The New York City Department of Correction emerged as a stand-alone agency in 1895 when the Public Charities and Correction Commission split into separate entities. Public Charities managed the City’s hospitals and soup kitchens, and the Correction Department controlled penal institutions including the Penitentiary and Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), City Prison, the Manhattan Tombs, the five district prisons and, the City cemetery on Hart Island known as Potter’s Field.
A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, circa 1890 by Jacob Riss
Image via Wikimedia Commons
The county sheriffs’ departments were responsible for other functioning prisons at the time in Queens, Brooklyn, and Richmond counties because these areas were not incorporated yet into the City of New York. Here we relay the history of the best-known prison in the City – Rikers Island.
Located on the East River off Manhattan, the previously uninhabited island was first occupied during the Dutch colonial period when Abraham Rychen, after whom the Island is named, purchased the pristine land in 1664. His descendants owned Rikers for nearly two centuries. During the Civil War, the venue served as a training ground for Union soldiers, including the 20th and 26th U.S. Colored Infantry. The island also gave sanctuary to African-American orphans and others who were targeted by racist mobs in Manhattan at the time. In 1884, the City of New York purchased the 90-acre island for $180,000 from the Totten brothers who acquired it ten years earlier. The venue came under the purview of Public Charities and Correction when Commission officials deemed it a fit place for a workhouse, though the City was using it as a landfill. Refuse on Rikers drew rats and seagulls, and the dumping of ash from coal stoves and heaters gave the island a surreal appearance as the smoldering ash lit up the night sky. The City ceased dumping in time for New York’s World Fair in 1939 over concerns that the refuse piles, odor, and vermin did not present a good image to visitors.
Public Charities and Correction (and later the spin-off agency, the New York City Department of Correction) maintained its main operational offices on Blackwell’s Island until the mid-1930s when the dilapidated Penitentiary and Workhouse closed permanently. The transfer of prisoners from Blackwell to Rikers began in 1903. Around this time, the City was enlarging Rikers by 25 acres with landfill on the western side of the island and repurposed ten buildings for offices, staff quarters, dormitories, a bathhouse, a chapel, a hospital, a mess hall, and a blacksmith’s shop. Interestingly, Thomas Edison sent a film crew there to record the landfill operation.
While it is not clear which contingent of prisoners was the first to be transferred, articles in the New York Times reported on the deaths of a few lepers in the penal system, and it was widely known that the refitted mess hall had a separate kitchen and dining room for inmates with leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease). At least four lepers were isolated on Rikers Island at the Almshouse in 1894 before the facility became a prison. At one point, all of them tried to escape, but were captured and returned to the island. Later, after consulting with dermatologists, the Department of Correction released the lepers upon the advice of the doctors who contended that leprosy was not contagious in the local climate. Unfortunately, when they returned to their homes, publicity in the newspapers caused the public to ostracize them. One of the four, Lee Hing, a Chinese immigrant, petitioned the City for care and support. The City agreed to feed, shelter, and clothe him at Blackwell’s Island Almshouse until his death in 1900.
The need for more jail cells became more pressing with the increase of New York City’s population, and the closure of the warehouse and jail on Blackwell. In response, the Department of Correction erected a penal facility in 1932 called Rikers Island Correctional. Along with the construction of the new facility, the landfill expansion enlarged the island to its present 415 acres, the pier was extended and, eventually, a floating prison barge named the Vernon C. Correctional Center (known as “the Boat” to inmates) was constructed and docked at the pier to combat overcrowding. Over the years “the Boat” housed juveniles and up to 800 inmates. The current configuration of Rikers includes ten jails, several parking lots, an infirmary, a power plant, and a barge. Overcrowding is a persistent difficulty in a facility that holds, on average, more than 9,700 prisoners and, sometimes, must squeeze in more than 15,000. Adults and adolescents with sentences less than one year serve out their punishment on the island. Inmates with longer sentences do their time in one of the facilities in upstate New York.
“The Boat” docked at Rikers
Image via Bigstock
Among the notable events and stories about Rikers Island, one of the most famous occurred in 1957 when a Northeast Airlines jet leaving LaGuardia airport for Miami went down in a storm near the island. Many of the inmates did not hesitate to help passengers escape the burning wreckage. Called heroes in the press, the helpful inmates received commendations and shortened sentences. Famous prison inmates include Tupac Shakur (rapper), Sid Vicious (musician), David Berkowitz (serial killer a.k.a. Son of Sam), Mark David Chapman (John Lennon’s assassin), Lil Wayne (rapper), and Dominique Strauss-Kahn (managing director of the International Monetary Fund).
The site has not been without controversy, too. Complaints of excessive force by correctional officers, the practice of strip searches, the use of hog-tie restraints, and the cruelty of solitary confinement were subjects of ongoing debate. After prisoner deaths in 2014 and 2015, television documentaries and mounting popular support served to make the case for closure, and Mayor Bill DeBlasio finally announced in 2017 that the prison would be shut down. DeBlasio called Rikers a “crumbling, expensive, urban shame.” His proposed closure plan will take an estimated ten years and billions of dollars.
Some argue that the mayor’s proposal to build four smaller borough jails to replace Rikers is not addressing the real issue, which is the officer to inmate ratio. A video the New York Post obtained in November of 2018 showing an inmate at Rikers beating up a guard is fueling more support for a solution to prison violence that includes hiring additional correction officers. Hiring of correctional offices has increased steadily in last few years. The Department of Correction has added 5,700 officers since 2014. Not surprisingly, there is a movement afoot to turn Rikers into a New York destination. Other repurposing ideas suggest using the island to expand nearby LaGuardia Airport, and making it a manufacturing hub.
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