A History Of Hell: How Rikers Island Became A Modern Municipal Abomination


Two weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to close the city’s jail complex on Riker’s Island and end nearly a century of its use as a place to imprison people. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Speaker of the City Council, stood beside him and gave the plan a moral imperative: Rikers had to close, she said, because it is an “abomination.”

While acknowledging the enormous political and logistical task of closing Rikers, and the ten-year, conditional timetable to achieve it, the mayor was insistent that Rikers will close: “It will take many years. It will take many tough decisions along the way. But it will happen.”

The history of the hell known as Rikers Island, however, suggests otherwise.

For half a century, men and women of benevolent intent have employed a wide range of skills and tactics to make Rikers Island humane. Their valiant efforts have included armed resistance, official reports, an economic stratagem, and a 42-years-and-counting class-action lawsuit in federal court. As varied as these efforts have been, they all have one thing in common: Every single one of them failed.


“It Ain’t No Accident. It’s Beginning To Add Up”

The tragic case of Kalief Browder, first reported by Voice alum Jennifer Gonnerman in 2014, has been repeatedly cited as a reason for closing Rikers. Browder committed suicide in 2015 after being wrongfully held on Rikers Island for more than three years – including two years in solitary confinement – on a false charge that was ultimately dismissed. Though freed from Rikers, Browder was unable to escape the carnage the experience wrought inside his soul.

Julio Roldan was the Kalief Browder of his day. In 1970, Roldan’s death sparked armed resistance on the streets of New York City, as well as the first attempt to hold the jail officials responsible for Rikers accountable.

Roldan, 34, was a member of the Young Lords party. The Young Lords began as a Puerto Rican street gang in Chicago but morphed into a socialist revolutionary movement in the summer of 1969, when the New York chapter went on the Garbage Offensive, a protest against what the Lords characterized as the city’s neglect of El Barrio, which included spotty city garbage collection. In response, the Lords piled garbage in the streets, sometimes set it on fire, and blocked traffic.

On October 13, 1970, Roldan participated in a Garbage Offensive protest. Though Roldan denied it, plainclothes undercover NYPD officers said they saw him set fire to a newspaper. Roldan was arrested, charged with attempted arson, and held at the Tombs in lower Manhattan in lieu of $1,500 bail. Three days later, on October 16, 1970, he was found hanged in his cell.

Jail officials said it was suicide, but the Young Lords called it murder. “It ain’t no accident,” Pablo “Yoruba” Guzman, the Lords’ minister of information, said the next day. “It’s beginning to add up. And now it’s got to be called genocide. There’s no other name for it. We say, and the people of this city are saying, that Julio was murdered in his cell.”

After Roldan’s funeral, the Young Lords carried his coffin from the funeral home through the streets of Spanish Harlem to the First Spanish United Methodist Church at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 111th Street and took the coffin inside.

Once inside the church, the Lords placed Roldan’s coffin on the altar, which was then manned by an armed honor guard. Other armed guards were posted throughout the church. Outside, Guzman announced the end of the Lord’s no-weapons policy. Guzman said, “We have the guns to defend ourselves with. We don’t want to cause unnecessary bloodshed.”

The Young Lords occupied the church for three months.

The city’s Board of Correction, which was and is responsible for overseeing conditions and deaths in New York City’s jails, issued “A Report to the Mayor of New York on the Death of a Citizen, Julio Roldan”:

But the intricate system of criminal justice which we have designed to protect the community and the individual succeeded only in deranging him and ultimately, instead of protecting him, it permitted his destruction. If we kept our animals in the Central Park Zoo in the way we cage our fellow human beings in the Tombs, a citizens committee would be organized, and prominent community leaders would be protesting the inhumanity of our society.


“Nobody Cared”

William J. vanden Heuvel cared. Vanden Heuvel was chairman of the New York City Board of Correction from 1970 until 1973. His name tops the list of names at the end of the Roldan Report. Vanden Heuvel went into the city’s jails frequently during his tenure as chairman and even broke bread with inmates. On one occasion, according to vanden Heuvel’s oral history, he dined with Black Panther Angela Davis at the old Women’s House of Detention, then located at Greenwich Avenue and West 10th Street.

According to vanden Heuvel:

What was totally lacking from the criminal justice system, I saw it in 1970, was lack of respect. There’s no respect for anything. . . . [T]he police were in disrepute. The corruption scandals were just ahead of us. The Knapp Commission, which revealed a depth of corruption that was startling. And the courts were in trouble, and the prisons were forgotten. By the time you got to the prisons, nobody cared, nobody was really looking.

Nobody, that is, but the inmates of these forgotten, mismanaged municipal institutions and their lawyers.

In 1975, prisoners held in New York City’s jails filed seven separate class-action lawsuits in federal court that challenged thirty discrete areas of prison administration and, collectively, alleged that the conditions they were confined under were inhumane and unlawful under the Constitution.

But the administration of Mayor Abraham Beame was consumed by the city’s existential financial crisis, and it paid little attention to the lawsuits.

The Man Who Almost Sold Rikers Island

Enter Herb Sturz — the man who almost sold Rikers Island.

Edward I. Koch became the 105th mayor of New York City on January 1, 1978. Koch was a self-proclaimed “liberal with sanity” and served for eleven years, until 1989. In 1978, Koch appointed Sturz deputy mayor for criminal justice. Sturz was a reformer. In 1961, he cofounded the Manhattan Bail Project, out of which the Vera Institute for Justice was later created.

Koch and Sturz decided to confront the city’s jail crisis. Sturz had an idea: sell Rikers Island to New York State (which at the time needed cell space), then take the money from the sale and use it to build new jails adjacent to the courthouses in each borough.

“It was the idea of putting accused persons right near the courthouse, closer to their families, and convicted people also nearer,” Sturz told the Voice, referring to the fact that once the state took control of Rikers, it would use it to house convicted, state-sentenced prisoners.

“It just seemed to me a rational and decent thing to do for the administration of justice,” Sturz said.

But Sturz also had to deal with the lawsuits, which by then had been consolidated for consideration by a single judge, Morris Lasker. Sturz settled the lawsuits, and in 1979, the city signed a fifty-page consent decree in Judge Lasker’s court that obligated it to make certain, specific improvements to its jails, most but not all of which were on Rikers Island. Collectively, the improvements the city committed to make were designed to make its jails humane.

At around the same time, Sturz struck a tentative deal to transfer control of Rikers Island to the state.

Thomas A. Coughlin III was New York State’s prison chief from 1979 until 1994. In 1981, he testified at a hearing in front of Judge Lasker and said that when he took office, his top priority was finding more cell space by acquiring Rikers Island:

I felt very comfortable in August of 1979 with $200 million worth of appropriation in my pocket, and with a city administration who was willing to move forward on the transfer that we would be able to keep up with the space requirements of the state prison system for many years to come.

We were supposed to take over the first piece of Rikers Island, I think the original schedule was sometime around January 1979, and when I came on in August of 1979, we were supposed to take the first piece over in September of 1979.

But the deal fell through, and in June 1981, Benjamin Ward, New York City’s correction commissioner, told the City Council that the plan was “dead and buried.”

Sturz says he never found out why, exactly. “I guess there was some fear of the costs involved, eventually, in rebuilding all the facilities.” In the end, the city was stuck with Rikers Island, along with the consent decree it had signed in the lawsuits before Judge Lasker.

Where Life Cost A Carton Of Tax-Free Cigarettes

John Boston represented the prisoners in New York City’s jails. Boston worked for the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society from 1976 until 2016 and was its director from 1991 until his retirement. According to Boston, the city almost immediately failed to follow through on the promise it made — a promise codified in the consent decrees — to make Rikers Island humane.

Boston told the Voice that, by 1982, there was already a “huge noncompliance problem,” and conditions remained inhumane.

Then the crack epidemic swept through New York City, the crime rate exploded, and Rikers Island became worse than it ever was. In 1984, the city was stuffing so many prisoners onto Rikers that Judge Lasker ordered some released.

In response, the city went on a jail-building spree, and when it couldn’t open up steel-and-concrete jails fast enough, it erected temporary, tent-like shelters called the Sprungs.

By 1990, Rikers Island held 14,000 people, and life there was so cheap that it cost but a carton of tax-free cigarettes to get another prisoner cut or even killed, according to a report from the New York Times that year, which also noted that as of May of that year there had been 364 stabbings.

The report details a truly Hobbesian place:

“Once they learn you’re a sucker, then you have a tough time,” [a prisoner] explained.

A tough time in the dormitories, inmates said, ranges from being robbed, beaten, or raped to becoming a “Maytag” — forced to wash the clothes of tougher inmates. Similarly, a “soldier” or “son” will steal, slash another inmate, or perform menial work at the command of a dominant inmate.

“Some guys have to survive off the land,” said Howard Sutter, 25, a Bronx man awaiting trial on robbery charges in a punishment cell. “And the land is the next person.”


A Record Of Shame

Meanwhile, it was as if the federal lawsuits that sought to make conditions of confinement on Rikers Island humane didn’t exist. But they did still exist, and they still do, to this day.

The case is now known as Benjamin v. Ponte. Originally filed in 1975, it is the second longest-running lawsuit actively pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York — after Handschu v. Special Service Division, the landmark 1971 case that resulted in the Handschu Agreement, which limit the NYPD’s power to spy on law-abiding citizens engaged in constitutionally protected activity.

Last November, the Voice reviewed the entire court record of the case, which is composed of scores of file folders containing transcripts of court proceedings and all the pieces of paper, numbering in the thousands, ever submitted by the parties. The voluminous paperwork occupies several shelves in a dusty corner in the rear of the clerk’s office at the Southern District’s 500 Pearl Street courthouse.

The court file is a record of shame on the federal judiciary.

Given the barbaric conditions described in the Times’ 1990 report, the court record reveals that Judge Lasker, as well intentioned as he may have been, took insufficiently robust action to enforce the Constitution’s commandment that the jails on Riker’s Island be humane — though he had better luck with the Tombs.

Indeed, Judge Lasker himself recognized that his efforts on Rikers Island fell short of what was required.

In 2004, he wrote of his “unfinished agenda” and lamented that “we seem destined to move constantly halfway to the goal line, but rarely, or never, to make it all the way. Yet, in spite of the gratifying progress, I do have regrets. I regret that I didn’t finish the job in New York.”

Judge Lasker semi-retired in 1994. He was replaced by Judge Harold Baer.

Two years after Judge Baer assumed control of the Benjamin litigation, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996. President Bill Clinton signed it into law.

The PLRA, as it is known, imposes special rules on prisoner litigation, and only prisoner litigation, that disadvantage prisoners and make it all but impossible for prisoners to effect lasting institutional reform through federal courts. This is because the PLRA radically circumscribes federal judges’ Article III power to remedy constitutional violations by allowing prison officials to ignore court orders.

But, as Judge Lasker noted during a hearing in 1981, “The history of litigation in all these prison cases has shown that unless the court orders action, the amount of time taken to accomplish it is very great,” or not at all.

For example, the Voice’s review of the record reveals that Judge Baer held a trial in April 2001 inquiring into the constitutionality of the then-current conditions on Rikers Island. After that trial, Judge Baer found that “25 years after the plaintiffs class brought suit . . . the [c]ity has failed to comply with significant aspects of the consent decrees, and conditions at New York City jails continue in certain respects to violate basic constitutional standards.”

When Judge Baer ordered the city to comply with an earlier order to fix its jails’ deficient ventilation systems, the city appealed, citing the PLRA. But a federal appellate court ruled that even under the PLRA, Judge Baer had the authority to order city officials to fix the jails’ ventilation systems and denied the city’s appeal.

In so doing, the court noted that the record in the case “shows a troubling pattern of noncompliance and misrepresentations on the part of the Department [of Correction, the city of New York, and various city officials].”

That was in 2010, nine years after the trial.

Two years later, in 2012, Judge Baer held another trial and again found continuing concern of constitutional dimension in four areas: lighting — jails were too dark; sanitation — jails were too dirty; ventilation — prisoners were exposed to extremes in heat and cold; and fire safety — prisons were without fire alarms, fire walls, or other modern structural countermeasures.

To address these issues, Judge Baer held a conference “to see if we could generate some new ideas that might bring this saga to a happy conclusion,” according to a transcript of a court conference held at the time. Judge Baer encouraged the lawyers to talk, and talk, and continue talking. The lawyers talked for two years.

While the lawyers talked, Jerome Murdough, 56, a mentally ill homeless veteran, cooked to death in an overheated cell on Rikers Island, in February 2014. Murdough’s death could perhaps have been avoided if the ventilation issue identified by Judge Baer two years before had actually been acted on, and remedied, instead of merely talked about.

Three months after Murdough’s death, in May 2014, Judge Baer held another compliance trial. Before he could issue a ruling, Judge Baer died.

Upon Judge Baer’s death, the then–chief judge of the Federal Court in Manhattan, Loretta Preska, took over the epic case in September 2014. The case languished in front of Chief Judge Preska for two years until this past October, when she ordered the parties to appear in her court “to discuss the future of” the court’s oversight of the case.

But the hearing never happened. It was rescheduled twice before it was indefinitely postponed.

Then, on March 30, the day news broke that Rikers might be closed, Judge Preska rescheduled the hearing.

Young Lords Way

The church the Young Lords occupied in 1970 with Julio Roldan’s coffin still stands. In 2014, the New York City Council officially renamed the street corner in front of it Young Lords Way. On July 26 of that year, a ceremony was held on the corner to commemorate the renaming and the unveiling of the new street sign. I was there.

The ceremony was attended by many former Young Lords, including a now gray-haired Pablo Guzman, as well as the then-newly elected Speaker of the City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who said, “Every street has a story and there are many stories to be told. . . . The story we are telling here today is the story of young men and women who took action that forever changed the path of our community.”

History will tell whether one day the same can be said of the current effort to close Rikers Island.