Posted by JR Olson | Posted in History | Posted on 27-03-2015
Rycken Family’s Island in New York
The Rikers, originally the Rycken family, were a prominent Dutch family that settled in colonial New York in 1638. During the Civil War the island was used by the Union Army as a training ground for African American soldiers preparing to fight the Confederate forces. The small island was a convenient place to keep the black soldiers separated from the city’s population and keep tensions to a minimum while they prepared to fight and die for their country. The Riker family sold its 87 acre island to the city of New York for $180,000 in 1884. The island is located in the East River just off the south end of the Bronx.
Riker’s Island Put to Use
New York City expanded the island to 415 acres with landfill and began building a jail that opened in 1935. The jail started out small, but over time the facilities expanded to ten separate jails as well as numerous support facilities including bakeries and boat units. Two of the ten jails are actually former Staten Island Ferry boats moored to the island that have been transformed into floating jails to ease the overcrowding in the other jails. On a given day the jails hold as many as 15,000 inmates either serving sentences or waiting for court dates. Including guards, employees and visitors the island can swell to as many as 20,000 people. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City inmates in the laundry department pitched in by washing sheets and blankets used by people staying at nearby shelters who had fled their homes.
Colorful City Landmark
New Yorkers often refer to the jail complex as Gotham City or as Land of Darkness. These descriptive nick names are fitting considering the colorful bunch of characters that have been guests at Riker’s Island. Perhaps the most famous resident of the jail was Mark David Chapman, the man who murdered John Lennon in cold blood outside his apartment. David Berkowitz, the serial killer also known as the Son of Sam, stalked and killed several New Yorkers in a gruesome reign of terror reportedly because a dog told him to. Punk rocker front man Sid Vicious spent some time at Riker’s when he was a suspect in the stabbing death of his girlfriend. Another musician, one Tupac Shukar, also spent time at the jail after being implicated in a shooting that resulted in the death of a little boy.
Riker’s Island and Popular Culture
The jail has appeared in a number of movies over the years such as the Al Pacino crime drama “Carlitos Way.” It is probably best known on television for the numerous times it is mentioned on episodes of the long running police procedural “Law and Order.” As a sign of the times, interested people can browse online comments about the Rikers jail facility on the popular review site called “yelp.” The reviews are written by a cross section of people including inmates, visitors and lawyers. A wide range of opinions are presented, but perhaps somewhat surprisingly, some of the inmates post decent reviews of Riker’s guards, facilities and even the food. Rikers has become more than just a city jail, it has become historical landmark in its own right.
Angelo Shepherd is a freelance writer based in Albany, NY. In addition to prison history, Angelo writes on criminal law, personal injury law, sentencing guidelines, bail bonds and other related issues; to learn more about the latter visit 24/7 services from Garza Bail Bonds.