A History Of Hell: How Rikers Island Became A Modern Municipal Abomination

Two weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to close the city’s jail complex on Riker’s Island and end nearly a century of its use as a place to imprison people. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Speaker of the City Council, stood beside him and gave the plan a moral imperative: Rikers had to close, she said, because it is an “abomination.”

While acknowledging the enormous political and logistical task of closing Rikers, and the ten-year, conditional timetable to achieve it, the mayor was insistent that Rikers will close: “It will take many years. It will take many tough decisions along the way. But it will happen.”

The history of the hell known as Rikers Island, however, suggests otherwise.

For half a century, men and women of benevolent intent have employed a wide range of skills and tactics to make Rikers Island humane. Their valiant efforts have included armed resistance, official reports, an economic stratagem, and a 42-years-and-counting class-action lawsuit in federal court. As varied as these efforts have been, they all have one thing in common: Every single one of them failed.