A Former Inmate Reviews an Oral History of Riker's IslandHistorians in the News
tags: criminal justice, prisons, Mass Incarceration, Jails, Rikers Island
John J. Lennon is beginning his 22nd year of a sentence of 28 years to life at Sullivan Correctional Facility. He is a contributing editor at Esquire and a 2023 Galaxy Leader Fellow.
Rikers: An Oral History GRAHAM RAYMAN AND REUVEN BLAU, RANDOM HOUSE
For the past 21 years, I’ve been locked up, mostly in maximum-security prisons: Clinton, Attica, Sing Sing, and now Sullivan, in the Catskills. But before my sentencing, I spent a few years on New York City’s Rikers Island. That period, and the year I did on the island as a teenager, was, by far, the most brutal.
You go to prison after you get sentenced. You go to a jail, like the ones housed in the sprawling mega-complex on Rikers, after you’re arrested and denied bail or can’t afford it. Jail is a tension-filled place, with months-long stretches between court dates, hours of nothingness, clashes over who’s next on the phone or who didn’t get extras on chicken day. What makes jail so hard is not knowing what is to become of you.
Rikers is a whole island filled with people at the worst point in their life. In their new book, Rikers: An Oral History, Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau reveal that the jail robs something from the people who live and work there. Through themed topical chapters—“Bullpen Therapy,” “Race,” “Gangs,” “Mental Health”—the authors create a vivid picture of what life on the island is like. What becomes clear is that the people aren’t what makes it bad—the environment is.
There are specific elements, unique to Rikers, that make it so unbearable. For one, it’s an entire island devoted to housing the city’s undesirables. A narrow bridge (which Mayor John Lindsay christened the “bridge of hope,” and the rapper Flavor Flav more accurately called the “bridge of pain”) is the only way on or off the island, which makes traveling to it so difficult that lawyers, even ones you’re paying, won’t visit you much. And the facilities include mostly makeshift trailers, built for temporary housing, with corridors that stretch out into long, eerie hallways. But it’s the general atmosphere of Rikers, with its mythic reputation of being the most dangerous place to be detained in America, that most affects the psyche.
I was first sent to Rikers in 1995, at the age of 18, after I got caught with a gun. After violating my probation, I wound up serving a year in a jail for teens: C-74, which we called “adolescents at war.” On my first day, a group of Ñetas (a Puerto Rican gang) beat me up after I refused to give them my sneakers. As a white boy, I was the minority in C-74; the sick paradox was that I felt safe only when I acted violently.
I got out at 19, but landed back on the island after I shot and killed a man on a Brooklyn street at 24. This time, I spent two and a half years there, before I was eventually found guilty and sentenced to 28 years to life. In 2004, cuffed and shackled in the back of a bus—about 40 of us—being transported upstate to prison, I felt relieved. Leaving Rikers feels like a better chapter of your life is about to begin—even if that next chapter is a prison sentence.
I was hesitant when I first came across Rayman and Blau’s book. The authors are tabloid reporters who cover the jail complex, usually from afar, and I’m skeptical of journalists who seldom immerse themselves in the worlds they write about. Rayman and Blau don’t offer a clear explanation for why we need another book about Rikers right now, but the stories they include prompted me to find my own reasons for the book to exist. And, to be fair to the authors, they spoke with about 130 people with experiences on the island: corrections officers, wardens, commissioners, activists, lawyers, loved ones of the incarcerated, and people who have been locked up there, including some with whom I’ve served time. Rendering opposing voices next to one another allows the reader to levitate over and experience Rikers from different viewpoints. Even as someone who has witnessed, firsthand, many of the things that the authors write about, I appreciated the juxtaposed perspectives, which capture the complexity of life on the island.