The Birth, Life and—Maybe—Death of Rikers Island

MAC 1928: Model of new penitentiary on Rikers Island “to be completed in 1933.” Photo taken in front of the Blackwell’s Island Prison, ca. 1932. Edwin Levick, NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

Rikers Island once called—“The City’s Island of the Damned” —was born in tragedy and scandal.

Severe overcrowding and a spate of riots and legal battles across the jail’s first 45 years of existence led the city to try to get rid it and replace it with eight smaller detention centers across the boroughs in the late 1970s and 1980s. That highly touted, but controversial effort ultimately failed, and, despite its well-earned notoriety, the 413-acre island jail continued to grow, fester and become increasingly dangerous for the inmates as well as the correctional officers who worked there.

Now, 85 years after it officially opened, the city wants to shutter it for once and for all and replace it—again with several smaller jails across Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx and Queens.

With that in mind, a trip through the city’s Municipal Archives reveals a harrowing, but by no means complete, tale of how Rikers grew into a sprawling, horrific and riot-torn lockup that once housed over 20,000 inmates—and points to problems the city may once again face trying to close it.

Named after Abraham Rycken, whose Dutch family once owned the island, Rikers was home to a military training ground during the Civil War. It was sold to the city for $180,000 in 1884 and became a garbage dump.

The city first considered using it as a workhouse. Nothing happened until the late 1920s, when officials announced plans to build a modern jail to replace the crumbling Blackwell’s Island complex of badly deteriorating jails and asylums that had held prisoners and mental patients for over 100 years.

Construction of 26 buildings consisting of seven cellblocks for 2,600 inmates, an administration building, receiving center, mess hall, shops, a chapel and homes for the warden and deputy warden began in 1932—and disaster struck almost immediately.

On the Friday after Labor Day 1932, the steamboat Observation, ferrying 150 construction workers to the island, exploded in the East River, killing 72 people. Investigations ensued, but construction went on and Rikers Island soon began taking inmates.

MAC_1935: Aerial view of unfinished Rikers Island penitentiary buildings, ca. 1936. Department of Corrections, NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

Scandal quickly followed. In a January 18, 1934, report to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the city’s Commission of Accounts found “many irregularities and abuses in the construction of Rikers Island Penitentiary,” largely due to “Tammany Hall Corruption.” For starters, the report noted that the architects had been awarded a no-bid contract and that multi-million-dollar construction contracts have “clearly been violated in a number of particulars with a probable loss to taxpayers of more than $100,000,” or nearly $2 million in today’s dollars.

The report found “serious cracks” in some of the newly constructed buildings and violations in plumbing and roofing contracts, all of which “constitutes an illustration of the reckless way in which the city’s money has been spent with the approval of the Finance Department of the prior administration.”

MAC_1058: Department of Sanitation tractor at Rikers Island Dump, ca. 1936. NYC Municipal Archives.

Two years later, another report to LaGuardia noted garbage was still being burned on Rikers and critics feared the smoke and stench would make the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens unattractive to visitors. “It is inconceivable that the City of New York can tolerate (this) unsightly and unsavory nuisance,” the report harrumphed. Modifications were made to the garbage-burning process, and the show went on.

Despite steady overcrowding—press reports in 1954 show that the city’s jails held 7,900 inmates in spaces designed for 4,200 prisoners—no new buildings were added until the mid-1950s. That’s when additions and alterations were made to buildings housing adults and adolescents to accommodate another 1,900 inmates. In addition to cellblocks, kitchens and enlarged mess halls, the city built a 107,000-square-foot industrial building to house a new bakery, print shop, shoe shop, garage and diagnostic center. New buildings for adult males, women and adolescents, were added in the mid-1960s and early 1970s.

dpw_0975: Rikers Island Laundry Site, cell blocks, September 20, 1939. Joseph Shelderfer, Department of Public Works Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Still, overcrowding continued to worsen; in 1969, the city held 14,000 prisoners in spaces designed for 8,000.

 A spiraling crime rate and raging heroin epidemic made conditions so bad in the early 1970s that a headline in the New York Times called Rikers “The City’s Island of the Damned,” and a prescient New York Post story screamed: “Pressure Cooker Ready to Blow at Rikers?” In November 1975, rioting inmates seized two cell blocks at the Men’s House of Detention and 318 inmates were transferred to other buildings as a result. A few days later, 350 corrections officers refused to take their posts during a six-hour protest over budget cuts, overcrowding and inmate violence.

dpw_0974 Rikers Island Laundry Site, Chapel Building and Mess Hall, September 20, 1939. Joseph Shelderfer, Department of Public Works Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

At least six lawsuits were filed in Manhattan Federal Court in the early 1970s, alleging inhumane conditions, Draconian rules and policies that the inmates and their lawyers said violated the prisoners’ civil rights. Press reports and archival records show that Federal Judge Morris Lasker found overcrowding and stench in the old Tombs prison and vermin and unsanitary conditions on Rikers Island, where thousands of prisoners waited months for trial, and where an estimated 25 percent of the inmates suffered from mental health problems.

The city cited budget restrictions and asked for more time to correct conditions, but Lasker eventually ordered the Tombs closed in 1974; it reopened nearly a decade later after a $42 million makeover. Lasker also found conditions at Rikers and other city jails to be unconstitutional. He ordered the transfers of sentenced inmates to state prisons and told officials to come up with a new classification system, expand visiting hours and allow contact visits.

Then city officials came up with a bright idea: Lease the island to the state for $200 million and use the money to build eight smaller city jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx. Under the proposed 99-year lease, the state would also spend $100 million to upgrade Rikers.

eik_08.010.0469: Mayor Edward I. Koch at Rikers Island filming a commercial on gun legislation, August 5, 1980. Mayor Koch Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

An October 1, 1979, report called the Rikers Island Project Working Document explained the original prison building “is now in a decrepit condition which creates a potentially dangerous environment for both staff and inmates,” and noted that 25 percent of the existing buildings were erected in the 1950s and needed “substantial upgrading.” The document estimated the city’s capital costs at $351 million.

The city’s Board of Correction held two days of hearings on the plan in early October 1979. Herb Sturz, the city’s criminal justice coordinator, recounted the court battles and riots of the mid-1970s and told the board there had been “an alarming number of suicides” on Rikers Island. He said there were “two basic things wrong with our corrections system: It is in the wrong place,” and would need $100 million in repairs to make it safe. Sturz said the lease deal would allow the city to rid itself of Rikers Island and “make a fresh start” to “build the best system in the nation.” Corrections Commissioner Ben Ward said a system of smaller jails would be more secure and easier to control. Archibald Murray, executive director of the city’s Legal Aid Society, told the board “Rikers Island was a mistake; it never should have happened.”

MAC_1926: “The Tombs” (Men’s House of Detention): Centre to Lafayette Street, Leonard to Franklin Street, ca. 1941. Courtesy of Jail Association Journal, NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

But Diane Gordon, of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, testified that the plan was ill-conceived and would not accomplish its goals. She said the plan would not reduce the jail’s population and urged the board to “develop a more careful plan based on a sounder analysis.” Mary Ann Gangi from the Queens chapter of St. Francis of Assisi said area residents were fearful of increased traffic and a greater risk from hardened state inmates. She vowed that community area residents would “organize and mobilize... to oppose the state takeover of Rikers Island.” Phil Seelig, president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, called the hearings a “sham” and refused to even take questions from the board.

Opposition from the community and city corrections officers continued to grow and then, in January 1980, a report from the city’s Office of Budget Review showed that the city’s cost estimates for constructing the new jails were way off. The report said the actual capital costs would be upward of $433 million—rather than the $351 million estimate in the Rikers Island Project Working Document and that other costs related to the lease would be as much as $126 million, rather than the Working Document’s estimate of $81.5 million.

That was the beginning of the end. Soon afterward, Mayor Ed Koch quietly dropped the idea and in mid-1981, Commissioner Ward told the City Council the grand plan was “dead and buried.”

To Be Continued

Rikers Island Dump: Guard on horseback looks at Administration and other buildings across graded area, June 1937. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.