Rikers Island closing down: Everything to know about notorious prison that had a secret cult and housed Son of Sam and Tupac
The prison has attracted a reputation for numerous assaults by inmates on uniformed and civilian staff and has been ranked as one of the worst correctional facilities in the country.
By 2026, New York's most famous jail on Rikers Island - notorious for its neglect and violence -- will close down and be replaced with four smaller jails. The prison has attracted a reputation for numerous assaults by inmates on uniformed and civilian staff and has been ranked as one of the worst correctional facilities in the country. At one point, everyone was strip-searched at Rikers irrespective of their offense. In spite of two lawsuits, the illegal practice was continued. Mentally ill inmates have been known to be frequently beaten by officers.
Salvador Dali was once so taken by the prison and its inmates that he painted a Christ on a cross and donated it to the prison in 1965. It ended up being stolen by prison guards - a conspiracy that was uncovered only in 2003. Three correction officers and an assistant deputy warden were arrested and charged but the painting has never been recovered.
The prison complex has ten jails and houses offenders who are not convicted yet and are awaiting trial or have not been able to afford bail or haven't been given bail by a judge. It is also home to those who have sentences that are shorter than a year and those who are awaiting transfer to another facility.
It is run by the New York City Department of Correction.
Here's everything you need to know about it.
1. It was used as a training ground for the military during the Civil War
The jail is said to be named after Dutch seller Abraham Ryckenm who moved to Long Island in 1683 and whose family owned the Island until 1884. It was sold to the city of New York, and in 1861, the first regiment used the Island for the 9th New York Infantry. It was also used as a garbage dump for many years, housing the city's trash far away from its pristine elite architecture. The initiative to turn the island into a jail stemmed from a need to replace a jail on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island) as early as 1925. It went on to be opened as a jail in 1932 but the island was used as a landfill till 1942.
2. Inmates helped save lives during a 1957 plane crash
By 1957, the La Guardia airport had already been built near Rikers. A Northeast Airlines Flight 823 crashed into the compound - 20 people died and 78 were injured out of the 95 passengers and crew on board. Inmates and the facility personnel helped survivors immediately after the crash; 30 inmates were released and 16 had their prison sentences reduced by 6 months by the parole board for their heroic efforts.
3. From musicians, serial killers and sportspersons, the Island has seen it all
Tupac Shakur, Son of Sam aka David Berkowitz, Lil Wayne, Joe Halderman, Plaxico Burress as well as Mark David Chapman who pleaded guilty to murdering John Lennon - Rikers has had its share of really famous and notorious inmates.
4. It leaks methane
Because it was built on a landfill and garbage dump, the Island is toxic. In a lawsuit filed by 4 cancer-stricken correction officers in 2011, a chemical odor is said to emanate at the facility; smoke plumes so thick that they set off gas detectors in the prison are also said to come out of the ground. The smell is said to cause nausea and vomiting. Former inmate Candie Hailey Means, who was at Rikers for a year, said in an interview from 2016, "The smell alone would torture you. It smells like sewer, mixed with fertilizer, mixed with death.”
5. It had a secret cult
Operated by the guards at the prison, Rikers housed a secret society called 'The Program', which was known for it's brutal, illegal and sadistic operations. Inmates were put into something called 'The Team' which would enforce laws on other inmates. The inmates had to give money and phone credits as compensation to avoid being beaten. This society was exposed after an 18-year-old inmate named Christopher Robinson was murdered in cold blood. The guards are said to have condoned the beatings.