Roaming Rikers

Stun Shields, Stray Cats, Buck-Fifties, Boofing: The Top Brass’s Tour of America’s Largest Penal Colony

Roaming Rikers | Inside Tier 3C | Did You See Me on TV? | A Visit to Rosie's | Beauty Tips for Prisoners | In Captain Grillo's Garage | Bing Days | A Sense of Humor

Inside and Out: A Two-Part Special Report on Prison and Its Aftermath

View through the razor wire: Otis Bantum Correctional Center, home of the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, better known as the Bing
photo: Andrew Lichtenstein
View through the razor wire: Otis Bantum Correctional Center, home of the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, better known as the Bing

This year, the United States achieved a dubious distinction: It surpassed Russia as the world leader in imprisonment, with one in every 130 people living behind bars. The U.S. prison population has soared above 2 million, and most of those inmates are locked up for nonviolent crimes. People are also leaving prison in record numbers; in 2000, an unprecedented 600,000 prisoners will return home. The imprisonment boom, fueled largely by the nation's war on drugs, has generated new industries and jobs. It has also devastated neighborhoods, fractured families, and created a new class of stigmatized people who will one day return to society. To explore the human cost of America's growing punishment industry, The Village Voice is publishing a two-part special report. This week: an in-depth portrait of the nation's largest penal colony. Next week: one ex-con's struggle to rejoin her family.

idden between the boroughs of New York City, a two-lane bridge rises from the northwest shore of Queens and extends more than a mile over the East River. Planes descending into LaGuardia Airport roar overhead constantly, while thousands of cars and buses commute each day across this steel-and-concrete roadway. Still, the bridge remains unknown to most New Yorkers. A mere 11 miles from Lady Liberty's raised torch, it dumps passengers at the front door of the nation's largest penal colony: Rikers Island, where 10 jails sprawl across an area half the size of Central Park.

The island is the heart of New York City's jail system, home to 80 percent of its 14,600 or so inmates, with nine jails for men and one for women. Rikers' daytime population—including prisoners, employees, and visitors—is enormous, nearly 20,000. All residents are temporary. Two-thirds of the inmates are detainees—legally innocent and waiting for their cases to crawl through the courts—while one-third have been sentenced and are waiting for an empty bed in an upstate prison or are serving a year or less here.

As New York City's jail system has grown over the decades, Rikers Island has become something of a small town, with schools, medical clinics, ball fields, chapels, drug rehab programs, grocery stores, barbershops, a bakery, a power plant, a track, a tailor shop, a bus depot, and even a car wash.

Despite these signifiers of civilization, it is notoriously difficult to get onto Rikers Island without a gold badge, a visitor's pass, or a pair of steel cuffs around one's wrists. A reporter's notebook or television camera, moreover, will likely get one only nervous glances and a polite refusal of permission to tour the jails. But here I was one summer morning, riding in a shiny black Mercury Grand Marquis belonging to Bernard Kerik, the commissioner of New York City's Department of Correction.

Kerik would later become the city's police commissioner, but on this day his promotion was still only a whispered possibility, a rumor that had been spreading through Rikers' jails for nearly a year. In August, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani picked Kerik to lead the nation's largest police department, he pointed to the jail chief's performance managing prisoners and guards; though the mayor didn't mention it as a selling point, perhaps equally attractive to him was Kerik's demonstrated ability to manage the city's media.

Rikers prisoners refer to their home as 'the Rock,' but from an archaeological point of view it's more accurate to call this place a dump.

On this day, as his driver steered his car toward the Rikers Island bridge, Kerik looked like a corporate executive on his way to the office, wearing a gold Rolex, his thinning hair slicked straight back, a silk tie knotted tightly, and shoes buffed to an obsessive shine. Kerik, 45, has six holes in his left earlobe—evidence of a prior stint with the NYPD, when he worked undercover as a ponytailed drug dealer. But today his spit-and-polish image seemed part of his effort to paint over the jails' lingering reputation of overcrowding and violence.

Beginning in the late 1980s, riots injured hundreds of inmates and guards on Rikers Island. And after the Bloods, an African American gang, began recruiting members here in 1993, a vicious turf war erupted between the Bloods and the long dominant Latino gangs, the Latin Kings and Ñetas. Prisoners' blood regularly decorated jail hallways, and officers dubbed the jail for teenage boys "Vietnam." For some wardens, jail management meant shipping their most violent inmates to another facility under the pretext of reducing overcrowding. At the time, it seemed that the prisoners ran Rikers.

Kerik had surprised me by approving my request to roam around Rikers. Although he rarely granted journalists more than a few hours of access, he permitted me to spend a total of eight summer days on the island, presumably because he was eager to show how he had tamed Rikers, how he'd reinvented leadership on an island where crime—slashings and beatings and stabbings and riots—had once seemed beyond control.

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