The Brutal Reality of Life in America’s Most Notorious Jail

I’ve been locked up in maximum-security prisons for two decades. My time on Rikers Island was worse.

a photograph of a building on Rikers Island
Nina Berman / Redux

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For the past 21 years, I’ve been locked up, mostly in maximum-security prisons: Clinton, Attica, Sing Sing, and now Sullivan, in the Catskills. But before my sentencing, I spent a few years on New York City’s Rikers Island. That period, and the year I did on the island as a teenager, was, by far, the most brutal.

You go to prison after you get sentenced. You go to a jail, like the ones housed in the sprawling mega-complex on Rikers, after you’re arrested and denied bail or can’t afford it. Jail is a tension-filled place, with months-long stretches between court dates, hours of nothingness, clashes over who’s next on the phone or who didn’t get extras on chicken day. What makes jail so hard is not knowing what is to become of you.

Rikers is a whole island filled with people at the worst point in their life. In their new book, Rikers: An Oral History, Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau reveal that the jail robs something from the people who live and work there. Through themed topical chapters—“Bullpen Therapy,” “Race,” “Gangs,” “Mental Health”—the authors create a vivid picture of what life on the island is like. What becomes clear is that the people aren’t what makes it bad—the environment is.

There are specific elements, unique to Rikers, that make it so unbearable. For one, it’s an entire island devoted to housing the city’s undesirables. A narrow bridge (which Mayor John Lindsay christened the “bridge of hope,” and the rapper Flavor Flav more accurately called the “bridge of pain”) is the only way on or off the island, which makes traveling to it so difficult that lawyers, even ones you’re paying, won’t visit you much. And the facilities include mostly makeshift trailers, built for temporary housing, with corridors that stretch out into long, eerie hallways. But it’s the general atmosphere of Rikers, with its mythic reputation of being the most dangerous place to be detained in America, that most affects the psyche.

I was first sent to Rikers in 1995, at the age of 18, after I got caught with a gun. After violating my probation, I wound up serving a year in a jail for teens: C-74, which we called “adolescents at war.” On my first day, a group of Ñetas (a Puerto Rican gang) beat me up after I refused to give them my sneakers. As a white boy, I was the minority in C-74; the sick paradox was that I felt safe only when I acted violently.

I got out at 19, but landed back on the island after I shot and killed a man on a Brooklyn street at 24. This time, I spent two and a half years there, before I was eventually found guilty and sentenced to 28 years to life. In 2004, cuffed and shackled in the back of a bus—about 40 of us—being transported upstate to prison, I felt relieved. Leaving Rikers feels like a better chapter of your life is about to begin—even if that next chapter is a prison sentence.

I was hesitant when I first came across Rayman and Blau’s book. The authors are tabloid reporters who cover the jail complex, usually from afar, and I’m skeptical of journalists who seldom immerse themselves in the worlds they write about. Rayman and Blau don’t offer a clear explanation for why we need another book about Rikers right now, but the stories they include prompted me to find my own reasons for the book to exist. And, to be fair to the authors, they spoke with about 130 people with experiences on the island: corrections officers, wardens, commissioners, activists, lawyers, loved ones of the incarcerated, and people who have been locked up there, including some with whom I’ve served time. Rendering opposing voices next to one another allows the reader to levitate over and experience Rikers from different viewpoints. Even as someone who has witnessed, firsthand, many of the things that the authors write about, I appreciated the juxtaposed perspectives, which capture the complexity of life on the island.

In the chapter on gangs, James “Shaquell” Forbes, whom I crossed paths with in 2016 while we were both in Attica, explains how New York’s faction of the Bloods (originally a West Coast gang) began on Rikers in order to unite Black people against two of the major Latino gangs: the Latin Kings and Ñetas, who frequently jumped and slashed outsiders. To challenge that dominance, Shaquell became a shotcaller, which is to say the boss, of one of the New York Bloods’ first subgroups. He reflected on how the gang, born in the chaos of Rikers, spilled into society: “We never meant for it to get to the streets … And then we start hearing about people getting cut [in the streets] because they wearing red dresses or it’s part of an initiation. Why is this happening?”

In a chapter on “bullpen therapy”—the term for the endless hours people spend waiting together in large cells, either in the bullpens of Rikers or those at court—the authors accurately describe the logistical nightmare of transporting hundreds of people on and off the island every day for their court appointments. It all starts at 4 a.m.: caged bus rides, overcrowded bullpens, jammed dockets, and constant case delays—“a form of torture,” as Rayman and Blau put it.

Soffiyah Elijah, the executive director of a criminal-justice nonprofit called the Alliance of Families for Justice, explains how prosecutors take advantage of Rikers’s notoriety—specifically the awfulness of bullpen therapy—to wear down defendants into pleading guilty. “In fact, their whole plea negotiation shifts if they know that your client is waiting, awaiting disposition of their case at Rikers … The likelihood that they’ll take a plea to get out of that situation is increased significantly.”

The notion that Rikers brings out the worst in human behavior is particularly apparent in the way it can corrupt those in power. In one of the book’s most disturbing examples, the retired corrections officer Thomas Cinquemani openly brags about violating the civil rights of a young man who he says disrespected him in front of his colleagues by calling him a “white bitch.” Cinquemani goes on to tell the authors how he later saw the kid getting off the court bus and beat him in a cell for an hour. “Remember the old James Cagney movies when you see the head in the toilet? I did that too with my Black bitch for the day … I flushed his head in the toilet more than once, and I hit him with enough force to let him know what he did was wrong.” Cinquemani adds, “You have to become part of your environment.”

Rikers is a book of horror stories. It’s enough to make you feel that the only solution is to shut down the complex entirely. To that end, the authors offer a succinct history of recent efforts to do so. In 2015, a federal monitor was appointed to supervise the city’s jails following widespread reports of violence and abuse on the island. In 2017, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio approved an $8.3 billion “borough-based jail” plan to rebuild the existing jails next to the courts in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, and to build a new jail from the ground up in the Bronx. In 2019, the city council passed legislation to set it all in motion, but the plan was contingent on the jail population remaining low. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, that number has been rising, and Mayor Eric Adams, who campaigned on promises to improve public safety, has spoken about a potential “Plan B” for Rikers’s legally mandated 2027 closing date.

Reading this book took me back to my worst years, when I was my worst self. My own time on Rikers remains traumatizing to remember, even now, living in a prison cell. After I finished the book, a comment made by a bureaucrat, of all people, is what stuck with me most. Eve Kessler, the former director of public affairs for New York City’s Department of Corrections, mentions to the authors how Rikers is commonly referred to as the largest mental-health hospital on the East Coast. “That’s not about the jails. That’s about our society that’s relegating so many people with so many problems that we don’t have the right kind of help for [to] the jails,” she said. “It’s like everyone’s talking about the jails are so brutal … it’s society that’s brutal.” She’s right. A violent crime occurs, tabloids report, and we send the person, often someone who’s sick and suffering, to Rikers, where they’re likely to get sicker and suffer even more. Society’s brutality lies in its indifference to this cycle, its inability to imagine a world in which Rikers isn’t the only solution.