Published June 21, 2022
It’s known as one of the most violent prisons in the US. But does Rikers Island really deserve this unfortunate reputation?
Sitting between the Bronx and Queens, Rikers Island is New York’s largest and most famous prison complex. It wasfirst used as a military training ground, then it became a dumping site, and now a place of incarceration.
For most of the 20th century and well into the present, the prison had consistently made headlines – usually for bad reasons. Aside from its brutal living conditions, the prison also gained notoriety for its incidents of violence.
That’s why reports about violence in Rikers Island aren’t really news for most New Yorkers. For years, they’ve been listening to stories of prison riots, inmate suicides, inmates attacking jail officers, and vice versa.
Though, in recent years, the spate of violence on the island has seemingly increased. So much so that plans of closing down the prison complex are already underway.
So just how violent is Rikers Island?
To give you an idea, let’s look at some statistics.
Rikers Island Violence Statistics
Not all incidents of violence on Rikers Island make it to the official statistics. But those that do paints a grim picture.
In 2019, figures show that violence between inmates averaged 69.5 incidents per month for every 1,000 prisoners. Of these, about 2.5 resulted in serious injuries. While incidents of inmates attacking staff were up to 12.6 for every 1,000 prisoners.
Statistics of officers being violent towards inmates were also high. The prison recorded a total of 6,670 such incidents for 2019 alone or about a 30% increase from the previous year. Most of those were against adolescent inmates.
In 2020, incidents of violence against inmates by prison guards rose by 54%, almost double that of the previous year. While inmates who suffered from serious injuries inflicted by other inmates skyrocketed by 284%. There were also a total of 123 recorded slashing and stabbing incidents.
However, many agree that 2021 might be the island prison’s most violent year yet. The pandemic and long lockdowns have severely affected the mental health of both inmates and prison officers.
From January to September alone, there were already 2,113 recorded total incidents of inmates assaulting staff. This averages to about eight assaults on staff every day. Inmate-to-inmate violence has also risen and at least 12 inmates have died. Five of these deaths were ruled as suicide.
Because of this, a large number of prison staff have refused to go to work. Some refused to be assigned inside Rikers while others didn’t show up altogether. Predictably, this only worsened the incidents of violence. Some reports even claimed that entire sections of the jail are now run by prisoners because no guards are on duty.
Why is Rikers Island So Bad?
There are a number of reasons why the violence in Rikers Island has gotten to where it is today. This includes:
1. Culture of Abuse
One of the main reasons often pointed to as the root cause of all this violence is the prison’s culture of abuse of its prisoners. In fact, Rikers Island isn’t a stranger to class action lawsuits from prisoners who suffered terrible abuses from within its walls.
Two lawsuits were filed against the prison for its policy of strip-searching those arrested on misdemeanor charges. Despite the court ruling the practice illegal on both occasions, the strip searches still continued.
But strip searches are just the tip of the iceberg.
Sexual assaults are also very common in this island prison. One of the most violent incidents of sexual assault in Rikers happened in 2008.
One morning, prison staff found a woman inmate lying on her back on the floor of her cell. Bedsheets were wrapped around her mouth, neck, and legs. She was also blindfolded. The woman claimed that someone entered her cell, bound and gagged her, then sexually assaulted her.
Complaints of police brutality in Rikers are also dime a dozen. Stories of officers beating or assaulting inmates are so numerous that they triggered a two-and-a-half-year civil rights investigation. Investigators found that not only are officers beating inmates but that there’s also a “code of silence” among them. Meaning, whatever brutality is committed within the prison stays within those prison walls.
All these abuses breed hatred and animosity on both sides which, in turn, lead to escalated violence.
According to reports, about 40% of all those incarcerated on Rikers Island are suffering from mental disorders. In short, the island prison has become New York’s de facto mental health care facility. Despite this, they have a virtually non-existent mental health program.
With all these people suffering from mental health issues confined together in a single place and not receiving any kind of help, trouble is inevitable.
5. Lack of Prison Staff
This isn’t really so much as a total lack of prison staff but more of a shortage of staff who are willing to work at Rikers. As mentioned, in 2021, many correctional officers hired by the city refused to go to work because of the rising violence committed against prison staff. And because of the city’s policy of “unlimited sick leave”, they can’t force these people to go to work.
With no people willing to man the prisons, the inmates have become emboldened. Prison gangs have started to control entire sections of the prison, riots have also become more frequent, and inmate attacks against prison officers have skyrocketed.
All these incidents and stories of violence cemented Rikers Island’s reputation as one of the most dangerous prisons in the US. Now that the city has started constructing a new prison complex, we can only hope that this culture of violence ends in Rikers.
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About The Author
Judy Ponio is a professional writer and SEO specialist. She works hard to ensure her work uses accurate facts by cross checking reputable sources. She is the lead author for several prominent websites covering a variety of topics including law, health, nutrition, and more.