Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage 
by Jarrod Shanahan.
Verso, 433 pp., £20, May, 978 1 78873 995 5
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Thirteen people​ have died so far this year in the custody of New York City’s Department of Correction. All of them were being held on Rikers Island. Herman Diaz, 52, choked to death on an orange; several other detainees tried to revive him but no guard came to his aid. Dashawn Carter, 25, hanged himself two days after returning to Rikers from a state psychiatric hospital. George Pagan, 48, was plainly ill during the nine days he spent on the island, eating little and urinating, defecating and vomiting on himself. He died of sepsis, after staff failed to take him to any of his nine scheduled medical appointments. Emanuel Sullivan, 20, was found unresponsive in bed, bleeding from the nose. The cause of death is said to be under investigation. Another eight men and one woman also met preventable deaths. They are Antonio Bradley, Anibal Carrasquillo, Ricardo Cruciani, Albert Drye, Michael Lopez, Elijah Muhammed, Michael Nieves, Mary Yehudah and Tarz Youngblood.

The name ‘Rikers Island’ conjures a monolithic structure, but there are ten correctional facilities on the island, seven of which are currently in operation. Within this sprawling complex is a power plant to generate electricity and a bakery producing thousands of loaves of bread each day. There is a medical infirmary, a pregnancy unit and a nursery for babies born on the island. The facilities on Rikers are jails, not prisons, which fall under state or federal authority. (Prisons hold people who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to more than twelve months; jails hold everyone else.) On any given day this year, the jail population of New York City stood at somewhere between five and six thousand people, the majority of them held on Rikers. The remainder are imprisoned at the Vernon C. Bain Centre, an enormous blue and white barge floating in the East River. Most are legally innocent, having been accused of a crime but not (or not yet) convicted. As of August, 1178 pre-trial detainees – many of them people who can’t afford bail – had been held for more than twelve months.

In 2015, Kalief Browder, a 22-year-old community college student, died by suicide in his childhood bedroom in the Bronx. Browder had spent three years on Rikers after being accused, aged sixteen, of stealing a backpack. By the time the charges against him were dropped, he had spent nearly eight hundred days in solitary confinement and endured repeated beatings by guards. His story, which was the subject of a widely read New Yorker article, became the latest to draw attention to the barbarism and inequality of New York’s jails (which in 2020 were 58 per cent Black, compared to 20 per cent in the city as a whole), and the US legal system more generally. After several years of intense scrutiny by local and national media and vigorous campaigning by a coalition of community and advocacy groups, New York City Council signed up to a plan proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to close Rikers Island by 2026 (later delayed to 2027) and replace it with four new jails, in Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn. These would hold a combined 3300 people – far fewer than the current facilities.

Since the plan was agreed, conditions at Rikers have further deteriorated. The situation is widely recognised as a humanitarian crisis: Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York, last year declared a ‘disaster emergency’. Witnesses describe seeing people packed together without access to toilets or showers. Food, water, medication and medical care are subject to arbitrary delays, and there have been reports of defendants getting to court late for hearings. Incidents of self-harm have increased by more than 4000 per cent since 2018 and guards routinely use violence to quell disorder. In one incident, captured by a body camera, a man collapsed after officers put him in a chokehold. ‘You’re not a very good actor,’ the deputy warden told the man. ‘But I’ll bring the gurney down anyway.’

Who – or what – is to blame? Much of the press coverage has focused on the staffing crisis that emerged in the first year of the pandemic. More and more officers began to call in sick, or else requested restrictive-duty assignments that prevent them from working with people in custody. At one point, some two thousand guards (around a third of the daily workforce) were unavailable to escort imprisoned people to meet their lawyers, see a doctor or show up to court.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), the union that represents the city’s guards, blames the crisis on the de Blasio administration, claiming that morale was damaged by the decision in 2015 to settle Nunez v. City of New York, a civil rights lawsuit alleging widespread abuse by guards. The settlement limits the use of disciplinary force and requires that a team of federal experts monitor the jails and issue twice-yearly reports (these have been scathing). De Blasio also introduced a plan to end solitary confinement, which corrections officers insist is necessary to keep them safe and the UN describes as a form of torture. ‘If there is any meaningful lesson [to be] learned from the failures of the past,’ Benny Boscio, the president of COBA, wrote in an op-ed earlier this year, ‘it’s that prioritising a political ideology over safety and security … has failed everyone in our detention centres.’ The union is arguing that the centres are understaffed and wants the new mayor, Eric Adams, a former police officer, to hire an additional two thousand officers. It has also requested he drop the ban on solitary confinement (coyly referring to it as ‘punitive segregation’), which has yet to come into effect.

Lawyers and campaigners for imprisoned people reject these arguments. ‘It’s important not to call this a staffing shortage problem,’ Corey Stoughton of the Legal Aid Society said in an interview with New York magazine last year. ‘The focus on corrections officers is distracting from the real problems and from the fundamental need to reduce the population and close Rikers.’ In 2020, the number of people imprisoned in New York City jails fell below four thousand for the first time in almost 75 years. Although it has started to creep up again, the population remains at a historic low. There are already far more corrections officers than experts advise: the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform recommends around 3700 officers, or 0.73 for each person in custody. The growing number of corrections staff is also the reason New York City spends nearly $2.7 billion a year on its jails, more than any other local jail system in the US (Los Angeles County confines three times as many people but spends $1 billion less). Vincent Schiraldi, the Department of Correction commissioner under de Blasio, suspects that recent staffing issues are the result of a co-ordinated mass sick-out, an illegal tactic.

Adams, meanwhile, is working hard to distinguish himself from his predecessor. At a press conference this summer, he announced that in the first six months of the year officers had seized 2700 weapons from within the jail complex. A selection of shivs and shanks was put on display. ‘I am not ashamed of you,’ he told the guards. ‘I am proud of you. Keep doing the job you are doing.’ He told journalists that at least some of the deaths of incarcerated people this year may have been due to ‘pre-existing conditions’. During his election campaign Adams promised to close Rikers, but his commitment appears to be wavering. The city budget for the coming year provides funding for an additional 578 corrections officers.

Jarrod Shanahan’s​ history of Rikers Island, Captives, argues that none of this is new. There has always been a ‘push and pull’, as he puts it, between COBA, City Hall, the federal courts, lawyers, activists, incarcerated people and public opinion. Shanahan was himself briefly detained on Rikers, in 2014, after taking part in a protest against the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. His book is an account of New York City politics from the 1950s to the early 1990s as seen through the lens of the city’s jails. Two competing visions of social order emerge, with humanistic liberals promoting ‘penal welfarism’ on the one hand, and the forces of austerity and repression demanding ‘law and order’, on the other.

The story begins in 1954. Modelling himself on his father, who was one of the architects of the New Deal, Robert Wagner Jr won the mayoral race promising a ‘New Deal for New York’. Reforming the city jail system was part of his vision. Just as now, jails were used to manage unemployment and instability in working-class life, with young Black people and those of Puerto Rican descent disproportionately affected. At that time there were two facilities on Rikers (the first opened in 1935), two in Manhattan and one each in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Together they housed 7900 people – almost double their official capacity.

Wagner Jr appointed Anna Kross, a former garment factory worker turned lawyer and judge, to run the Department of Corrections. She recast the courts and jails as agencies of social work, tasked with rehabilitation. Her initiatives included opportunities for training, for instance, as a barber, mechanic, baker or garment worker; a paid work scheme, in which wages were given directly to imprisoned people; and job placements for adolescents after they were released. She tried to fill gaps in resources by recruiting volunteers and non-profit organisations, and converted a disused warehouse on Rikers into an accredited high school. She was confident that if control of the facilities was handed from the guards to psychologists, psychiatrists and other university-educated professionals, jails would be able to address the hardships that caused incarceration in the first place.

But Kross had no jurisdiction over the New York Police Department, whose officers were in charge of arrests, or the local courts, which determined bail and sentencing. The NYPD, in particular, was keeping jails full by targeting people for minor offences such as loitering with dragnet-style sweeps. Kross disapproved of the strategy. ‘The end result,’ she wrote in a budget statement in 1954, ‘will be that we will need MORE police, MORE prosecutors, MORE courts, MORE judges, and bigger and stronger bastilles to hold our prisoners.’ But there was little she could do: jails were overcrowded and conditions were dire. Reports from imprisoned people at the House of Detention for Women, in Greenwich Village, often made their way into the press, describing rat infestations, grimy blankets, double celling, lax medical care and sexual abuse (Andrea Dworkin, arrested as a teenager at an anti-war protest, was among the whistleblowers). So Kross did what she thought was the next best thing: she built more jails. In the course of her twelve years as corrections commissioner, she began work on two new facilities on Rikers – one for adolescents and one for women – and expanded the facilities already under construction. She also commissioned a mile-long bridge connecting Rikers Island to East Elmhurst in Queens. Where once there was only a ferry, now there were cars and trucks – vehicles essential to building the ‘ever-expanding carceral network’. Once she got the jail system in order, Kross reasoned, she would be able to concentrate on her core reforms.

This proved to be naive. Kross also misjudged the guards, who retained control of day-to-day operations and had their own opinions on how the jails should be run. They had leverage, too: COBA had become more independent after Wagner Jr granted city employees the right to collective bargaining. Although public sector unions faced harsh penalties for industrial action, strikes did occasionally take place. Corrections officers may have been driven by the desire for control over their employment conditions. But as Shanahan writes, this ‘put them at odds with the human lives that constituted the raw material of their labour’. Instead of promoting the interests of their class, ‘this growing power bloc set out to serve itself.’ In a bid to keep the guards on her side, Kross acceded to their demands for more officers and better wages and benefits, increasing the maximum salary for guards by 94 per cent and captains by 105 per cent during her tenure.

After Kross’s​ departure in 1966, COBA consolidated its power. The corrections officers aligned themselves with the NYPD union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, as well as other interests representing the white resentment that was mounting against postwar liberalism. This coalition drew support from the John Birch Society and the American Nazi Party, but also from working-class people affected by deindustrialisation, who often had roots in the same outer-borough neighbourhoods as the guards and the police. In 1970, a new union boss, Leo Zeferetti, steered COBA toward labour militancy. The guards staged sick-outs and slowed transportation of imprisoned people, demanding more officers be hired and better contracts agreed. The prisoners began a series of rebellions. The most formidable took place over several days in early October. Some 2700 people at five jails across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Rikers seized thirty hostages (some of them guards), liberated people from their cells, broke windows, started fires, erected barricades – and, crucially, demanded the city take part in negotiations to improve their conditions. The media followed the events closely and thousands of demonstrators gathered outside jails to show their support. In order to regain control and, in at least one case, to retaliate, the guards used tear gas, small fires, clubs and hand-to-hand combat, sometimes with the assistance of the NYPD. (Only those held in the Manhattan Detention Centre, known as the Tombs, escaped this treatment.)

Mayor John Lindsay responded by reviving an all but defunct civilian oversight board, the Board of Correction, which called for a number of reforms. Rhem v. McGrath, a class-action lawsuit initiated over conditions at the Tombs, ushered in a flurry of other suits and several judges began lowering bail, reducing the number of pre-trial prisoners in custody. A fiscal crisis was looming, however, and in 1975, the city came close to bankruptcy. Wall Street was called in, with the result that spending on public assistance, public sector jobs and other programmes and services was cut. Paying tribute to the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Shanahan describes the way that, under Mayor Koch, who governed between 1978 and 1989, the bureaucracies supporting policing, courts, jails and prisons grew to dwarf those of the welfare state. Koch’s coupling of fiscal austerity and law and order politics assumed its ideal form in 1984, when the NYPD, emboldened by Reagan’s war on drugs, began sweeping through working-class neighbourhoods and arresting en masse those who dealt drugs or used them. Within two years, the city’s jail population had reached more than 13,000 – nearly double the figure four years earlier. The police and correction officer unions were repeatedly given better contracts and a bigger share of the city’s strained budget, often by exercising intimidation tactics. On one occasion, COBA members sat with their guns on display while a negotiator pared his fingernails with a knife.

By 1992, more than 21,000 people were imprisoned in New York’s thirteen jails. In addition to the ten permanent facilities on Rikers, fabric structures known as ‘Sprungs’ (after the company that manufactured them) were used as dormitories and offices. Three floating jails provided extra beds. Overseeing all this was a battalion of 12,000 corrections officers. When Kross first came to power there were 1200. It’s no revelation that in the political contest for New York City, austerity and repression were victorious. But Captives joins a growing body of scholarship, including Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right, that shows how liberal reformism helped to entrench these policies, expanding the role of police, courts and jails in the lives of working-class people.

Construction of the four new ‘community jails’ will cost an estimated $8 billion. The authors of the plan promise it will be thoughtfully designed and compassionately staffed. People with pending criminal cases will be closer to the courts, and family members will be able to visit more easily (it’s notoriously difficult to get to Rikers without a car). But Rikers itself was constructed to replace the grim complex of jails and asylums on Blackwell’s Island (now called Roosevelt Island); and Blackwell’s too was built to replace an older discredited jail. Again and again, the city government has promised to remedy the inadequacies of its carceral system. And each time the new facilities have filled up, subjecting more and more people to wretched conditions.

During the campaign to close Rikers, another vision emerged. The first group to call publicly for its closure was a small alliance, formed in 2015, of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and their supporters, including Kalief Browder’s brother Akeem. They called on the city not to replace the jails but to divest from prisons and police, directing the funds towards education, healthcare and housing. But the de Blasio plan to build new facilities won out, all but guaranteeing that in ten or twenty or thirty years there will be another crisis and another conversation about what should be done about the city’s jails.

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Vol. 44 No. 21 · 3 November 2022

It’s a small point, but the twelve thousand corrections officers at Rikers Island in 1992 would not make ‘a battalion’, as Sarah Resnick writes, but rather twelve battalions or a somewhat large division (LRB, 22 September).

Johan Enegren

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