Above Photo: End this place. Gregg Vigliottl/for New York Daily News.
A Hellhole Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow.
Anyone held for any amount of time at the facility knew. Their families knew. I knew.
On Jan. 1, 2014, I stood on the steps of City Hall in the biting cold to hear the city’s newest mayor deliver his inaugural address. I was convinced that we finally had a mayor who would understand the importance of championing equity and justice for all. My knees shook and my teeth chattered uncontrollably in the wintery New York air as I stood in line to meet the mayor with hundreds of other people.
Finally, moments before hypothermia set in, “Mr. Mayor” I said, “With all due respect, I am not here for a photo with you. I am here to plead with you to close Rikers Island. It’s a torture Island and a stain on our beautiful city.” He blushed and smiled wryly, clearly caught off guard, and then looked down and said, “Well, that’s a lofty goal, son. Let’s work together to make Rikers a safer place for people to serve their time. Please give your card to my assistant.”
Then he turned away. I knew instinctively that we’d have a major fight on our hands to save more people from the island. If Mayor de Blasio had been truly listening, he would have known too.
In 1987, at the age of 16, charged with shoplifting, I was remanded to Rikers with $1,500 bail. Thirty of us, mostly Black boys and men, rode from the courts in silence. When the bus began to descend on the girder bridge, the only entrance and exit, I was jarred by the view of this hidden city.
The jail complex — including a maximum-security facility, and jails for women and adolescents — was an almost Jurassic array of dying buildings, and double-wide trailers filled with ruins. It wouldn’t be long before I was exposed to Rikers’ ignominious mix of violence, filth and overcrowding.
The intake area might have been the most diverse place in America. Multiple cells held transgender people, gang members, mentally ill people, and homeless people. The holding cell had only one filthy toilet with no doors, a low partition and a half-spent roll of toilet tissue lying on a never-mopped floor.
For lunch we had a choice of sandwiches — either peanut butter and jelly or “cheese,” a limp slice of American between two slices of molding white bread. I tried not to eat. The last thing you wanted to do was take a crap here.
Some people had no such reservations; they’d occasionally squat and blow the place up, and when morning came, detoxing heroin addicts would vomit up their lungs into the already putrid toilet bowl.
The cell’s three small benches couldn’t afford everyone a seat. Most people stood. Some slept on the ground. The stench of feces and urine was overpowering. Most of us hadn’t bathed in days. As the system sorted us out, trying to determine where to place us in a jail complex that was already bursting with people, we each spent another 24-48 hours in those cells, awaiting a bed and a shower.
The buildings on Rikers Island are mostly flat and deeply claustrophobic, with low ceilings and long, dark and dangerous hallways. Who builds a jail complex just 200 feet from an airport runway? (Or, put another way, who builds an airport runway just 200 feet from a jail?)
Youth were housed in a jail referred to as C74. Orientation was in a low-lit area with six cells arranged in a semi-circle around a station for correction officers. First, the officers took us to a civilian staff member, who asked if we were feeling ill and whether we had any enemies on the island. Seemed like a real dumb-ass question to a first-timer, given the circumstances. You certainly couldn’t consider anyone a friend at Rikers.
Two days later, an officer escorted me and four others through a maze of long, confined hallways to our housing unit. The door to the housing area slid open and a rush of hot air filled my lungs. Before me was a large open space littered with bunk beds, and huge fans circulating in each corner. On the top bunks were 30 to 40 shirtless, muscular, heavily tattooed young men, all sitting up and facing the door. Sixty eyes, all fixated on me. My adrenaline surged so fast I almost vomited; saliva thickened in my throat, and beads of sweat trickled down my forehead. If this was gladiator school, I was about to walk into the Colosseum.
This is what NYC had to offer to 16-year-olds who were accused of shoplifting.
I was soon directed to the bath area — a row of showerheads, again with no partitions — and I took a brief cold shower, keeping my belongings in sight. I then walked to my assigned bed and laid down. The dorm held 60 children and two phones for the bunch of us. I knew instinctively that overplaying your hand with the phones could make your time here both brutal and short.
I must have slept for two hours that night, afraid of what could happen if I let down my guard. At about 6:30 a.m., an officer entered the dorm and asked whether anyone wanted to “go to the yard.” While I had no interest in going anywhere, I couldn’t help but notice that he made his announcement in hushed tones, ensuring that most of the sleeping detainees would miss the opportunity.
I’d later learn that this was a deliberate tactic, to minimize movement in the long, dark and narrow hallways, where officers suffer attacks and detainees get sliced across the face with contraband razor blades. That particular maneuver was so common it had a name: the telephone. The goal is to cut the other guy from his ear to his mouth, exactly where he’d hold a telephone. Sometimes a detainee would melt two razors into a toothbrush handle, to ensure that the two parallel wounds could not be easily sutured, causing maximum damage and leaving a hideous scar. Given how dilapidated the jails were, it wasn’t difficult to find loose metal or other objects to make improvised deadly weapons.
And why would anyone expect different, in a facility with the manufactured scarcity of two phones for 60 children? You had two choices at Rikers: predator or prey. In fact, the only five fights I ever had in my life were at Rikers. Guilty or innocent, for detainees held at Rikers, the punishment is in the process.
Within three days, I was out of Rikers. But as though it was my choice not to be haunted, I swore to never forget the cruelty. The inhumane environment. The smells and the sights.
In April 2016, a group of committed New Yorkers and I officially launched the #CLOSErikers campaign with a huge rally at City Hall, demanding that de Blasio permanently close the complex. #CLOSErikers grew to national prominence, supported by local elected officials, celebrities and other notables. But it differed from campaigns with similar missions. We built power from the ground up, compelling New Yorkers who would never spend time at Rikers to follow the lead of people who the city’s jails had most harmed.
We spent almost $5 million chasing New York’s allegedly progressive mayor across the city and the country, showing up at his high-society fundraisers and even once at his local gym. The former Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito created the Independent Lippman Commission to broaden the conversation and further explore the possibility of closure. In less than 12 months, the pressure to close Rikers became a formidable force.
We were relentless, because we knew. We knew then that everyday Rikers was open, there was an opportunity for more violence and dehumanization.
In 2017, a year after launching the campaign, the mayor was brought to his knees by the unavoidable momentum built by the campaign. He begrudgingly conceded that Rikers needed to close. But the devil was in the details. The mayor punted responsibility by outlining a scantily detailed 10-year plan to close the complex of eight jails on Rikers Island and build four skyscraper jail facilities in locations around the city.
Most New Yorkers celebrated the decision. I and a handful of others, on the other hand, saw a mayor making a calculated move to blunt the campaign’s reach, co-opt our messaging and kill the momentum towards immediate closure. If there is one thing de Blasio is good at, it’s campaigning, and this announcement was a masterful move on his part. He immediately invited key stakeholders to sit on his newly formed task force to close Rikers and took control of the media cycles. Most non-profit leaders, many funded by the city, were intoxicated by the invitations to City Hall. Within a week, de Blasio went from calling the campaign supporters “naive” to using his half-hearted decision to close the complex as a talking point for his upcoming reelection campaign.
Now, here we are: A longstanding humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by a deadly pandemic in the backyard of one of the most progressive, resource-rich cities in the world. My story happened 34 years ago, and now that we spend $400,000 per bed, per year, all we have is a more expensive version of the same.
In December, I’ll be eagerly checking my mailbox for an invitation to the inauguration of incoming mayor, Eric Adams. I have something to tell him, so that he knows too. He’ll be able to decide how much blood is on his hands.