Brutal Island: On Jarrod Shanahan’s “Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage”

May 17, 2022   •   By Abby Cunniff

Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage

Jarrod Shanahan

RIKERS IS A failed project. The jail contributes to neither rehabilitation nor public safety. Hardly a week goes by without a breaking story of brutality on New York City’s penal colony, and reading these stories, an onlooker cannot help but grimace and wonder how this cycle of abuse continues. In response to this current humanitarian crisis, the New York City Department of Corrections has been gathering support for a borough-based jail system. Official planning began in 2017, and promoters of the proposed four new jails argue that facilities spread throughout the city will promote better behavior by guards and incarcerated people alike, providing more windows and more social services.

This jail plan may seem like a reasonable use of $8.3 billion, as it will allegedly solve the problem of understaffing, overcrowding, and failing Rikers facilities. However, Jarrod Shanahan knows firsthand that the plan is not worth its salt; he was a prisoner there in 2016. Shanahan's new book, Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage, is a long, hard look at the role of human cages within New York City politics and the reform efforts that birthed Rikers. His account reads like a page out of L.A. Confidential rewritten with corrupt guards in place of cops, from an unaccounted $2 million discovered posthumously in the safe of the guards’ union president to rebel prisoners at the Manhattan Tombs hanging burning sheets out of windows. Where all other accounts of the Rikers crisis treat it like an aberration, a spectacle, Shanahan unveils that this very spectacle was a crucial element in the transformation of the DOC and its guards’ union into the power players in city politics that they are today. Following in the tradition of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s political economic analysis of mass incarceration, Shanahan shows that the fate of the New York City jail system had high economic stakes, particularly with the 3,000 percent increase in the city’s capital spending for corrections in the second half of the 20th century.

Beyond elucidating how Rikers has influenced municipal politics, Captives asks how jailing contributed to the newest iteration of a racialized social order in New York, which then spread to the rest of the country. This social order rests upon discriminatory housing and employment practices, as well as a city government that uses public budgets to maximize private gains. From his perspective on Rikers looking back at the Manhattan skyline, Shanahan realized that jails are not only a critical component of the city’s social order, but that they are the necessary opposite of New York’s famous destinations. “If you turn over the sanitized spectacle of contemporary Times Square — or Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, Long Island City, and all the rest — you see Rikers.” Jails are “at once a key terrain on which [social] order is inscribed and the grounds where it is contested.” For this reason, prisoners’ political agitation and revolts, the actions of guards to seize and maintain control of their workplace, and the trajectory of liberal reforms tell as much about the social organization of New York City as they do about jail operations.

Beginning with the August 1970 takeover of several floors of the Tombs and continuing on for several months, New York City prisoners revolted, making the connection between the jails’ inhumane conditions on the inside and the political conditions under which policing and incarceration were increasing on the outside. In October of that year, rebelling prisoners in Branch Queens House of Detention succeeded in summoning a city judge to hold bail hearings in the jail’s first floor visiting room, which resulted in the release of 13 people on the spot. This signaled a new high-water mark of prisoner collective action and set the stage for the prison abolitionist calls of today. In all, about 2,700 people held in four different NYC institutions revolted in 1970. These years of collective action were complemented by a series of unbelievable escapes. Most notably, William Morales rappelled out of a third-story window to escape a hospital’s prison ward, in spite of having lost both his hands and an eye in a bomb explosion at the time of his arrest. Shanahan recounts stories of thousands of unaffiliated prisoners, as well as many Black and Puerto Rican militant activists, to illustrate the unremitting resistance to the racialized capitalist order that led to their incarceration in the first place.

These accounts make Captives different. Whereas the popular Blood in the Water by historian Heather Ann Thompson depicts the Attica prison rebellion of 1971 as a push for reforms to prison management, there is no mistaking the aims of the New York City jail uprisings as anything other than a radical critique of the social order. Thompson focuses her history on never-before-seen state documents about the 1971 rebellion and its aftermath; Shanahan grounds his account in prisoners’ biographies and testimonies. To incorporate this source material effectively, Shanahan engages with incarcerated people on a number of levels, including the conditions of their arrest, their political networks, and their personal lives. The two accounts also differ according to underlying political stances of the authors; Thompson exceptionalizes the siege of Attica at the end of the rebellion, whereas Shanahan shows how the violence that holds New York City jails together was built up through guards’ enforcement and administrative reforms over the preceding decades.

Police officers and their unions are known as an integral part of mass incarceration, but the roles of guards and their unions are largely overlooked. The aims of guards are the same as police and most other workers: to remain in control of their workplace without managers telling them how to do their jobs. In New York City, rank-and-file guards used slowdowns, work stoppages, and strikes to block state administrators’ attempts to limit their use of force against prisoners and institute civilian oversight. Although these independent workplace actions often aligned with the goals of the Correctional Officers’ Benevolent Association, guards were also unafraid to step ahead of official bargaining units and union leadership. On August 13, 1990, guards staged a wildcat strike to shut down the bridge to Rikers in response to the limitation of their use of force by courts. When news of a prisoner takeover on Rikers spread to the protest on the Queens side of the bridge the next day, hundreds of guards loaded into vans to join their colleagues in brutalizing the already surrendered prisoners.

California’s carceral history echoes that of New York, from the explicit exchange between the Los Angeles and New York City police departments to the structure and development of respective prison oversight boards. Guiding the deployment of prison construction and administration, the California prison guards’ union, just like its New York counterpart, played a large part in defining the spending and staffing of its agency. However, unlike the workplace militancy in NYC, California’s prison guard union has used its leverage as one of the largest financial contributors to state and local elections. It has lobbied for a range of policies that increase prison sentences, including the infamous “Three Strikes” law.

Rikers was designed as a liberal reform to fix NYC jails, but the DOC was never able to successfully implement social services or civilian oversight of its guards. The legacy of massive public spending on reforming Rikers facilities allowed the DOC officials and guards to argue that a larger jail system held the promise of humane treatment. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the DOC insisted that if they could simply address overcrowding and attain better staffing ratios, they would achieve order in the jails and order in the city. Captives shows that the DOC will never solve the problems on Rikers. Their outsize role in the public budget only exacerbates the city’s racist and exploitative economic system. To fix Rikers, you have to fix New York.


Abby Cunniff is a PhD student at University of California, Santa Cruz.