Rikers, what good do you think you do?
Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage
(Verso Books, 2022)
When Johnny Cash performed for the inmates of San Quentin prison in 1969, he wrote a song especially for the occasion. The first several verses ask why the prison exists and what good it could possibly do for those imprisoned there or society as a whole. Its last verse concludes, to a roar of applause:
San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell
May your walls fall and may I live to tell
May all the world forget you ever stood
And may all the world regret you did no good.
At the time, the song was considered naïve pandering. This was still the era in which liberal academics and politicians believed in “penal welfarism,” that America’s carceral institutions could be transformed into something better than the torturous dungeons described by Cash. A notable example was the planned expansion of New York’s Rikers Island from a small penal work camp to a state-of-the-art facility of human rehabilitation. Jarrod Shanahan’s Captives, the first history of Rikers written in what may be its final years, explains why the project failed, why renewed progressive efforts to replace facilities like Rikers today will fail again, and why Cash was probably right.
The book opens with an inmate uprising at New York City’s House of Detention for Women (HDW) in 1954—one of many riots described with the visceral detail with which Bill Buford depicted soccer-hooligan street brawls in Among the Thugs. The facility-wide chants and miniature arsons alerted Greenwich Village passers-by, and eventually the sympathetic ears of the media, and then-recently-appointed Department of Corrections (DOC) commissioner Anna M. Kross. To her, the conspicuously dangerous and unsanitary conditions of HDW were emblematic of the city’s eighteenth-century system of jails she had been tasked to modernize. Declaring that the old jails could not be reformed, Kross announced that a new central jail, designed by humanitarian academics and run by psychologists and social workers, would replace them on Rikers Island. Arriving inmates would be evaluated, categorized, directed to the right sort of expert, and assigned to a program based on whatever type of help they need to leave the facility as a productive member of society. It would be a model for the future of jails that would look more like social emergency rooms than warehouses for surplus population. Once completed, she believed, Rikers would be the pride of New York City.
An early sign of trouble for Kross’s plan came a decade later. With a new women’s prison under construction on Rikers, HDW was once again rocked by scandal. Peace activist Andrea Dworkin published an exposé of the horrors of daily life inside HDW, apparently unabated since the 1954 riot. This time Kross’s DOC was less sympathetic, and new voices spoke up to defend her work: the various religious, student, and activist nonprofits and NGOs that Kross had introduced to the facility as part of her plan to wrestle control of the jails away from the cruel and apathetic correction officers. Instead of taking a strong stand against brutality, the religious leaders and representatives of the Women’s Prison Association and the Society for Ethical Culture claimed Dworkin was exaggerating or lying.
Despite the important advocacy work these groups often provide for inmates, Shanahan observes, these nonprofits operate at the pleasure of the facility’s administration, and are thus unwilling to challenge effectively the day-to-day cruel and unusual excess of incarceration. “Ultimately,” he writes, “these nonprofits have no choice but to facilitate the perpetuation and expansion of carceral institutions, lending them ideological cover and practical support under the auspices of doing good deeds.”
At their highest levels, Shanahan argues, the corporate-funded prison-reform NGOs like the Ford Foundation and Vera Institute for Justice hope to reshape prisons so they can be effective institutions of social engineering: criminals would be transformed into compliant workers for industries experiencing shortages.
But even as their influence within the penal bureaucracy increased, the visions the NGOs shared with Kross were blocked by the paramilitary power of the true authority in city jails: the guards. Bolstered by a new grassroots right-wing movement called Support Your Local Police (SYLP), the guards reimagined themselves as soldiers on the front line of a war against urban riots, street gangs, crime, drug addiction, and revolutionary struggle. Trials for police or guard brutality were met by SYLP activists and swarms of off-duty cops and guards in impressive and often violent shows of solidarity. Eventually police and guard unions merged into a separate Uniformed Forces Coalition, a far-right labor-bargaining group of NYPD, FDNY, housing police, and prison guards—who were often conspicuously armed—that negotiated separately from other city employees.
A final nail in the coffin of the penal welfarist dream came with the fiscal crisis of the seventies. Years before New York City faced bankruptcy, inmates were the first to suffer punishing cuts in wages, services, work programs, food, and basic hygiene. Shells of their original blueprints, the new Brutalist Rikers cellblocks were packed with an increasing number of bunks to keep up with skyrocketing arrests throughout the crumbling city. By the mid-seventies, politicians like Ed Koch ran TV ads showing empty jail beds he promised to fill once in office. In just a few years’ time, it appeared that it was Kross, not Cash, who was naïve.
Victorious against plans to replace them with social workers, the guards treated the expanded Rikers like their island fortress. Subsequent attempts by the DOC or judges to rein in their power with oversight or humanitarian reforms were met with increasingly daring wildcat strikes. Shanahan describes the most dramatic of these actions, the 1990 seizure of the bridge to Rikers by dozens of correction officers, drunk and determined to brutalize anyone who tried to cross, even paramedics. The blockade starved inmates to the point of another desperate riot, which was in turn quickly put down by indiscriminate beatings.
Contradicting a position commonly taken by prison abolitionists, Shanahan argues that cops and guards are indeed workers, but workers with a uniquely reactionary worldview resulting from their profession, in which human lives are treated as raw material. As was often the case with such protests, the central demand of the bridge blockade was the end of any oversight of how and when they meted out violence. The zealotry that terrified New Deal-era bureaucrats like Kross was now a perfect fit for the disciplinary neoliberal economic restructuring of the seventies and eighties. Outcasts of the production process could be treated as antisocial elements driving urban decay instead of the actual culprits, the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) tycoons pushing slash-and-burn austerity.
Shanahan, a former inmate at Rikers, seems to delight in interrupting his account of the gruesome dealings among the city, guards, and judges with gripping tales of prisoner escapes and uprisings. In one, a man with a broken leg leaves his cast behind as a decoy to make it appear as if he is still in bed. In another, the Puerto Rican revolutionary William Morales, his hands and vision destroyed by a faulty explosive, tumbles from a Bellevue Hospital window into the arms of his comrades, who evacuate him to Cuba, where he lives to this day. The uprisings, on the other hand, do not produce such happy results. And yet, every dozen pages or so, they keep happening—a chilling testament to how intolerable daily conditions must be.
Keeping the work historical, there is only a brief mention of the movement against Rikers today. The #CLOSErikers coalition formed in 2016 when the stories of Kalief Browder—who committed suicide at age twenty-two after spending two years in solitary confinement for allegedly stealing a backpack—and later, Layleen Polanco—a transgender woman who died of a seizure in solitary in 2019—renewed condemnation of Rikers’s reliance on torture. With Ford Foundation funds, the coalition successfully pushed a plan through city government that would relocate Rikers’s inmates to four new “community jails”—described with all the optimism with which Kross had imagined Rikers.
But a sizable part of that coalition were abolitionists. Calling themselves No New Jails NYC, they broke against the plan with a counterproposal: that the eleven billion dollars for new facilities should be spent instead on social programs that would reduce the underlying causes of crime. They agreed that Rikers should be closed, but insisted that it should be replaced with nothing. Following the Movement for Black Lives, the position that jails simply don’t work was approaching grassroots consensus among the progressive left. Nonetheless, it was called naïve, even inhumane, by the NGO advocates of the new jails, even those who had adapted the newly popular language of abolition.
The struggle to control Rikers, Shanahan writes, is a struggle for the city itself. If that’s the case, it would seem the city is run by a fluid alliance of these NGO leaders, city bureaucrats, police officers, and corporate overlords, bound together, despite their occasionally competing interests, by a belief that prisons should continue in perpetuity. While he does not go so far as to offer an abolitionist program in Captives, his history of Rikers convincingly demonstrates that there is no other logical alternative to the horrors of prisons and jails than to break with the social order they represent.