; he is currently undertaking an extensive study of the history of Rikers Island with colleague Jayne Mooney.

Jack Norton is a PhD candidate in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department of the CuNY Graduate Center. He is writing a dissertation on the geography and political economy of mass incarceration in New York State.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


The Location of Justice

An examination of the pervasive and often overlooked infrastructure of criminal justice in New York and the spaces that could serve a more just city.

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