Q101 bus approaching Rikers Island, in the background.
Population: Approximately 15,000 inmates.
Two-thirds of inmates are pretrial detainees who have
been charged with, but not convected of, a crime.
Directions: Take the Steinway Transit Corporation
Bus marked "Q101 Rikers Island" located
on the south side of Queens Plaza between 27th and 28th
Size: .65 sq. mi. (1.68 sq.km.)
Origin of current name: Named after Abraham
Rycken, a Dutch settler who moved to Long Island in
1638 and whose descendants owned Rikers Island till
Current use: Jail facilities for temporary
inmates or those serving city sentences of one year
City of Jails
By Kodi Barth
you know of a criminal suspect denied
bail by a New York court, or one who can't post bail, or one
who is simply waiting for an empty bed in an upstate prison, chances
are the person is serving time on one of New York's lesser-known
island, half the size of Central Park, is the heart of New York
City's jail system. On average, 15,000 inmates are held daily on
Rikers' 10 jails. That is more than seven times the population of
Maine's entire state prison system and more than the size of prison
systems in 35 other states.
on the East River off the southern edge of the Bronx, Rikers Island
originally covered 87 acres of land and belonged to the Ryker family.
The Rykers were descendants of Abraham Rycken, a Dutch settler who
moved to Long Island in 1638. <Click
here to see a timeline of Rikers history>
York City bought the island from the Ryker family in 1884 for $180,000
and used it as a jail farm. During the Civil War, the island was
used as a training ground for African-American regiments. And in
1932, the city opened a jail for men there to replace its dilapitated
one on Blackwell's (now Roosevelt) Island.
1954, landfill was added to enlarge the area of the island to 415
acres, enabling the jail facilities to expand.
original penitentiary building, completed in 1935, is now a maximum
security facility called James A. Thomas Center. The North Infirmary
Command, once called the Rikers Island Hospital, is used to house
inmates requiring extreme protective custody, as well as some regular
inmates. The rest of the facilities, all built in the last 67 years,
make up this city of jails.
of these are floating jails. Originally Staten Island ferries, the
two floating detention centers are docked off the northern tip of
Rikers Island. Each of them has an inmate capacity of 162 and serves
as an annex to one of the other jails on the island.
<Click here to see a photo tour of Rikers Island>
is often called Gotham City or Land of Darkness, but as New York
City's jail system has grown over the decades, Rikers Island has
become something of a small town. There are schools, medical clinics,
ball fields, chapels and mosques, gyms, drug rehab programs, grocery
stores, barbershops, a bakery, a laundry, a power plant, a track,
a tailor shop, a print shop, a bus depot and even a car wash. Daytime
population including jailers, employees and visitors
can be as large as 20,000.
Courtesy of NYC Department of Correction
North Infirmary Command, formerly Rikers Island Hospital.
most measures, Rikers Island is the largest jail facility in the
United States. Although technically part of the Bronx, the
island is best viewed and entered from Queens, to which it is connected
via the Rikers Island Bridge. Before 1966, when a 4,200-foot-long
three-lane bridge was built from Queens, the only way to Rikers
was a ferry from the Bronx.
commuter on the M60 bus, which runs from Harlem to LaGuardia Airport,
can catch a glimpse of the jail that lies just north of the runways.
And air passengers are treated to a view of the island that is officially
off limits to the public.
if Rikers has quietly spent decades away from New York's buzz, a
couple of recent incidents have catapulted it into public scrutiny.
First, a celebrated $175,000 Salvador Dali painting was stolen from
a double-locked case and replaced with a fake last February.
the same month, Rikers' three-star chief, Anthony Serra, 42, was
led into a Bronx courthouse in handcuffs on a string of criminal
charges. Among other things, he allegedly forced subordinates to
volunteer on Gov. Pataki's 2002 re-election campaign, while he reaped
nearly a quarter of a million dollars from it on top of his
$127,000 annual salary from the city. He has since been indicted
on 81 state counts.
North Brother and South Brother Islands
island in the eastern arm of the East River, at the entrance to
Long Island Sound, North Brother Island has an area of 20.5 acres
and is part of the Bronx. The Dutch called the island and the neighboring
South Brother Island the Gezellen (companions).
Brother Island was in private hands until it was purchased in 1871
by the Town of Morrisania. A tuberculosis hospital built there by
the Sisters of Charity closed in 1885 when New York City took possession
of the island to build a hospital for the treatment of infectious
diseases. Riverside Hospital was later used as a drug rehabilitation
center before closing in 1964. In 1970, the city put the island
up for sale.
collapsing lighthouse on North Brother Island.
this history, the average New Yorker who mentions the North Brother
Island today knows it for something totally different: its lighthouses.
island got its lighthouse legend at the beginning of the last century
tragedy. On June 15, 1904, the excursion ship "General
Slocum" was on a leisurely afternoon cruise when it burned.
It was New York's greatest maritime disaster. When the fire broke
out the captain headed for North Brother Island, drawn there by
a lighthouse that served captains of the harbor who sailed through
Hell's Gate from 1869 to 1953. People on the island assisted in
the rescue of hundreds of passengers, but panic set out among those
on board, and more than 1,000 lives were lost.
The remains of the lighthouse are still there, visible from the
northeast shore of Randall's Island.
North Brother's sibling, South Brother Island, has an area of seven
acres and is part of Queens. The island was once owned by the brewer
Jacob Ruppert, who built a summer home there in 1894. It was destroyed
by fire in 1907. The last private owner of the island was a sand
company. Now densely overgrown, the island is owned by New York
North and South Brother islands are accessible basically to those
who "fly" with the right crowd. The islands are regularly
filled with diverse visitors, who arrive in large groups in search
of food, conversation and that special "someone."
one mention that all these visitors are birds? During the last decade,
the city has turned the two islands into bird sanctuaries.