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As long as the City of New York has owned Rikers Island, since the 1880s, it has been a place for the unwanted. For a time, pigs were raised for slaughter there. Not long afterward, the island — conveniently but remotely located in the East River between the Bronx and Queens, not 300 feet from where La Guardia’s runways now sit — was converted to a partial landfill, full of horse manure and garbage. The odor repelled its neighbors in the boroughs, and the refuse attracted a sizable rat population, which the city tried to contain by releasing wild dogs. Instead, the dogs attacked and killed some of the pigs. It took poison gas to kill off the rodents. Next the city moved humans to Rikers.
The first jail on the island opened in 1935, meant to supplement and eventually replace the unimprovable disaster that was the Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) jail, which Time had called, in an exposé, the “world’s worst.” But Rikers never had a pristine moment, even at the start. Before the facility opened, inspectors warned of health hazards occasioned by, among other things, “dump fires,” and the problems that had plagued Blackwell’s — drug use, corrupt correction officers, violence, squalor, gang consolidation — moved upriver almost immediately, and have stubbornly stayed ever since. Today, there are ten jails in total on Rikers, vast parking lots, infirmaries, a power plant, and a barge to combat overcrowding — a persistent difficulty in a facility that holds, on average, more than 9,700 prisoners and sometimes has to squeeze in more than 15,000. Adults and adolescents who are sentenced to less than a year’s time in New York City serve out their punishment on the island. (Those sentenced to longer than a year move upstate, to a state facility.)
Rikers has a kind of notoriety in the popular imagination: The city’s highest-profile defendants, from the Son of Sam to Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Bobby Shmurda, pass through in a cloud of gleeful Post headlines, but so do two-bit weed dealers and shoplifters and the resourceless mentally ill. As do violent criminals. But the vast majority of the island’s residents are very poor and awaiting trial for low-level offenses, unable to afford bail and stuck in a limbo that can last weeks or, thanks to delays in the court system, extend to several years. […]