The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New York’s Rikers Island is a disgraceful emblem of a benighted era

New York's Rikers Island jail complex in 2014. (Seth Wenig/AP)
4 min

What aspects of today’s behavior will cause posterity to look down on us when they look back at us? Which of our practices will cause future Americans to exclaim, as many of today’s Americans do regarding their predecessors, “How could they have been so benighted?” Here is one answer: Rikers Island.

Rikers is in New York City’s East River, which is not a river but a tidal estuary. And Rikers is not a normal jail — a place of brief confinements pending trials and sentencings. Because the criminal justice system has coagulated, and because methods for sorting the mentally ill from criminal recidivists are inadequate, and because many inmates are “dope sick” (suddenly separated from their narcotics), Rikers often is a long-term warehouse for an unmanageable conglomeration of unalike problems.

Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau begin their “Rikers: An Oral History” by citing a politician’s speech deploring the rampant drug use and violence among Rikers inmates who leave there “far worse than when they entered.” The speech was given in 1921.

A judge interviewed by Rayman and Blau: “I feel like I’m handing out a life sentence to these people, but I’m doing it thirty days at a time.” In Rikers slang, a “buck fifty” is a slashing to the face requiring 150 stitches. Weapons? Sharpened animal bones work. Or, a former inmate remembers: “Someone got stabbed with a broomstick on top of my bed. There was so much blood.” A former guard: “It’s a high-crime area. These guys are going to hurt each other, that’s what they do.” Guards “had fight clubs where they would bet on who [of two inmates pitted against each other] would win.” In an “Apache Line,” prisoners crawl on their knees between two lines of guards wielding batons. Unsurprisingly, some people “hang up” — Rikers argot for committing suicide. There were at least 30 inmate deaths in 2021-2022.

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Science can condition the meaning of a constitutional clause: It is now known that more than a few consecutive weeks of solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment proscription of “cruel and unusual” punishment. And it is self-perpetuating: Isolation rewires the brain, making individuals more impulsive and less able to control themselves — hence unfit for inclusion in the general prison population. In Rikers, solitary confinement is called “the Bing.”

Rikers is in a city that preens about its progressiveness. Some of the complex’s dysfunctions have perhaps been ameliorated since some of Rayman and Blau’s interviews with more than 130 people whose experiences span decades. But the New York Times has recently reported the arraignment of three Rikers guards charged with an assault on an inmate. And the Times has reported how violence “soared” in the summer of 2021, when “nearly a third” of the city’s jail officers stopped coming to work. Their union contract grants them unlimited sick leave.

Rikers is not an argument against mass incarceration: Most inmates there should be inmates somewhere. The Manhattan Institute’s Charles Fain Lehman reports in City Journal that “of the roughly 5,200 pretrial detainees in DOC [Department of Corrections] custody as of mid-December, 29 percent faced homicide charges, and another 46 percent were there for rape, burglary, robbery, assault, or weapons offenses.”

And disregard irrelevant cant about “systemic racism.” Equity-mongers appalled by racial “disparities” should read Rafael A. Mangual in City Journal: Nationally, Black males are victims of gun homicides at a rate almost 10 times higher than White males. In New York City in 2021, 97 percent of shooting victims were Black or Hispanic.

Also in City Journal, criminal justice scholars Matt DeLisi and John Paul Wright report that the U.S. incarceration rate is the lowest since 1990. And that “only a small fraction of the victimizations and arrests that occur annually culminate in a prison sentence — partly because of the incapacity of criminal justice systems to process the magnitude of offending that occurs.” Only 54 percent of violent offenses result in prison confinement. The median time served for violent crimes is 2.4 years. Of 404,000 state prisoners released in 30 states, 68 percent recidivated within three years, 79 percent within six years.

Most inmates will someday return to the communities from which they were extracted. The communities might have been improved by the extractions, but most of these ex-prisoners will not have been improved by incarceration. Rikers might have a singular concatenation of pathologies. Do not, however, assume that jails and prisons in your city or state are not today making tomorrow worse.