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.

The Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem – 1935

The Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia collection contains several folders detailing the work of the Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem after the 1935 one-day riot.

256 West 125 Street, ca. 1939. The 1935 riot was sparked by an incident at this Kress department store. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

On March 19, 1935 a young man was temporarily detained at a Harlem store for shoplifting a knife. A small crowd gathered. Rumors spread that he had been beaten to death in a back room, although in truth he was released out a side door. Communist organizers gave out leaflets tying the incident to broader discrimination against Harlem residents. The crowd grew. A hearse passed by. Rumors flew. One window was broken, then another and soon a melee ensued that continued for most of the evening. Three black men were killed, including another young man who was returning from the movies. More than 100 men were arrested; at least 100 people sustained wounds, chiefly from falling glass and thrown objects; and 250 stores had sustained damage.

The next day numerous organizations—many affiliated with the Communist Party—the Fur Workers Industrial Union, Industrial Labor Defense, Branch 41 of the United Councils of Working Class Women, the Alteration Painters Union, the Office Workers Union, the Working People of Amboy and Pitkin, sent telegrams denouncing the violence. The telegram below is only one of several sent on behalf 100, 500, 200 workers gathered at intersections and apparently participating in marches against the violence.

Telegram sent by protesters from the Needle Thread Workers. (The NRA stamp is for the Federal National Recovery Act, not the National Rifle Association.) Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Walter White, the Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sent a telegram with a different message. He urged the Mayor to “appoint immediately a biracial commission to make an investigation of rioting in Harlem last night.… We suggest commission be chosen with due regard for fact that last night’s trouble and possible future trouble are rooted in economic distress of Negroes…”

Telegram from Walter White of the NAACP urging the forming of a citizens committee to investigate conditions in Harlem in order to prevent further trouble. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Some played the blame game citing communist incitement and invoking racial and ethnic stereotypes. On the other hand, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appeared to have heeded White’s recommendation and established a high-level commission to explore the events, examine conditions that contributed to the violence and recommend strategies that might prevent another occurrence. He made a radio appeal to the People of New York City and issued a handout.

Mayor LaGuardia’s appeal to “the People of New York City” the day after the 1935 Harlem Riot. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letter from Walter White of the NAACP laying out the proposed investigation questions the committee should follow. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Walter White, praised the Mayor’s action. He quickly submitted a five-page list of possible research topics for the commission and suggested that prominent sociologist E. Franklin Frazier be retained to conduct the research. White’s questions offer a roadmap to the final report, which was researched and largely written by Frazier. Concluding the list, he wrote, “Done properly this study may not only be of inestimable service to New York City now and in the years to come but to the entire country.”

A description of the Commission stated that it “was composed of persons who either had experience in the community or special interest in the problems involved.” That’s true. Another feature was the ground-breaking backgrounds of several members. One was prominent in the Harlem Renaissance, another was the first black Alderman, and another the first black woman attorney at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Several had founded the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). All in all, a stellar group. Lester Stone, Secretary to the Mayor described the group as “predominantly negro, and the white members are intelligent, liberal, and sympathetic.”

Members included:

  • Charles H. Roberts who served as the Chair and had been the first black member of the Board of Alderman

  • Oswald Garrison Villard, publisher of the Evening Post and one of the NAACPs founders

  • Eunice Hunton Carter, the first African-American woman to work as a prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney

  • Countee Cullen, a poet, playwright and novelist who was part of the Harlem Renaissance

  • Hubert. T Delaney, Commissioner of Taxes and Assessments

  • Morris Ernst, a prominent attorney and co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

  • John C. Grimley, former hospital director and commanding officer of the 369th Infantry

  • Arthur Garfield Hays, founding member and general counsel of the ACLU

  • A. Phillip Randolph, labor leader and head of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

  • John W. Robinson, prominent minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church

  • William J. Schieffelin, social reformer and trustee of Tuskegee Institute

  • Charles E. Toney, Municipal Judge and NAACP Board Member

  • Reverend W. R. McCann, Roman Catholic pastor of St. Charles Borremeo Church

The Commission established six subcommittees: Crime and the Police, Education, Housing, Discrimination in Employment, Health and Hospitalization and Relief. The subcommittees held hearings, gathered personal testimony, analyzed budgets, and tracked employment statistics. Their work was complicated by the refusal of several officials to participate. For many, the Commission offered an opportunity to present grievances and suggest solutions, as shown by correspondence in the files.

One hundred and sixty witnesses testified at the 21 public and four closed hearings. The Commission invited “persons representing all stratas of the population of Harlem. Anyone who had a complaint against any public official… any laborer at the most menial occupation, etc., was given the same opportunity to express himself… as was the most powerful representatives of private or public interest.

The historically black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, founded in 1908, circulated a resolution that was submitted by several organizations opposing discrimination against black student nurses and dieticians. The two largest, best-equipped training hospitals, Bellevue and Kings County hospital, denied admission to black student nurses. The black trainees were only admitted to Harlem and Lincoln Hospitals and then, upon graduation, were employed at only four of the twenty-nine City hospitals.

The Police Department Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine refused to meet with the members or testify before them. New York County District Attorney M.C. Dodge complicated the commission’s review by directing the police officers who made arrests during the riots not to participate. In a letter to Valentine he wrote, “Under no circumstances should any police officer who has any case pending, whether in the Magistrate’s Court or Special Sessions, be required to reveal at a public hearing any of his evidence. Will you please, therefore, be good enough to direct your commanding officers to instruct all officers who may have cases pending, not to reveal any of their testimony at any public hearing.”

Letter from Adam Clayton Powell to the commission. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

That did not stop the commission. When a grand jury failed to return an indictment for the killing of Lloyd Hobbs, the young man shot by officers when he was returning from the movies, ACLU founder Hays questioned whether the eye witnesses in the matter had been asked to testify in the proceeding. He wrote that it was important for all of the facts to be presented to the public in order to determine “if there was any justification for the shooting, the public may know it.” In conclusion he noted that “one of the most ominous features which emerges from the evidence we have taken appears to be a lack of confidence the people of Harlem have in the police, and their feeling that Negroes cannot expect justice”

Pastor Adam Clayton Powell of the Abyssinian Baptist Church wrote Hays a letter describing another violent incident between a police officer and a black man standing on a breadline.

Approximately one year after the riot, the Commission submitted its report to the Mayor. And then? Sections were circulated to department heads for comments. Comments were received. Various people asked for copies. The New York Post (then with a different editorial view than today) and The Daily Worker, issued by the Communist Party, both published sections of the report.

Chapter 4, “The Problem of Making a Living,” described employment discrimination by many public utilities that either refused to hire black people or slotted them into the lowest-paying positions. Chapter 5 detailed how the Home Relief Bureau used race as a factor in determining which employment opportunities would be offered. The Housing chapter considered the 800% growth in black Harlem residents, making it one of the most densely-populated areas of the City. The housing stock was decrepit and families were substantially overcharged, paying $30-$50 per month while Lower East Side residents paid less than $20. Chapter 6 detailed the deficiencies in Harlem schools. “Since Poverty is the problem of primary importance to the Negro of Harlem, it is surely responsible for many of the problems of the schools of the community. Many of the children stay away from school simply because they lack food, and are in special need of clothing.” And for those who sought advancement, “In the special courses which prepare girls for the outstanding women colleges, not a single Negro girl was enrolled for the term of 1935.”

Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Every chapter presented an indictment of how the City was serving the 200,000 black residents of Harlem. The report also listed dozens of steps that could help remedy the conditions.

City government never issued the report. Some recommendations were partially implemented—new schools and a federally-funded health center. LaGuardia appointed black judges and executive staff.

In 1946, riots again broke out in Harlem, with the underlying causes very similar to the events of 1935. Overcrowded housing, unequal employment opportunities, a strong sense that justice was lacking. There was greater destruction. More people were killed and wounded. If the recommendations issued a decade earlier had been fully, or even more completely implemented, what would have happened?

In 1969, during another period of urban unrest, Arno Press published the full text of the report. The Municipal Archives has now digitized the report. It is available at the pop-up exhibit at 31 Chambers this week and will be available to readers online in the near future.