The first jail on the island opened in 1935, meant to supplement and eventually replace the unimprovable disaster that was the Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) jail, which Time had called, in an exposé, the “world’s worst.” Rikers never had a pristine moment, even at the start. Before the facility opened, inspectors warned of health hazards occasioned by, among other things, “dump fires,” and the problems that had plagued Blackwell’s — drug use, corrupt correction officers, violence, squalor, gang consolidation — moved upriver almost immediately, and have stubbornly stayed ever since. Today, there are ten jails in total on Rikers, plus vast parking lots, a solitary-confinement complex, infirmaries, a power plant, and a barge to combat overcrowding — a persistent difficulty in a facility that holds, on average, more than 9,700 prisoners and sometimes has to squeeze in more than 15,000. Adults and adolescents who are sentenced to less than a year’s time in New York City serve out their punishment on the island. (Those sentenced to longer than a year move upstate, to a state facility.)
Rikers has a kind of notoriety in the popular imagination: The city’s highest-profile defendants, from the Son of Sam to Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Bobby Shmurda, pass through in a cloud of gleeful Post headlines, but so do two-bit weed dealers and shoplifters and the resourceless mentally ill. As do violent criminals. But the vast majority of the island’s residents are very poor and awaiting trial for low-level offenses, unable to afford bail and stuck in a limbo that can last weeks or, thanks to delays in the court system, extend to several years. The crowded isolation of the island has resulted in a complex society with its own hierarchies, official and not. Gangs openly control certain dorms; correction officers are in constant battle — often literal — with their charges, but some of them form transactional relationships with them too, whether for sex or drugs or cigarettes. People are born on Rikers — there are 15 beds for babies adjacent to the women’s dorm — and they die there, too.