Sun sets on Rikers Island


It’s a name that might evoke serenity and relaxation. But Letchworth Village was anything but.

For decades, the massive complex covered nearly four square miles of Rockland County, and was home to thousands diagnosed with physical or mental disabilities. Too many, in fact, as Geraldo Rivera discovered in a 1972 expose for ABC News that first earned him national attention. Residents — especially children — were forced to live in filthy conditions, many times with no clothes to wear and nothing to do.

It was enough to create a national outcry so loud, an entire nation radically reformed disability services.

With Rivera’s camera crew was a former cop-turned-congressman who just couldn’t believe what he saw.

“I’ve visited penal institutions all over the country,” U.S. Rep. Mario Biaggi said. “I’ve visited hospitals all over the country. I’ve visited the worst brigs in the military. I’ve never seen anything like” Letchworth.

How could he know, less than a half-century later, his granddaughter would experience something tragically similar. But it wasn’t Letchworth Village state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi toured last month — instead, it was Rikers Island. A place also hidden far away from inquiring eyes, this time on a one-square-mile plot of mostly landfill-created dirt in the middle of the East River. But not hidden far enough.

“I’m having a hard time describing it without it sounding hyperbolic or crazy,” the senator said. “It actually is worse than it sounds. It was horrifying.”


Before looking to the future, we first have to look at the past

Unlike Letchworth, Rikers Island isn’t overcrowded. In fact, the overall population is much thousands fewer than its peak, thanks to a number of policy changes in recent years like bail reform that won’t allow judges to keep those accused of misdemeanors and non-violent crime behind bars simply because they can’t afford to pay the court.

Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, pledging to shut down Rikers Island, replacing it with a number of smaller jails scattered throughout the five boroughs.

The city council backed de Blasio with an $8.7 billion pledge to build the smaller jails — something council Speaker Corey Johnson claims will be safer, more humane, and chock-full of services some might need like job training or mental counseling.

But not everyone on the council has bought in. Brooklyn’s Carlos Menchaca says de Blasio’s plan does little to address why people go to jail in the first place. Closing Rikers and building new jails, he adds, is a boon for developers, not those facing incarceration in the first place.

Even if the smaller jails could work, they simply aren’t big enough, said Republican Staten Island councilman Steven Matteo. These smaller facilities would house just 3,300 prisoners — far fewer than the more than 7,000 forced to live at Rikers and other city jails now.

“It will require putting more potentially dangerous offenders back on the street,” Matteo said, “jeopardizing public safety.”

New York City bought Rikers Island from the descendants of its namesake, Abraham Rycken, in 1884, for the equivalent of more than $5 million today. Even its sale was controversial. Long Island City, then a part of Queens and not part of New York City itself, wanted the island too. Back then, New York was keeping many of its prisoners on what is now known as Roosevelt Island, and Rikers Island would be perfect for a new jail.

The island wasn’t just a place to send would-be criminals. It also was a repository for the city’s trash, creating mountains that could challenge even the Palisades — and continued to be a regular feature of Rikers Island until the 1939 World’s Fair.

Today Rikers Island can house more than 10,000 inmates. But as Alessandra Biaggi made her way through the expansive complex, she concluded the jail shouldn’t have even a few thousand inmates, let alone 10,000.


A tour filled with horror story after horror story

Biaggi was joined on her recent tour of Rikers Island by U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, city public advocate Jumaane Williams, and the Assemblyman representing the island, Kenny Burgos. The first thing the group saw when they stepped inside the jail’s main facility was how trash covered the floor.

Working their way in, Biaggi and her colleagues talked to as many of the inmates as they could. One after another, each had a horror story to share. Many weren’t getting medication for chronic conditions like disabilities and HIV. One man, who said his schizophrenia had been left untreated by the corrections officers there, showed the group the insect bites that covered his legs.

They “looked like chickenpox,” Biaggi said. “There’s no other way to describe it. And it was just from bedbugs and lice.”

There was also a sense of despair among many of the inmates, the senator said, with the realization many hadn’t been able to call their families or lawyers since they were incarcerated. In several cases, family members didn’t even know they were there.

“Not being able to contact their lawyers is obviously a breach of human rights,” Biaggi said. “But it’s also a constitutional infraction. You’re entitled to that.”

Yet nothing could prepare Biaggi and her group for what they found in the jail’s intake area.

There, groups of 20 or more prisoners were packed together in small cells. One even attempted to hang himself in front of the lawmakers, who could only watch in horror.


Many deaths at Rikers could be prevented

The lack of social distancing might suggest Rikers is long past the coronavirus, but it’s anything but. COVID-19 ultimately claimed the life of Victor Mercado, a 64-year-old Mott Haven resident who was being held at Rikers on a weapons charge.

The courts were in the process of granting Mercado an emergency release from the jail when he died — one of 10 deaths that occurred behind the walls of Rikers this year alone.

“The number of people dying in city jails is horrific,” said Zachary Katznelson, representing the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.

“It’s significantly higher than previous years.”

Suicide still remains a primary culprit of deaths at jails like Rikers. And the dangerous living conditions there do little to help alleviate that, Katznelson said. A federal court monitor counted 51 stabbings and slashings at city jails in September alone — including 18 in a facility that houses primarily older teen boys and adult men at Rikers. Since the beginning of October, that same facility has experienced at least one stabbing or slashing each day.

Felix Guzman knows firsthand. During his time incarcerated at Rikers, he felt the atmosphere was so bad, it nearly drove him to the edge.

“The looming threat of impending death is a harsh reality,” Guzman said. “I was suicidal as I felt uneasy and not cared for as a person, but felt more like I was caught up in the system. There is a palpable tension in the air, an uncertainty over what each moment residing on Rikers Island brings.”

While most of the 50 people who died while in custody in New York City jails over the last five years were medical-related, Katznelson believes lives could have been saved.

“Many deaths are unfortunately related directly to staffing issues at Rikers,” he said. “About a third (of the staff) are not showing up any given day. It’s seriously understaffed right now for hours — and days — at a time. If there’s a medical emergency, people aren’t able to get any help.”


A firsthand look at working on Rikers

Those who do show up on any given day can’t help but feel the pressure, not just on staffing issues, but all the politics surrounding what’s happening at Rikers Island.

“It’s probably the worst it’s ever been since I’ve been there, to be honest,” one corrections officer told The Riverdale Press, asking their name not be revealed since they still work there.

The lack of enthusiasm for the wok isn’t just because of one event, but rather several that have many in uniform exhausted and stressed out.

“It’s been hard on a lot of us just because there’s been so much we’ve had to deal with,” the officer said. “I mean, I dread going to work just because no one day ever feels like it’s the same.”

The anger felt toward law enforcement since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis more than a year ago hasn’t helped, either.

“I mean, this has all been a long time coming,” the officer said. “For a long time, there have been a lot of rules that were put in place that hindered us from doing our job.”

Rules like keeping physical distance from those incarcerated there, no matter what happens. Putting hands on an inmate — even if they attack first — is now considered an absolute last resort.

“Literally, an inmate can punch you in the face and then put their hands up,” the officer said. “The minute they put their hands up, that’s it. You can’t do anything to them. You have to eat that punch.”

Even solitary confinement has changed, corrections officers say — far more in favor of the inmates than those entrusted to guard them.

“They may get 15 days in the ‘box,’ which is nothing like what you see in the movies,” the officer said. “The ‘box’ now has its own (recreation) room, its own shower, and they even get (computer) tablets with Wi-Fi so they can send emails and messages to friends, play games, or watch movies if they wanted to.

“They have it made.”

But that’s not how Biaggi sees it. During her visit last month, she visited the solitary confinement area, discovering it was anything but. Hundreds of cell doors were broken, allowing prisoners to walk around freely. Others in solitary had functioning doors, but didn’t have running water or working toilets.

“Some of them didn’t have windows,” Biaggi said. “They were actually put into the shower cells sitting in their own feces for days. One of the guys was coughing up blood, and he clearly needed medical attention. He was essentially just being ignored until we brought over one of the guards.”

Biaggi wasn’t born when her grandfather toured Letchworth with Geraldo Rivera, exposing to the world the atrocities they found there. But make no mistake, there is plenty to expose at Rikers, the senator said. And something needs to be done about it — and soon.

“There’s a whole host of outrageous things going on in there,” Biaggi said. “And the fact that it’s taking as long as it has to get going with some kind of remedy of the situation … makes me understand why people are cynical about government. Because it’s a humanitarian crisis.”