We Both Were Incarcerated at Rikers Island. Now We’re Discussing Its History.

Two years ago, the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings started, mainstream politicians are pushing a fear-based law and order politics. In this precarious moment, Jarrod Shanahan’s new book Captives This is more urgent than ever. The book traces the history of post-war New York City through the lens of the city’s jails, focusing largely on the notorious Rikers Island jail. Shanahan demonstrates, using extensive research, how the facility became what it is today. Shanahan covers 448 pages and covers jail rebellions and city politicking. Shanahan also discusses the dismantling and reorganization of the welfare system. Finally, Shanahan describes the rise in police and guard unions that are reactionary political entities.

Shanahan knows Rikers well. He served 30 days there in 2016; Shanahan was his friend. I met him as I was about to start my own one-year sentence in Rikers in 2019. We kept in touch through my sentence and have remained in contact ever since. Here, I interview him about Captives, and what this history means in light of the city’s plan to replace Rikers with new jails designed under “progressive” ideals, the looming threat of a federal takeover, and our personal experiences as captives there.

David Campbell: Tell us about your writing and research processes for this book.

Jarrod Shanahan: This project began when I went on Amazon and typed in “Rikers Island history book” and nothing came up. I wanted to understand the history and social context of this terrible place I was sent to. It is difficult to process when you leave.

It is also important to emphasize the importance of archival research, even though this was a complicated undertaking. Documentation was often done from the perspective of jail administrators or their aides in city government. It’s also easy to mistake the information that you have with all of the information [that exists]. But archival work is essential for putting together the basic skeleton of how an institution came to be and how it’s changed over time, and it’s getting easier and easier as a lot of this material gets digitized.

Speaking with those who were there is another important aspect. I understand there’s an oral history of Rikers coming out. I can’t wait to read it!

I am amazed at how little I know about Rikers. As a scholar, do you ever feel that way?

Oh, definitely. That was exactly what I felt when I finished this book, and specifically when I was talking to you about it. You were locked up.

Right. You were working on Captives While I was serving my sentence we spoke about Rikers.

Yeah. One of the most humbling conversations we had was because I had collected documentation about a number disturbances in prisoners and thought I had a coherent thesis on how they were connected. Then, when we published your article in Hard Crackers about the strike that you helped organize around COVID conditions in Rikers, I told you, “Man, this is so amazing, what you did.” And right away you said, “This stuff happens all the time at Rikers.” So that was a reminder to me that the vast majority of the history that I was writing about, I don’t actually know. It is hard to remember a lot of it.

One of the most amazing things about Captives My favorite part was the history of jail rebellions I was able to uncover and how they were often successful, even getting total amnesty. The same goes for guards, who have been able to get away with some horrific things and are rarely punished. Every once in awhile, someone gets an administrative slap on their wrist.

Every once in while, yes.

However, both guards as well as prisoners are refusing to follow the rules in large part Often, it is pure insurrection It has been a success.

There’s an old saying: “direct action gets the goods.”

Another thing that struck me was how reactionary, nefarious and petty COBA was. [the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the main DOC guards’ union]It was.

A prison scholar is no less than Heather Ann Thompson has writtenThe potential allies of guard unions in the fight against mass imprisonment are actually guard unions. I tried to paint a clear picture of the political reactionary role of guards/cops in our society. This includes how they have been instrumental with pushing for and strengthening the entire social system in which mass imprisonment is such an important part. There’s an even more pernicious tendency to view guards and cops in their workforces as simply an amalgamation of individual people. And it’s very much true that these institutions are comprised of individuals who might, in their interpersonal behavior and sometimes even at work, diverge from the overall political function of the organization. These are nevertheless coherent political power blocs. They serve very clear social functions and pursue clearly defined goals that are opposed the dignity or safety of most of those they police and protect.

Like most prisoners in Rikers, most Rikers staff members are working-class black people. They often come from the exact same communities. Do you think that telling themselves they’re serving some higher social good functions as a kind of coping mechanism for some guards?

I think it is best to view the workforce of cops and security guards as remarkably ordinary people who do jobs that shouldn’t exist and transform them over time. It’s an interesting case study in how social being determines consciousness. The majority of young people who go to prison and become prison guards do it because it is the most appealing option out of a small number of alternatives. And guards at Rikers, for instance, refer to the 20 years that they must serve before collecting a partial pension as their “20-year sentence.”

You often hear them chatting to each other about how much time they have left…

Yeah. There’s even a popular saying, “Hired in my 20s, retire in my 40s — can’t touch that.” This is the pervasive ideology around the job among rookies: I’ve gotten this lucrative job that’s going to build a secure future, and all I need to do is suffer through it. Law-and-order ideology tends be later.

So, when they say they’re just doing their jobs, that’s not wrong, just irrelevant. Some of them end up really believing that they’re taking care of prisoners, who would be in Rikers anyway, or that they’re dangerous and need to be separated from society. And none of that’s true.

You went on strike at Rikers, which directly contributed towards the mass releaseYou were one of more than 1,500 people in a social experiment which demonstrated that at least 1,500 people do not belong there. We saw this in 1983 in a similar mass release, which I wrote about in detail. CaptivesLocal right-wing newspapers were obsessed in finding wrongdoings by released prisoners to prove they shouldn’t be allowed out. And to my knowledge, there isn’t very much to that effect at all.

Statistically, 13 percentSeveral were remanded in the months that followed, but very few were for serious crimes. But we’re still locking people up.

I found great inspiration from the No New Jails campaign that was launched in New York City a few decades ago. [which sought not only to close Rikers, but also to stop the construction of the new borough-based jails and redirect that funding to investing in communities in order to promote permanent decarceration]. The campaign didn’t succeed in stopping the jails, but it was a small activist campaign, composed of people working in their spare time, lacking the mountains of foundation money that propped up the pro-new-jail side, and it was taken seriously by many New Yorkers as an alternative. It’s easy to get demoralized when you lose, but my primary takeaway from this campaign was that there’s a potentially large audience for abolitionist ideas.

The Nunez monitor, a court-appointed federal oversight board arising out of a 2011 lawsuit about Rikers’ use of force against prisoners, was relatively new when you visited Rikers in 2016. Security cameras were just beginning their appearance. In 2019-2020 cameras were all around, and they even started to offer bodycams near the end my sentence.

Nunez was not the first to use cameras. Cameras were previously required for high-risk activities. As the Department of Justice shows, guards can be skilled at concealing violence or making it disappear entirely. The guards had plenty of time to prepare for the advent cameras. They are the latest addition to a long list of reformers who have documented abuses in city jails. Before that, there were many written reports from monitors, city officials and sometimes guards. And what were they worth? I was able, for example, to reconstruct two violent staff riots in 1986 and 1990 in incredible detail. The prison scholar Abby Cunniff hit me up and said, “Come on, Jarrod. How did you know that it was drizzling outside?” It was because these events generated mountains of detailed paperwork, investigations, internal reports, responses to the reports, in which all kinds of ranking members of the department and respected civilian overseers, in addition to the prisoners themselves, presented a similar picture of widespread brutality, the kind of violence that if a normal person meted that out in their day-to-day life, they would be going to prison for a long time. And almost nothing happened.

Yeah, a lot of guards would say “We’re making a movie,” in regards to the cameras, when they performed a perfunctory pat frisk or something.

One guard told me in 2016, “I have two Academy Awards at home.” Meaning he could act compellingly for the cameras and justify his actions later. I think that the guards like this, who told us that they weren’t worried about the cameras, should be taken at their word.

We both spent time at the Eric M. Taylor Center, or EMTC, which was designed as the flagship facility of penal welfarism at the height of a progressive golden age in New York, and under the stewardship of Commissioner Anna Kross, a devoted local champion of “humanitarian incarceration” and prison reform. We both know firsthand that EMTC is, in layperson’s terms, a shithole.

That’s an academic term, actually [laughs].

One thing surprised me was this: Captives It was amazing how quickly it took to get there. Three years later, none of the progressive policies that Commissioner Kross had envisioned were being implemented. The place was already in a terrible state.

You see a lot of the same arguments being made today in New York, about repurposing jails as “sites of civic unity,” as [Judge Jonathan] Lippman They call them, and all the rest. If this was ever going to happen, it would’ve happened in the 1950s and ’60s under Kross, for a number of reasons. There was a remarkable bipartisan consensus in crime and punishment. The city had a lot of money for public welfare spendings. And there was a more progressive political climate, not just in the region but all over the country.

What about the possibility for Rikers to be taken over by the federal government? receivership? There’s been a lot of buzz latelyThe possibility of this last-resort legal tactic in which a court-appointed body assumes control over an institution unable manage its own affairs to effect positive change at Rikers.

Through a series of federal lawsuits the city has been given a set timeline to ensure that it meets the constitutional minimum standards for care in its jails. This has been done almost continuously since the early 1970s. There’s no reason to expect that the local monitors or the federal government will have any more luck enforcing their will than their predecessors. The guards have too much power and there’s no counterpower willing to oppose them, including the federal judiciary. We cannot be saved by technocrats and bureaucrats. For me, this brings to mind the need to build collective power capable to pushing back.

The subtitle of your book is “How Rikers Island took New York City hostage.” On the one hand, it means very literally holding large numbers of New Yorkers captive. It also means the current arrangement, which is held up as inexplicable, prevents us finding any meaningful way to move towards decarceration.

Yeah, it should be clear after at least 50 years of law-and-order politics that it’s actually not making things any better. This social order has also done a good job of presenting itself simultaneously as the only possible option. The solution to violence is more of a similar social constellation that created violence in the first instance. So, we are effectively held captive.