Roaming Rikers

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

Even before he became the leader of the NYPD, Kerik liked to draw comparisons between his job and the police commissioner's. "People just assumed New York City was out of control and could never be changed," Kerik said. "But look at the drop in crime. All of the things people said five years ago could never, ever, ever be done—they told me the same thing about Rikers Island."

Kerik's strategy for rehabilitating Rikers included improving its appearance as well as its crime statistics. "I'm an image guy," he said. "Somebody in uniform . . . is supposed to earn respect. [If] you walk up and have mustard stains on your tie, your hat is on sideways, you have keys all around you—people think you're a joke. . . . Some of these guys looked like they ironed their clothes with a hot rock." Kerik paused. "If it's my agency," he added, "you look the way I want you to look." Kerik's campaign to win respect for Rikers, and for himself, involved not only well-pressed uniforms but also good press. At this, he excelled, landing positive stories in the New York Post, the Daily News, and The New York Times.

As the car nosed across the bridge, LaGuardia appeared on our right, so near that we drove over a pier of lights pointing pilots to Runway 13-31. And then once past the gates, here we were, heading down a quiet two-lane street lined by high-tech modular jails and aging brick jails and razor-tipped wire twisting around 12-foot fences.

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

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. Long before Rikers Island housed the accused, it served as the repository of what the city proper had no use for—broken boilers, old sofas, horse manure, garbage, tin cans, street sweepings, and earth from subway excavations. First arriving on the island's south side in 1893, the refuse burned all day, attended by hordes of rats feasting on the city's leftovers.

As the garbage grew, so did the island. Only 87 acres when New York City bought it from the Riker family in 1884 for $180,000, the island had, three decades and thousands of boatloads of trash later, swollen to nearly five times its original size, reaching some 415 acres. The island was transformed into a different sort of dumping ground in 1935, when the Rikers Island Penitentiary opened.

Sending prisoners to Rikers continued New York City's Victorian strategy for dealing with undesirables. The islands rising from the East River in the middle of New York City have long been receptacles for the sick, poor, violent, and mentally ill. Over the last 200 years or so, they've housed insane asylums, a paupers' cemetery, tuberculosis tents, a home for delinquent teenagers, and a hospital for such infectious diseases as smallpox and yellow fever.

Now our drive ended in front of Commissioner Kerik's office, a pale yellow trailer, the seat of his power. His path here began in 1993, when he moonlighted for Giuliani's mayoral campaign, managing the cops who worked as the candidate's bodyguards. After Giuliani won, he appointed Kerik head of the Department of Correction's investigations division. Kerik rose to the agency's number two position in 1995, despite the fact that he lacks a college degree.

When Michael Jacobson, a budget expert with a doctorate in sociology, resigned in 1998, Kerik became the leader of the $860-million-a-year agency, and now, in his office, I was staring at the framed photographs adorning its fake wood-paneling—one, of Giuliani, was obligatory, but another, of Oliver North, I imagined might indicate quite a bit about the well-groomed commissioner. On his desk, a blueberry-scented candle burned, an attempt to override the stench left by the stray cats that resided beneath his trailer.

"We try to run the agency like corporate America," explained Kerik. "In corporate America, if you can't do the work, you have to go." I didn't doubt his sincerity. A little later I watched about 120 deputy commissioners, assistant commissioners, bureau chiefs, assistant chiefs, wardens, deputy wardens, assistant deputy wardens, captains, and officers stand as their boss marched into another trailer-turned-conference room at 8:03 a.m. On Rikers Island, management meetings always start the same way, with the sound of chairs scraping the floor in unison.

Kerik took his seat on the dais next to William J. Fraser, an enormous, ruddy-faced former guard who was then the agency's highest-ranking uniformed member, the only person in the room with four gold stars pinned to each shoulder. Fraser's official title was "Chief of Department," though he could also have been described as Kerik's enforcer. (When Kerik left for the NYPD, Fraser was named to succeed him, ensuring his boss's legacy.) Now, from their perch at the front of the room, Kerik and Fraser surveyed their managers.

Some wore uniforms; others were civilians in business suits with graduate degrees and titles like "Assistant Commissioner, Assets Management." Glancing around the room, it quickly became apparent that the racial composition of this agency darkens as one descends the pyramid of power. The four top officials on the dais were white, while the managers they oversee were a racially mixed group. The populations these managers supervise—the city's prisoners and guards—include few whites. African Americans and Latinos make up 80 percent of the agency's staff and 92 percent of its prisoners.

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