Book review of Rikers: An Oral History by Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau


I’ve been to Rikers three times. First, as a writer invited in 2009 to talk to some 200 teenagers about my book “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison,” about the time I served for carjacking when I was 16. The second time, more than a decade later, I sat with a group of teenagers who told harrowing stories of the violence there and expressed a desire for something more than what time in a cell offered. My last time, just a few months ago, I returned on behalf of Freedom Reads, the organization I started that builds libraries in prisons to make books available just feet away from the cells and bunks where too many of my friends have spent far so much of their lives.

Each time I’ve crossed the bridge to Rikers Island, I’ve thought about the stories within the concrete and brick and steel that make up the place. The only prevailing truth about Rikers is that life there just gets worse, and that’s a result of something more incomprehensible than the decisions of the staff members who walk in each day with varying commitments to reform, or the choices of incarcerated people who awaken each morning with varying expectations for their own rehabilitation.

In “Rikers: An Oral History,” journalists Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau have collected stories that offer a glimpse of what we’ve long ignored: all the many ways people suffer inside Rikers. Some stories have claimed our attention for brief periods, like the tragedy of Kalief Browder, who was locked up in a jail for teens on Rikers from age 16 to 20 after being accused of stealing a backpack and, after the charges were dropped, hanged himself at 22. But no story has ever been enough — as horrific as each one is — to prompt innovation in prison management as compelling and inspiring as the moon landing. And something as profound as the obsession to get to the moon is needed to fix Rikers. The inability to end the horrors that Rayman and Blau amply reveal seems to be an American failure akin to decades of legal segregation.

Even before opening to the first page, I suspected that an oral history of Rikers would be fraught because of who gets to speak. Would it just be those who suffered? Or would we hear from guards and how they treated people? Then I read the interview of Thomas Cinquemani, a retired correction officer who describes beating an incarcerated man and then putting his head in a toilet and flushing it. “Remember the old James Cagney movies when you see the head in the toilet?” he asks. “I did that too … and flushed it over and over.” And would there be an acknowledgment that for every prisoner sliced with a blade, another prisoner wielded the weapon? “Rikers” answers those questions by demonstrating that there is not a single story of the place. There are at least 1,200 cells in Rikers, formerly known as the House of Detention for Men, and if this book is any evidence, each of those cells has its own bloodstained story. Indeed, these pages are a history of violence. And let’s be clear: The depictions don’t come just from self-interested prisoners, who like any of us would want to get out of this tragedy. The accounts also come from correctional officers and wardens who have sought to do good in the world in a job that has exposed them to the ways we make each other suffer — and in some cases have succumbed.

But “Rikers” is far more than just a collection of the stories of people who have served time there or worked there. Though you may recognize the names of some people once incarcerated at Rikers — such as Yusef Salaam, who was wrongfully convicted as a member of the Central Park Five, and Sadat X, a co-founder of the hip-hop group Brand Nubian — the book is ultimately the story of an institution. These pages, in their purposeful lack of objectivity and their specificity, become, through the sheer number of maddeningly similar tales, more honest than a piece of scholarship might ever be. The cacophony becomes not the story of any particular person but that of the brick and mortar and barbed wire of a disaster built on a garbage dump. (The island was a training ground during the Civil War; later a landfill, after judges prohibited the tossing of trash in the East River; and, finally, a place of confinement.)

There is no dominant narrator here. And though some voices repeat, they form a vast chorus rather than a central cast. Their stories feel less like they belong to them individually, even in their personal horrors, and more like the memories of a broken institution. This is an oral history of the island, as if, not being blessed with speech, it must rely on those who have worked or been held there to tell us what the fuss is all about.

“Rikers” is organized into 30 chapters. Some of the headings are what you’d expect: “Solitary,” “Contraband,” “Riots,” “Race,” “Violence,” but there are many that surprise: “Pregnancy,” “Minister,” “Humanity,” “Covid-19,” “Unions.” Rayman and Blau begin each chapter with some of the most informative and wide-ranging writing on the kaleidoscopic effects of incarceration. They capture the long reach of violence inside the prison in their opening to the chapter on that subject. “It spreads across the landscape,” they observe, “touching the people held in the jails, officers, wardens, commissioners, their aides, relatives, medics, all the way to city hall, down through generations.”

Investigations of the violence, whether it’s prisoner on prisoner or officers on prisoners, face hurdles. Rikers, after all, isn’t only a prison, it’s also a community. As Robert Cohen, former director of the Montefiore Rikers Island Health Services, says, “In a place like Rikers Island, where serious violence is routinized, it’s very hard to have people who know each other investigate and indict each other.” Florence Finkle, a former Department of Corrections deputy commissioner for investigations, notes that the officers’ union took issue with her referring cases of violence against prisoners for criminal investigation.

The violence, as described by those who’ve served time there, is as wildly inventive as it is harrowing. Kenny Gilmore, incarcerated in Rikers in the 1970s, describes conditions so bad that violence seemed the only tenable response: “We fought. They busted our heads; we busted their heads.” A decade later, the conditions hadn’t changed much. “I seen a female officer go up to a female detainee and beat her like she was a man,” says Helen Taylor, who was detained in the 1970s and 1980s. Describing a wild fight in the early ’90s, prisoner Hilton Webb recounts watching a man leap from a tier with two knives. “It was just a melee. It was everybody. There was just knives everywhere,” he says.

“Rikers” is unflinching, like the way the essayist and novelist Yiyun Li describes sociopaths and corpses, and those words, in a sense, apply to the prison. It is a sociopath and a hollowed-out corpse, finding ways to terrorize its denizens and simultaneously decompose around them. This is what I know from my visits to those halls, where water drips from ceilings and bloodied men are escorted in handcuffs to some solitary cell.

There is an absurdity to the implicit consensus and contradiction that runs through these pages: Everyone seems to understand that Rikers cannot continue to exist as it is, while it just keeps on existing. It reminds me of a criticism a friend made of my writing about prison. “You only write about it as if life inside is only ‘Oz,’” he told me, referring to the television series about a fictional maximum-security prison. Maybe he’d believe the same of this review if he’d not died just six months after being paroled after 26 years inside. But maybe not — because while the violence of prison didn’t kill him, I know the accumulation of tragedy and trauma over those years did. Rikers, like so many prisons and jails in this country, compels us to think about the ways it ruins everyone who falls under its shadow.

Glenn E. Martin, who served time at Rikers and later founded JustLeadershipUSA, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, created and helped drive a campaign called #CLOSErikers. While the population at the jail has declined, reforms have been slow in coming. Martin points out that significant change has failed to arrive over many years because the outside community hasn’t adequately heard “the voices of people who are harmed” by the horrors inside. If nothing else, Rayman and Blau’s oral history turns the volume up.

And here’s the thing: If you have any association with Rikers, you know not only the stories you’ve been told, but also the secrets of friends and family that you will never speak. This book is those secrets. That kind of intimacy is hard to evaluate as literature or reporting. But each page demands that you ask: What do I do with this knowledge?

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet, lawyer and founder of Freedom Reads, an initiative to curate libraries and install them in prisons across the country.

By Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau

Random House. 452 pp. $28.99

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