PHOTO: Kodi Barth
The 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 streets.
Size: .65 sq. mi. (1.68
Borough:  The Bronx
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 1884.
Current use:  Jail facilities for temporary inmates or those serving city sentences of one year or less.

Source: Inside Rikers, by Jennifer Wynn

A City of Jails
By Kodi Barth

f 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 islands — Rikers.

The 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. 

Perched 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>

New 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.

After 1954, landfill was added to enlarge the area of the island to 415 acres, enabling the jail facilities to expand.

The 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.

wo 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>

It 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.

PHOTO: Courtesy of NYC Department of Correction
The North Infirmary Command, formerly Rikers Island Hospital.

By 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.

A keen 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.

But 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.

In 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

n 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).

North 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.

PHOTO: Jim Crowley
The collapsing lighthouse on North Brother Island.

Despite this history, the average New Yorker who mentions the North Brother Island today knows it for something totally different: its lighthouses.

The island got its lighthouse legend at the beginning of the last century from a 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.

The 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 City.

Both 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."

Need one mention that all these visitors are birds? During the last decade, the city has turned the two islands into bird sanctuaries.

To Top