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The Long Crisis on Rikers Island

How New York lost control of its most infamous jail complex
Art for The Long Crisis on Rikers Island.
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Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage by Jarrod Shanahan. Verso Books, 448 pages.

Early this year, as New York City’s latest, weirdest mayor assumed office and the winter Covid wave began to recede, hundreds of detainees on Rikers Island embarked upon a hunger strike. Bundled under whatever layers they could find to protect against the cold creeping through the jail walls, the strikers were protesting a lack of medical care, unhygienic conditions that had proliferated even in the midst of a pandemic-driven lockdown, and escalating violence throughout the facilities, driven as much by guards’ neglect as by their brutality. Since the start of the Covid pandemic, New York City’s jails have become significantly more dangerous and miserable places to be: stabbings and slashings more than tripled last year, while guards reported more than seven thousand use-of-force incidents; rates of self-harm spiked dramatically; and sixteen people died in city jails last year, including fifteen on Rikers itself. Tiffany Cabán, the NYC council member whose district includes the island, relayed one detainee’s story to the Board of Correction: the only way he could get access to a mental health professional was by committing self-harm and being placed on suicide watch. One of the organizers of the Rikers hunger strike, Ervin Bowins, said that guards moved him into a gang-controlled unit in retaliation for his activism: “The guard brought me into the unit and said, ‘Here’s your snitch,’” he told Curbed. “Within a second there were 15 guys on me, just beating me.”

If you ask Eric Adams, his Correction commissioner Louis Molina, or Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) president Benny Boscio Jr., the solution to the problems at Rikers begins with hiring more guards. Adams’s first budget proposal, released in February, would have required nearly every city agency to cut spending by 3 percent while the Correction Department was exempted. (As was the Health Department.) His most recent budget proposal is less draconian, but still adds 570 corrections officers—the ex-cop mayor’s answer to the widespread opposition that greeted his proposal to reintroduce solitary confinement in New York City jails. “You know what it’s for? All those who stated they wanted to end the solitary confinement. So we are moving to a model of punitive segregation,” he told reporters. “I don’t support solitary confinement. Punitive segregation comes with a price tag, new correction officers. And that is why we have those new correction officers.”

Since the start of the Covid pandemic, New York City’s jails have become significantly more dangerous and miserable places to be.

After being replaced by Adams’s pick, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Correction commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, speculated that the surge of sick-outs by guards last year—which contributed to the spiraling violence on Rikers, at least in part—constituted an unofficial act of resistance to harsher punishments being meted out for incidents of excessive force. By contrast, even before Adams took office, COBA president Boscio told the New York Times that he anticipated the new mayor would usher in a “huge turnaround” in relations between COBA and his office. Indeed, almost immediately upon his appointment as Correction commissioner, Molina—another ex-cop, and a “great choice” to lead the “vital city agency,” according to the New York Post editorial board—quickly set about repairing the relationship between Gracie Mansion and the guard union, most significantly by rolling back restrictions on sick-leave policy and firing the internal investigator responsible for reviewing use-of-force cases.

Officially, Mayor Adams remains committed to the city’s plan to close Rikers and to open new high-rise jails in each of the boroughs (except Staten Island). Actually, his policies and budget will continue to put people there. “I have stated that I believe we need to close Rikers Island,” he said last year. “But while we are closing Rikers Island, you can’t have a facility where the gates and doors don’t work.” In other words: we can close Rikers, but first we have to fix it—namely, by reinvesting in its infrastructure and hiring more guards.

This precise dynamic has animated struggles within and over Rikers Island for nearly a century, as Jarrod Shanahan traces in his new book Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage. Adapted from his doctoral dissertation at the CUNY Graduate Center, Shanahan’s Captives identifies Rikers Island as the black hole at the heart of the city, something like Times Square’s “necessary opposite,” summoned up out of the muck and mire of the East River: “at the same time that Rikers is removed from the city, a space of enforced isolation surrounded by the East River, it is also thoroughly constituted by New York City, and, in turn, constitutes it.”

Shanahan, who was arrested and held on Rikers during the anti-police rebellion that followed Michael Brown’s killing in 2014, tells the story of how the island, once imagined as a space of reform and rehabilitation, came instead to be “the domain of a violent custodial force that demanded—and won—almost-untrammeled recognition of their freedom to dispose of the city’s prisoners however they saw fit.” Abolitionists and other radicals opening this book might expect a history of prisoner rebellions and revolts, and these stories are present. But for Shanahan, the key antagonism in the city’s jails has in fact been that between guards and management. Captives is, in effect, a labor history: a history of guards in New York City’s jails generally, and on Rikers specifically, struggling for autonomy over their workplace—which is to say, for the right to deal out violence with impunity—against the managers, politicians, and judges seeking to impose their own ideas about how the city’s carceral institutions ought to be run.

Perhaps none of those bosses was more important than Anna M. Kross, Correction commissioner from 1954 to 1966. She adamantly pursued a project of “penal welfarism” in the city’s jails, attempting to transform them from spaces of neglect and abandonment into facilities that could actually improve people’s lives. “The lock-’em-up-forget-about-’em policy of the past is over,” she declared in 1955. For penal welfarists like Kross, the problem was not necessarily that New York City was locking up more and more people, but rather that the city’s jails were becoming overcrowded. “The end result” of NYPD clearing the city’s streets in order to create the appearance of surface order, Kross recognized, would “be that we will need MORE police, MORE prosecutors, MORE courts, MORE judges, and bigger and stronger bastilles to hold our prisoners.”

Rikers Island—some four hundred acres in the middle of the East River—presented one possible avenue to resolving this contradiction, though until 1966, it was only accessible by ferry. Having already expanded the island itself by way of landfill, the Rikers Island Bridge, which Mayor John Lindsay called the “bridge of hope,” not only made the construction of more facilities on the island possible but positioned the island as “the logical place for all future jail expansion in the city.” As Shanahan puts it:

The bridge became the centerpiece of an ambitious infrastructure expansion strategy, centered around Kross’s penal welfarist vision, that opened the island’s largely undeveloped surface to almost-unlimited carceral uses by a city increasingly leaning on police and jails to manage its social problems. With the best of intentions, Anna M. Kross had paved the road, quite literally, to the Rikers Island of today.

Not long before her death in 1979, the city named one of the new Rikers facilities after Kross. Esias Johnson was found dead in his cell there last September. He had spent days begging for medical attention, requesting escorts to the on-site clinic, but was ignored. A captain and two guards were suspended in connection with his death. As I was working on this review, twenty-five-year-old Dashawn Carter was found hanging in his cell in the same facility, two days after being transferred back there from a psychiatric hospital.

By the time the Anna M. Kross Center was opened, an epochal shift had taken place. Chafing under the imposition of penal welfarist policies, New York City guards had begun to get more organized, using the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association to create room for themselves in the city’s politics. They aligned with the emergent law-and-order coalition that began to form in reaction to the social upheaval of the late ’60s and early ’70s. At the same time, as black and brown revolutionaries were detained in the city’s jails, they brought their politics with them, organizing a series of dramatic rebellions and escapes—and, in turn, becoming the stuff of outer borough nightmares. Even as guards and management grappled for control of the jail system, Shanahan writes, “these two sides could almost always find a common enemy in the figure of the prisoner, especially black and brown revolutionaries.”

While Captives is a labor history, it is also a history of the changing nature of the state—specifically, the rise of the neoliberal carceral state out of the ashes of the liberal welfare state. In 1975, when the fiscal crisis hit, every part of the state was affected: within New York City, even NYPD and Correction budgets got cut. But in its aftermath, as the power bloc that had begun to cohere in the decade prior seized its chance, the state was recomposed, and its repressive apparatuses were strengthened. “The fiscal crisis had sounded the death knell for the Great Society approach to poverty and race relations,” Shanahan writes. “What was left in its place was a cohesive bloc of capitalists bolstered by an equally organized bloc of cops and jail guards.”

Policing and incarceration—stripped of their rehabilitative aspirations, thanks to the incorporation of police and guards themselves as political actors in the new power bloc—became the default solution to the problem of surplus labor. “Under the new regime ordering New York City life,” Shanahan argues, the Department of Correction “helped transfer the greatest burden of the fiscal crisis to those locked unwillingly in its custody. To say that their living conditions went from bad to worse does not do justice to the severity of the situation. Nowhere were the violent implications of law and order’s victory in the city’s fiscal crisis felt more acutely than inside its jails.” While labor peace between COBA and Department of Correction management would always be destabilized by the guards’ perpetual self-victimization, the larger question of who really ran the jails was settled. Having been defeated at Rikers, however, penal welfarism did not evaporate. Rather, it has been fragmented, dispersed, and reconstituted as parts of the state that formerly did not deal in repression but that have—under neoliberal austerity and the assault on the provision of social goods—begun taking on repressive aspects in order to win funding.

Policing and incarceration became the default solution to the problem of surplus labor.

What Captives shows over and over again is that the increasing centrality of Rikers Island to the management of working-class life in New York was not inevitable, but was the contingent outcome of political struggle between guards and administrators and the prisoners who were squeezed between them. The ongoing crisis at Rikers is not a matter of the mask slipping and the true, oppressive essence of the state revealing itself; it is the result of an organized force seizing control of a set of institutions that it could use to accrue even more political capital and influence to itself. Like cops, prison guards use violence to build power to use more violence. As a group of Black Panthers warned their fellow prisoners who wanted to negotiate the release of several guards taken hostage during one rebellion: “Listen brothers . . . we’ll go along with the majority because we don’t want to fight you, but the pigs are gonna fuck you up anyway.”

If the rise of Rikers and the expansion of New York City’s capacity to incarcerate and immobilize was not inevitable, it was nevertheless deliberate. “When the law-and-order coalition met the fiscal crisis, the recipe it devised for spending on police and prisons treated them not only as a mechanism of social control mitigating against movements from below, but as an austerity strategy in themselves,” Shanahan writes. “In the end, policing and jails were a less expensive, and thoroughly disempowering, alternative to welfare state spending. Human costs notwithstanding, jails were politically expedient, and a good investment to boot.”

Now, as the legitimacy of the coalition that triumphed over penal welfarism in the ’70s and its strategy of policing the crisis shows signs of fracturing, Eric Adams is seeking to revitalize this bloc by cultivating a friendship with Rupert Murdoch, courting tech capital, consolidating the support of real estate and finance, and playing on identity politics and the labor establishment, all while making almost nightly appearances at Manhattan’s most exclusive clubs. Adams’s eccentricities and penchant for creating sound bites have prompted a lot of breathless and bemused coverage that mostly ignores or obscures his policy agenda—or, worse, feigns naivete about it. (He’s really not that subtle.) Ultimately, the weirdness and contradictions of the Adams administration rest on the continually expanding police state, which the mayor is more than happy to strengthen at every turn. “Keep analyzing me,” he told the crowd at one election party. “Do what you want. But trust me when I tell you, there’s never going to be another mayor like me.” One can only hope.

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