News & Regional

Day One at Rikers Island



Photo: Esquire

People who work, visit, and serve time at the notorious “House of Dead Men” never forget the horrors of their first day. Here, they tell Esquire about fighting for their lives behind bars.

There’s only one way to get on Rikers Island and one way to get off—a narrow, forty-two-hundred-foot-long bridge spanning a part of the East River.

At the ribbon cutting in 1966, Mayor John Lindsay called it the “Bridge of Hope”.

Forty years later, in 2006, the rapper Flavor Flav dubbed it the “Bridge of Pain”.

Purchased from the Rikers family in 1884 for $180,000 (about $5.1 million today), it began life in the nineteenth century as a motley assortment of jails and “workhouses,” or debtors’ prisons.

Using fill from the construction of the Manhattan street grid, the city expanded the island from 87 acres to roughly 415 acres.

It was also a massive garbage dump.

Residents of Hunts Point in the Bronx could smell it from their homes a mile away, and Upper East Siders could easily see the flames from the burning of mountains of trash.

Enormous clouds of rats populated the dump to the point where they challenged dogs, and humans, for control of the island.

Even today, Rikers remains landfill to a depth of roughly ten feet, based on borings conducted in 2009.

“They drilled a bunch of holes and all ten feet were garbage, mixed sand with pieces of glass and brick, pieces of wood—everything you can imagine that would be thrown away as materials from a construction site was in there,” explained Dr. Byron Stone, research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

The first jail at Rikers, in the modern understanding of the place, was born in the spirit of reform.

In July 1928, seven years after Vincent Gilroy’s broadside, the city fathers unveiled their plan for the Rikers Island Penitentiary.

The New York Times described it as a model prison that would correct the evils of the past.

The inscription, placed in 1933, read, “Those who are laying this cornerstone today . . . hope that the treatment which these unfortunates will receive in this institution will be the means of salvaging some lives which would otherwise have been wasted.”

As the decades passed, this purported icon of penology became a forbidding place indeed.

Detainees were thrown or jumped from the upper tiers to their deaths, so those floors had to be closed.


Violence ruled.

And over time, it became known by the jailed as the “House of Dead Men”.

But the city stuck with Rikers as the place to … [ keep reading on Esquire ]


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