Since its inception in 1932, the most infamous New York’s jail, Rikers Island, has been a source of controversy due to its history of violence, corruption, unsafe conditions, poor services, and overcrowding, all of which have contributed to public concern.
A number of well-known names have been locked up on Rikers Island, which is scheduled to close within the next six years, alongside violent felons and common thieves during the course of the facility’s history. Hip-hop artists such as Tupac Shakur, DMX, and Lil Wayne have all spent time on Rikers Island, but it was Kalief Browder’s three years behind bars without a trial that was the most unpleasant of their experiences.
The kid, who had been accused of robbery, subsequently committed himself after being released from the Island, having been wrecked by his ordeal in one of the harshest prisons in the United States.
However, even before it became a prison, Rikers Island was a haven for criminals and lawbreakers who were involved in an illicit slave-trading operation.
Judge Richard Riker, the owner of the island in the early 1800s, was a descendant of Abraham Riker (also known as Abraham Rycken), a Dutch immigrant who acquired the land in the 1600s and owned it until selling it to the city in 1884. Judge Richard Riker was a descendant of Abraham Rycken, who acquired the land in the 1600s and owned it until selling it to the city in 1884.
During his ownership of the island in the 1800s, Judge Riker became known for exploiting the Fugitive Slave Act, which was enacted to enable the apprehension and return of fugitive slaves in the United States but was often abused.
During the time period between 1815 and 1838, records show that Riker used his wealth and power as a presiding judge over New York City’s primary criminal court to ensure that African Americans were quickly “deemed fugitive runaway slaves,” denying them the right to a trial to demonstrate that they were in fact free.
According to the Emancipator, a historical abolitionist newspaper, Riker was the leader of a group of officials known as the Kidnapping Club, who “actively collaborated” to both send and sell free blacks in New York who were accused of being fugitives to slaveowners in the South without due process.
The newsletter “Chronicles of Kidnapping,” published by Elizur Wright Jr. in the nineteenth century and cited by history professor Eric Foner, states that members of the club would bring a Black person before Riker, who would quickly issue a certificate of removal before the accused had a chance to bring witnesses to testify that he was actually free.
Foner also brought attention to one of the instances in which free blacks were terrorized under Riker:
In the middle of the night, a slaveowner from North Carolina, Dr. Rufus Haywood of Raleigh, mounted a raid on the home of one Lockley. Although Lockley and his wife, as well as their twelve-year-old daughter, protested that they were free men, they were arrested as fugitives and imprisoned as fugitives, and after a series of hearings before Recorder Richard Riker, they were carried south by Haywood.”
The Emancipator mentions another case in which Riker jailed a little child of seven years old named Henry Schoot after he was hauled out of his elementary school by a slave-owner. The slaveowner claimed that the boy was the property of his deceased father and that ownership had passed to his mother after his father’s death. Despite the fact that the slave-owner failed to provide a will to support his allegations, Riker sentenced the youngster to prison.
Riker’s Island, which carries his name, was utilized as a training location for Union Army battalions during the American Civil War, many years after the atrocities he suffered. City officials purchased the island for $180,000 from the last of the Riker family’s owners on July 3, 1884, when the war was officially declared to be over.
A further 30 years elapsed before officials made the decision to construct a new jail on the island to replace Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary.
Currently, Rivers Island, which has about 10,000 beds and around 95 percent of its inmates who are black or Latino, has come to be known as “the epitome of everything that is wrong with the United States criminal justice system.”
Activists were ecstatic when it was announced last year that the jail complex would be closed and replaced by four smaller jails, one in each of Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. Because of the jail’s poor conditions and a high level of violence among both inmates and correctional officers, activists were pleased.
Earlier, these campaigners had wanted to have the prison’s name changed in order to distance it from the racist past of judge Riker and his colleagues. When it comes to New York City’s connection with slavery, Jacob Morris, the director of the Harlem Historical Society, who spearheaded a campaign to rename Rikers Island, described the jail complex as “the spider at the heart of the web” in his description of the complex.
According to him, “there is absolutely nothing… socially redeeming about Richard Riker.”