Riots, Rebellion and the City’s Second Attempt to “Sink” Rikers Island

Rikers Island, 1980s Tax photograph. NYC Municipal Archives.

The tumultuous 1970s at Rikers Island described in Part One were just a quiet prelude to the 1980s and 1990s, as a raging crack epidemic and soaring rates of murder and violent crime exacerbated the overcrowding and incendiary conditions on what became the world’s largest penal colony in the 1990s.

After its failed 1979 attempt to get rid of Rikers by leasing it to the state for a downstate prison and replacing it with eight smaller jails across the boroughs, the city added nearly 4,000 beds to the complex, bringing capacity to 13,188. But even with the new Anna M. Kross Center and the North Facility aka the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, Rikers remained a pressure cooker on the edge of explosion.

Adolescent Reception and Detention Center plan from A Study of Violence and its causes in the New York City Adolescent Reception and Detention Center. NYC Municipal Library.

Records at the city’s Municipal Library show that in March 1986, a two-year City Board of Correction report, A Study of Violence and its causes in the New York City Adolescent Reception and Detention Center found the number of violent incidents and injuries in the facility were “far higher” than at other jails on the island. In November 1985, for example, 47 percent of all serious incidents on Rikers involved male adolescents, even though they made up less than 20 percent of the island’s population.

The report, which noted that young prisoners are generally harder to control than older ones, said corrections officers wrote an average of 19 reports a day involving serious incidents, including slashings, stabbings, broken bones and the January 12, 1983 fatal stabbing of a 16-year-old boy. It reported that self-inflicted injuries and suicide attempts increased 600 percent between 1983 and 1985 and recommended assigning more experienced officers to deal with the young, violent inmates.

The ink on that 1986 report was barely dry when Rikers was hit with what could best be a called a 10-day rolling riot at three buildings from October 9 through October 18. Things got so bad that the State sent an investigative team to the island on October 17 because “the situation presents an imminent danger to the health, safety and security of the inmates or employees.” In a report issued in April 1987, the state Commission on Corrections blamed the insurrection largely on “serious overcrowding,” noting that despite the recent expansion program the city was “unable to keep pace with the persistent growth of its inmate population.”

Inquiry into Disturbances on Riker Island, October 1986. NYC Municipal Library.

The kickoff incident in the rolling riot was a violent altercation involving 30 inmates in the law library at the always tense Adolescent Reception and Detention Center. Four days later, at 8 a.m. on October 13, 150 inmates who had been sentenced to state prison but were still in Rikers because the upstate jails also were overcrowded, barricaded themselves in a dormitory at the Correctional Institution for Men (CIFM) after refusing to stand for the morning count. The inmates took down the barricades after submitting a list of demands to Corrections Department officials that included more services and free time. Officials agreed to most of the demands, even though a search of the dormitory yielded “a number of weapons … and extensive structural damage” inside the dorm.

The next day brought a job action by CIFM guards who refused to take their posts for the second shift in anger over concessions to the inmates.

Tension boiled over again in a mess hall at 12:46 p.m. on October 17, when an inmate tried to take an extra juice with his lunch. An officer ordered the man to put it back; the inmate threw the juice at the officer. A melee broke out involving dozens of inmates; eleven officers and five inmates were injured.

At 11 p.m., on October 18, officers began a planned transfer of 133 inmates on buses from the Anna M. Kross Center to the Correctional Institution for Men. It turned into a violent insurrection, lasting hours. It began when an inmate kicked a guard in the chest, knocking him to the ground. Inmates began yelling and cursing. Mass confusion ensued as some inmates were pulled from buses and reportedly made to run a gauntlet through a double line of baton-swinging officers. Twenty-four inmates were injured, eight seriously with contusions, lacerations and possible broken ribs. Two altercations at the Anna Kross Center quickly followed.

The New York State Commission on Corrections issued a report on the October riots on April 17, 1987. The report concluded that officers used “unnecessary force” on several occasions and, at one of the incidents at the Anna Cross Center, found “a nearly complete breakdown in command … and a failure to maintain order and discipline” among staff. In addition to the overcrowding, the state said corrections officials were generally unprepared for such incidents, and recommended reorganizing the island’s Emergency Response Team, which was blamed for much of the “unnecessary force.”

Typical Dormitory, from The Disturbance at the Rikers Island Otis Bantum Correctional Center, August 14, 1990: Its Causes and the Department of Correction Response. NYC Municipal Library.

Overcrowding got ever worse as the city’s murder rate climbed steadily, hitting a record high of 2,245 homicides in 1990 and pushing the city’s jail population to 20,000. That year also featured one of the most infamous riots in Rikers Island history. In early August, three inmates beat, stabbed and robbed corrections officer Steven Narby, breaking his jaw, knocking out several teeth and stealing some jewelry. The corrections officers’ union demanded that the inmates be charged with attempted murder. When they were charged only with robbery and assault, hundreds of corrections officers blocked the entrance to the bridge to the island jail in a driving rainstorm, allowing access only to emergency vehicles. The officers, who blockaded the bridge for two days of tense negotiations, also protested the “use of force directive,” which they said limited their response to violent attacks by inmates.

The blockade meant hundreds of inmates could not be taken off the island for court appearances, food deliveries were halted causing shortages, jail movements and activities were curtailed, and prisoners were becoming unruly, facing off with officers who had worked more than 40 hours straight. Minutes after a settlement was reached on the blockade, the Otis Banum Correctional Center, which held 905 inmates, erupted in violence. Inmates erected barricades, armed themselves, set fires, flooded sleeping areas and smashed windows.

By the time the dust settled, 21 corrections personnel were injured and more than 100 inmates were hurt, 81 seriously. Inmates claimed they were brutalized. Mayor David Dinkins directed the city Department of Investigation to probe the riots.

After and before scenes from The Disturbance at the Rikers Island Otis Bantum Correctional Center, August 14, 1990: Its Causes and the Department of Correction Response. NYC Municipal Library.

The Archives contains an April 1, 1991 DOI report that concluded “correction officers used unnecessary or excessive force,” and that the bridge blockade “caused a rapid and severe deterioration” of conditions in the jail. DOI said most of the officers and supervisors in the Otis Banum center did not cooperate with the investigation: “They have chosen silence to protect those among them who may have violated their duty as uniformed officers.” The report also faulted corrections officials for failing to control the officers and found that “supervisors at every level failed to do their jobs effectively.”

There were periodic disturbances through the 1990s and several suspicious inmate deaths, for which the city paid out $11.8 million in settlements between 2012 and 2016. But through efforts and investments to reform the city’s justice system, crime and murder rates reached historic lows under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, allowing officials to reduce the jail population to about 8,000 and eventually close one facility on Rikers Island.

Demands for closing Rikers grew in 2015, after Kalief Browder committed suicide. He had spent more than three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial for stealing backpack at age 16 before the charges were dropped. His family attributed his death to mental and physical abuse he suffered on Rikers.

In 2016, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito created a commission, headed by Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of the State Court of Appeals, to study what to do about Rikers Island. In language that was strikingly similar to the 1979 findings, the Lippmann Commission issued a scathing report in early 2017, calling Rikers a “19th century solution to a 21st century problem” and said it must be shuttered and replaced with “something that is more effective and more humane” within 10 years.

The commission recommended building smaller jails throughout the city, contingent upon the city reducing the overall jail population to about 5,000. In 2018, Mayor de Blasio announced a plan to replace the facilities on Rikers Island with four community-based jails—one each in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and The Bronx. 

Hearings began in late March in an approval process that could take seven months. If the plan is approved by the City Council, it would represent a marked moment in New York City’s history.