The Top 10 Secrets of Rikers Island, NYC’s Main Jail Complex

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Aerial view of Rikers Island. Image via Wikimedia Commons: U.S. Geological Survey

Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex (and the island it sits on), is situated on the East River, between Queens and the Bronx. As one of the largest correctional institutions in the world, the facility is comprised of 10 jails which have a total capacity of nearly 17,000 people – although daily numbers are between 7000 and 9000 .In fact, it has been referred to as the “World’s Largest Penal Colony.” As a jail however, stays are one year or shorter, with a large portion of detainees who can’t afford bail simply awaiting hearings and trials. 60,000 people men and women return home from Rikers Island each year.

For some time, Rikers Island has peaked our interests; so, in 2010, when someone on the Untapped Cities team officially received access inside, we made sure to document the experience as we learned about its secrets hidden beyond the ID checkpoints and X-ray scanners of the facility.

10. Rikers Island Was Built on top of Landfill Garbage

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In 1884, Rikers Island was purchased by the city for $180,000. Although it was originally intended to serve as a work-house, the city eventually expressed a desire to construct a bigger men’s jail on the site. In order to prepare for the facility’s construction, a foundation of garbage, landfill and “street dirt” was dumped on the Island to expand the grounds (and also to save the Street Cleaning Department some effort). In 1924, all barge landfilling operations in New York City was consolidated at Rikers Island, and unlike other city landfills which capped the height of garbage heaps to 10 feet, Rikers Island mounds went higher.

Even after Rikers Island officially opened in 1932, landfill continued to be added to the property until 1943, enlarging the original 90-acre plot of land to its current size of roughly 415 acres. According to Ted Steinberg, author of Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York, 200 acres were also removed from Rikers to help fill in the new North Beach Airport (later renamed LaGuardia Airport).

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