The history of Rikers Island can be traced to the Dutch colonial occupation of modern-day New York City. In the 1630s, the merchant Abraham Rycken legally bought this small island that was pristine and uninhabited. For more than two centuries, the Rycken family held the rights to the land.
During the American Civil War, the island was temporarily utilized to train Union soldiers. After the war, the rapidly growing New York City developed an urgent need for a central correctional network. The Commissioner of Charities and Corrections invested 180,000 dollars in the island which seemed like a great location for a large jail facility.
In the early 1930s, Rikers Island was officially converted into a correctional campus. Many inmates were transferred from the neighboring Roosevelt Island, which is located between Queens and Manhattan. Since then, Rikers Island has rapidly grown into one of the largest facilities of its kind in the United States of America.
For decades, the island has been the subject of great debate among politicians, concerned citizens, and advocacy groups. Modern mainstream media is also responsible for giving the island an infamous reputation.
Location and Geography
As the name implies, Rikers Island is an island that covers just more than 413 acres in the heart of the East River. This waterway serves as a natural barrier between Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan. Quite naturally, plenty of commercial and private marine vessels navigate the water around Rikers Island. However, the boats, barges, and ships are usually mandated to maintain a certain distance away from the jail complex in order to prevent inmates from escaping.
The southern tip of Rikers Island includes a large parking lot that accommodates thousands of vehicles, which are mostly used by employees. It’s estimated that more than 9,000 individuals work at this major correctional institution. Additionally, the parking lots are heavily used by more than 100,000 annual visitors.
When talking about the infrastructure of Rikers Island, it’s important to emphasize that there are 10 different jails in operation. The Otis Bantum Correctional Center, George Motchan Detention Center, and George R. Vierno Center are some notable examples of facilities that are used to hold and process inmates.
For its massive size, Rikers Island doesn’t have a whole lot of outdoor recreational facilities. The industrial-style layout of the jail campus is optimized to contain inmates within set boundaries, which are mostly defined by the East River.
Visiting and Viewing Rikers Island
Visitation to Rikers Island is heavily regulated by the New York City Department of Correction. Visitors are only allowed to see inmates on specific days that are subject to change without notice. The Francis R. Buono Memorial Bridge provides is the only public gateway into the island.
Interestingly, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) buses cross this bridge primarily to serve the jail’s visitors and employees.
If you’d like to view Rikers Island from a distance without too many regulations, there are several great options. Some of the terminals at LaGuardia Airport overlook the southeastern tip of the jail complex. Passengers who use this major airport also have great overhead views of the island upon landing or takeoff. The Hermon A. MacNeil Park in the College Point neighborhood of Queens also offers panoramic perspectives of the eastern portion of Rikers Island.
The Hunts Point district in the Bronx is another great location for spotting the island at a fairly close distance. You could head to Barretto Point Park to see the northern part of Rikers Island. Additionally, the baseball and softball fields at Randall’s Island Park provide a great vantage point for jail development.
Featured image via flickr/reivax