It was once a pit for pigs, then for toxic waste that to this day burps poisonous gas.
But it wasn’t until Rikers Island was crammed with 10,000 humans that it earned the nickname ‘Hell on Earth’.
New York City’s controversial institution, which opened in 1932, is the second-largest in the US after LA County, with 413 acres and nine jail houses.
It has come to represent the fundamental flaws of America’s justice system at large, with a high proportion of minorities, unreported violence, and no functional system to reintegrate inmates after their release.
The vast majority of inmates (85 percent) have not been convicted of a crime, but cannot afford to post bail as they await trial. Most (90 percent) are black or Hispanic. Almost half (40 percent) are mentally ill. Some are under 18, many are women, dozens are born in the on-site nursery.
The jail also has one of the highest rates of mental illness among inmates, and the stifling conditions have been slammed in medical reports as life-threateningly dangerous. The broken system is ironically reflected in its broken walls, cracking as the ground – made from decomposing landfill – struggles to withstand the East Coast’s temperamental weather.
Rikers Island, the second-largest jail complex in the US, has come to represent the fundamental flaws of America’s justice system, with a high proportion of minorities, unreported violence, and no functional reintegration system. Photojournalist Tomas Mantilla has captured the uneasy transition from inside to outside. Pictured: Terrell Henley going to his home in Queens on March 4, 2016, after being released. He spent one and a half months inside. He said he spent the first five nights sleeping on hard floor with no food or water, and it was raining inside. He was eventually bailed out for $200,000
Tanae Jordan, 27, emerged fuming after she was released from Rikers. ‘A CO slammed me against the wall and cracked my tooth,’ she told Mantilla, pushing her mouth into the lens, lifting her lip, and flashing the damage
A proportion of the inmates do warrant jail time; some end up with years in state prison. But most politicians, both Republican and Democrat, agree that thousands should never have ended up there in the first place.
One incident in particular has brought Rikers back into the national conversation: the death of 22-year-old Kalief Browder in 2015.
Browder was sent to Rikers at the age of 16 for the baseless accusation that he had stolen a backpack. He spent three years there – two in solitary confinement – waiting for a trial which never happened. A year after his release, he hung himself in his mother’s home. His death made national headlines, and prompted President Obama to slam Rikers’ brutal conditions, banning solitary confinement for juvenile inmates.
Kalief became a face for every person that claims to have been robbed of their life, childhood, happiness and freedom because of baseless accusations and a stubborn system.
But who are the other Kaliefs? This unflinching collection of never-before-seen-photos offers a glimpse.
Photojournalist Tomas Mantilla has spent more than a year chronicling the lives of people in their first few months post-Rikers.
A 16-year-old father-of-one who can’t lift his gaze from the floor; an innocent 65-year-old Vietnam veteran who was the victim of mistaken identity but struggled for a year to clear his name; a young man whose family didn’t know where he was being held for a month.
One bleak image lays bare the absence of any attempt to re-integrate former inmates: a woman jailed for doing crack – who makes a beeline straight from the island to her dealer in West Harlem after being released.
Most Rikers inmates (85 percent) have not been convicted of a crime, but stay there to await trial as they cannot afford to post bail. Pictured: Five men ride the Q100 bus from Rikers Island on February 13, 2016. Left to right: Mohamed Ali Sha, 43; Rando Arison, 29; Kern Isaac, 21; Alfredo Gonzales, 36; and Luis Marino, 33. All of them were released after posting bail
A woman, who preferred not to give her name, on the Q100 bus to Queens on April 1, 2016, after being released from Rikers Island. She said she didn’t eat for four days, since she was a vegetarian and there were no meat-free options. Her lips are cracked from malnutrition. ‘They treat us like dogs, they don’t give us anything to eat,’ she told Mantilla
‘THE OVEN’: WHY SCIENTISTS SAY THE SWELTERING HEAT ON RIKERS IS LIFE-THREATENING
In August 2013, Susi Vassallo of New York University published a damning report of the jail’s environmental conditions.
Vassallo, a clinical professor in the department of Emergency Medicine, concluded Rikers Island posed a ‘serious health threat’ that was ‘unsafe for inmates’.
In short, she concluded: ‘Cardiovascular diseases worsen in such temperatures, death rates in individuals with underlying diseases increase in hot temperatures.’
If New York’s summer weather is notoriously hot, Rikers’ conditions are another level. Known as ‘The Oven’, hundreds of thousands of inmates have claimed the summer heat inside has driven them to contemplate suicide.
As of 2013, the majority of complexes on the island did not have air conditioning units.
The smell is also notorious – a combination of gasses from the landfill Rikers sits on, the on-site power station, and the five power stations across the river in Queens.
Medical experts credit the sweltering, gassy conditions with driving up asthma rates among inmates to around 10 percent of the population.
Speaking exclusively to Daily Mail Online, Mantilla explained he started the project in 2015 out of sheer curiosity to understand the institution which is shrouded in so much controversy, but restricted from view.
‘No one outside of Rikers knows what’s going on in there,’ Mantilla explained. ‘No journalists get access with a camera. There are some photo of the walls, fences, barbed wire, but they don’t show you the sinister soul of this place; what’s really happening.
‘For this to exist in New York is shameful – and the fact that nobody has been able to reform it says a lot.
‘New York wants to be a modern, liberal and free city. But you can’t just put all the s*** in the back yard – chuck it on an island and expect the problems to go away.
‘Violence inside is deep-rooted, and when people come out there are no programs for reintegration.
‘New York really has to come to terms with the past of Rikers if we want to tackle racism, violence and crime in the city.’
Until recently, Rikers didn’t appear on the subway map. It sits well within the frame, nestled between Queens and the Bronx. But the water cutting it off from society means it is natural and easy for New Yorkers to push it out of sight, out of mind.
That isolation is one of the biggest factors in political discussions today about whether Rikers Island could or should be closed down.
A decade ago, Martin F Horn, then the commissioner of the city’s Department of Corrections, tabled a then-controversial suggestion that Rikers be shut down, replaced with newly-built centers in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
Most city politicians agree with the first part. There is bipartisan agreement that closing Rikers would do away with the jail’s excessive and un-managed budget, while relieving the city of a violence breeding ground.
But even current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio – who thrives in promising New Yorkers that he can achieve the impossible – has dismissed the idea as ‘a noble concept’ but marred by ‘logistical issues’.
‘The problem is, it would cost many billions of dollars, and I have to look out for what’s feasible and I have to look out for the taxpayer,’ he told reporters last year.
And shifting inmates into neighborhoods? That, he splutters, is too far. Politically, it would certainly be a tough sell to his 8.5 million constituents, who are already fed up with a high rate of crime and homelessness.
From mid-2015, Mantilla started taking daily trips to the island, meeting families and newly-discharged inmates floating in and out.
There is only one way to reach Rikers: the Q100 bus which goes every 10 minutes from Queens Boro Plaza.
There is always somebody aboard, Mantilla explained – usually family going to visit, sometimes pastors who conduct sessions inside.
You won’t often see former inmates aboard unless you go around midnight, when they do routine releases. To meet them, Mantilla would arrive on the island at around 9pm or 10pm, waiting for people to emerge.
‘You could tell who had been inside,’ he said bluntly. ‘They usually had a black plastic bag or a big brown paper bag with belongings in it. They usually looked beat.’
‘NAM VET WHO WAS THE VICTIM OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY, ALVIN HAD NEVER EVEN HAD A PARKING TICKET UNTIL HE WAS LOCKED UP FOR 3 MONTHS
Alvin Jeffries, 65, is a Vietnam veteran.
He retired in New York after the war, living alone, supported by his army pension.
‘I never bothered nobody in my life, I don’t look for trouble, I’m not violent, only in the war because I had to… not even a transit ticket, clean,’ he told Mantilla.
In May 2016, Alvin was arrested in his neighborhood in downtown Brooklyn, accused of a robbery. Police said he matched the description of a 911 call.
After three months inside, he was released, and is now in the midst of clearing his name.
Mantilla met Alvin on the Q100 at around midnight in early August.
‘Alvin’s case was one of the worst I saw,’ Mantilla said.
Vietnam veteran Alvin Jeffries, 65, spent three months on Rikers Island after he was wrongly accused of committing a robbery in his neighborhood in downtown Brooklyn. CCTV footage eventually showed him to be innocent, but he had to spend months getting the charges dropped. In the meantime he was not eligible for his veterans pension. Pictured: Alvin at home, where he lives alone, on August 25, 2016
Alvin gets off the Q100 bus on the night of his release from Rikers Island on August 18, 2016. In the months that followed, he was forced to beg on the streets for spare change. Across two days he got just $2, which he used to buy chips
‘I met him one night when I was waiting for the bus outside the jail. There were other people there, they could have been gang affiliated. I didn’t have anyone like that in my project, so I went up and asked them… they said no. Then I saw Alvin, sat alone.
‘He was very sad. I remember perceiving a huge nostalgic sense from him. I said ‘you were inside?’ He said ‘yes’, not looking directly at me. He was completely demoralized.’
Over the next few months, Mantilla tracked Alvin’s journey to return to normal.
CCTV footage has since proven his innocence.
However, the charge meant he was no longer eligible to receive state pension, and the legal fees have purged any money he had left.
It meant he went days without eating, and within months was actively contemplating suicide.
Once he resorted to begging on the streets for spare change. Across two days he got $2, which he used to buy chips.
‘He was troubling with money a lot. One day he texted me and said ‘I’m going to end it all’.
He didn’t have friends. I was pretty much the only person in his life.
‘I went, Alvin was crying, and I hugged him. What really frustrated him was that he’d given his life to his country, but was treated like a criminal.
‘He said, ‘Tomas, I’ve played by the rules my whole f***ing life’. ‘He was a very dignified person but he didn’t want to live that way any more.’
Although Rikers has a ‘mental illness observation center’, its presence has done little to alleviate the pressures elsewhere on the island.
Rates of serious mental illnesses have rocketed among inmates in the last two decades.
Today, almost half of the Rikers population (around 4,000 inmates a day) is mentally ill. That figure is higher than the entire number of people in mental institutions across the entire state put together.
Prisoners are now two to four times more likely to suffer from life-threatening paranoia, depression or psychosis than the general population.
VICIOUS CIRCLE: YAHAIRA WENT TO RIKERS FOR SMOKING CRACK IN THE STREET – WHEN SHE LEFT PRISON SHE WENT STRAIGHT BACK TO HER DEALER
Yahaira de Jesus caught Mantilla’s eye on March 11, 2016, when she rolled out of Rosie’s – i.e. Rose M Singer Center, the women’s jail – after a night inside.
She’d been locked up for doing crack cocaine in the street.
Agreeing to be part of Mantilla’s project, she invited him to photograph her on her way back to the city, all the way to her housing project in West Harlem, where her dealer was waiting.
Told to wait outside, Mantilla captured the moment Yahaira, spitting and cursing, stormed out of the door begging for 50 cents.
Yahaira de Jesus spent a night in Rosie’s (Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s jail) for doing crack cocaine on the street in Harlem in March 2016. After her release she went directly to her housing project in West Harlem to meet her dealer. This is the moment Yahaira stormed out of the building fuming that she was 50 cents short. Khalil Cumberbatch, a senior manager of the #CloseRikers campaign, says this shows in a nutshell how futile Rikers is for tackling crime and rehabilitating inmates
INSIDE: VIOLENCE, GANGS, CORRUPTION, STARVATION
One of Mantilla’s photo shows Tanae Jordan, a 27-year-old girl who emerged fuming.
‘A CO slammed me against the wall and cracked my tooth,’ she told Mantilla, pushing her mouth into the lens, lifting her lip, and flashing the damage.
Mantilla couldn’t corroborate her story, nor could DailyMail.com despite repeated attempts.
It would hardly be breaking news.
A lack of resources and an excess of inmates means violence is extreme, frequent, and often undocumented.
One of Mantilla’s images captures Margaret Burton, the mother of Jahmal Lightfoot, a former member of the Bloods, who was brutally beaten up by Correctional Officers in 2012. He was set upon after security chief Eliseo Perez ordered wardens to attack him. He suffered a broken nose and broken eye sockets. His case was one of many that led to Perez and five other officers being convicted of assault in February 2016.
Indeed, the last five years have seen a surge in reports of violent altercations between correction officers and inmates, as well as inmate-inmate violence.
Years of interviews and government reports have exposed the deeply-rooted gang culture which runs Rikers.
Many correction officers have deals with certain groups for smuggling, sex, or an escape from punishment.
Some gangs openly run sections of the island. The Bloods (one of the East Coast’s two most important gangs, alongside the Crips) reign supreme. The sheer scale of inhabitants, however, means many have splintered off into new sub-groups.
One of the island’s 10 jail units (the North Infirmary Command) even cares for inmates at risk of harm after breaking off from a certain gang – a move which can be perilous.
After Kalief Browder’s death, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declared it was one of his top priorities to rid Rikers of corruption, among other reform ideas.
It started in 2015 with an overhaul of how correction officers are monitored, tracking those that have a record of run-ins with inmates.
That led to a purging of the old guard, bringing in squeaky clean recruits, many of whom are college educated and rose through the ranks of various police departments.
However, while potentially sound in theory, in practice critics claim it has only made matters worse, with inmates targeting the street-naive newbies.
‘I’m short 50 cents, give me 50 cents or you can’t any more pictures of me,’ she told him.
That was where the story came to a close.
‘I couldn’t give her 50 cents,’ Mantilla explains.
‘It’s a shame, I really wanted to speak to her more, and this is the kind of story that tells so much about Rikers.
‘The first 24 hours after someone is released are so important for their reintegration process. Really, there aren’t any programs for addicts or people with mental health issues.’
Khalil Cumberbatch, a senior manager of JustLeadershipUSA which runs the #CloseRikers campaign, was far from surprised when Daily Mail Online recounted this story to him.
‘The system doesn’t work,’ he said bluntly.
‘How has Rikers helped this woman? The first thing is we all know re-entry is not one silver bullet. But the New York City DOC is not investing in this side of the equation.’
One of the main issues, Cumberbatch explains, is Rikers’ transient population. Unlike inmates sentenced to a set amount of time in state prison, most people in Rikers have no specific end date.
Aside from stable housing, there is little else the city offers.
‘When you leave the system, there’s no way we can know that you actually went to that class or that program. Once you’re gone, I’m not following up on you if I’m from the DOC.’
Cumberbatch, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for a robbery in his teens, has now worked in reintegration for 10 years.
The key problem, he says speaking from experience, is that New York rules make it very difficult for reformed inmates to come back as a relatable volunteer.
Speakers cannot come in until they have spent at least seven years out of the justice system – i.e. seven years after the end of their parole, not their sentence.
‘That’s probably the most asinine thing ever,’ Cumberbatch says.
‘If the city isn’t going to partner with reintegration programs, and have difficulty keeping track of when inmates are leaving, the one thing they can do is connect inmate with someone who has done re-entry successfully.
‘They could show the people in there ‘If I did, you can do it, I’m not one special case – and more importantly: here’s how I did it’.’
MISSING: CARL, WHOSE FAMILY COULDN’T LOCATE HIM FOR WEEKS AFTER HE WAS PICKED UP AFTER AN I.D. CHECK
Mantilla’s most intimate shots are of Carl Kelly, an uneasy story, but ultimately the most successful reintegration of the lot.
Kelly met Mantilla walking in Chinatown after his first stint in Rikers. Weeks later, he seemed to have disappeared. He was back on the island.
His second stint came about somewhat accidentally. Police were in his building dealing with someone else. While they interviewed residents, they asked for his ID. Since Kelly was already on probation for another offence, he was barred from any police contact. That ID check earned him a month in Rikers, without access to a phone.
It’s a classic road to Rikers: red tape funneling thousands into the already overcrowded jail.
Politicians, including Gov Andrew Cuomo, concede that this is an incredibly flawed system, gobbling up much of the city’s coffers. Rikers absorbs 80 percent of the city’s penal budget. With 10,000 inmates on any given day, most of that is poured into basic admin.
A recent spate of high-profile deaths, attacks, and corruption scandals on the island shone a light on the severely disorganized system. In a landmark 79-page report in 2014, District Attorney Preet Bharara slammed the excessively high rate of violence towards teenage inmates – and in doing so, revealed documentation is slack on Rikers, to say the least.
If the government is two steps back on admin, family members are even further behind.
Carl Kelly gets ready with his girlfriend (now wife) ‘Cookie’ to go and visit his mother after being on Rikers Island
Lenora Kelly on her porch in East New York. When this photo was taken on March 28, 2016, she didn’t know where her son Carl Kelly was. It transpired he was on Rikers Island for having police contact after being released from a previous conviction
For Kelly’s mother, Lenora Kelly, that meant she had no idea where her son was until he turned up at her porch in East New York weeks later.
Speaking to Mantilla, she was exasperated. She said she had called the Department of Corrections’ information line repeatedly for days, each time told they had no information for her.
For family members, reaching incarcerated relatives can be complicated. Calling an inmate directly is not possible, and jail staff do not take messages. They have to wait for the inmate to be allowed a phone call after the booking process – including physical and mental examination – which can sometimes take days or weeks, and depends on them knowing phone numbers.
Mantilla captured the days after Kelly’s release. He plodded home, exhausted, spent time with his girlfriend Cookie, then went over to his mother’s house.
‘After coming home, Carl struggled at finding ways to make money and stay out of trouble and out of the streets,’ Mantilla said.
‘He is an amazing person, he really just wanted to get a job, marry Cookie, and get out of this situation. But it’s hard; getting a job isn’t easy when you’ve been on Rikers. He had been working as a leaf picker before but lost that job when he was arrested the second time.’
After a few weeks looking for work, he eventually found a job at a construction company in Manhattan.
He celebrated by proposing to Cookie, and getting married in the Town Hall.
CLOSING RIKERS: A POLITICAL HEADACHE FOR BILL DE BLASIO
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has a personal dilemma.
He has not fared well pushing his liberal agenda in New York, and has failed to win over the police who are, in general, loyal to former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who took an iron fist apporach to crime.
Giuliani’s stop-and-frisk campaigns drove Rikers’ population up to a record 24,000-a-day in the early 90s.
However, the other figures don’t look so good for de Blasio. Pro-Giuliani/anti-de Blasio supporters point out that under Rudy’s watch, the number of violent attacks in the jail dropped 93 percent, and annual spending on the jail was brought down from $112 million to $50 million.
Today, slashings are reaching a record high, and the budget is $1.2 billion.
As de Blasio endeavors to present himself as a fair, pragmatic leader, some say he has lost his appetite for costly, noble political adventures.
Closing Rikers is another costly, noble idea that may be one too many for de Blasio to shoulder politically.
It would involve years of work to reform the criminal justice system as a whole to restrict the number of inmates held to await trial, before they are able to move a more manageable population to new centers in the Bronx.
It would likely cost billions of dollars – another political knock de Blasio is reluctant to take.
New York State Gov Andrew Cuomo has weighed in, urging de Blasio to close the jail.
Cuomo claims the budget difficulties are a necessary blow that New Yorkers will have to stomach to put an end to Rikers swallowing billions of dollars of taxpayers money on a yearly basis.
GRIEVING: KALIEF BROWDER TOOK HIS OWN LIFE AFTER SPENDING THREE YEARS IN RIKERS – TWO IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT – NOW HIS FAMILY ARE SPEARHEADING A CAMPAIGNING TO CLOSE THE ISLAND JAIL
Kalief Browder (pictured) took his own life after spending three years awaiting trial on Rikers Island. In that time, he spent a total of two years in solitary confinement
Mantilla’s project touches on the biggest story borne out of Rikers in recent years: Kalief Browder, documenting his brother Akeem picking up the fight to close the jail after Kalief took his own life and their mother Venida died of a heart attack.
In one photo, Mantilla captures Akeem kneeling in tears at their joint grave. It is a quiet moment amid the furious national debate over Kalief’s life, incarceration, and death.
Kalief was arrested in May 2010 on the baseless accusation that he had stolen a backpack. Already on probation for joy-riding a delivery truck, the 16-year-old was packed off to Rikers.
His family couldn’t afford the $900 bail. By the time they collected the funds, it was too late: Kalief had been charged with robbery, grand larceny and assault, pushing up the figure to $3,000, far beyond the Browder family’s means.
Kalief spent 1,100 days (three years) on the island waiting for a trial that never materialized. In total, there were 14 trials planned, all pushed back by the city. He had the chance to get out after two years if he pleaded guilty, but he refused.
And so, as he waited it out, Kalief had the full Rikers experience that has broken so many and drove him to take his own life.
Akeem Browder visits the grave of his brother Kalief and of his mother, Venida Browder, who died on October 14, 2016, from a heart attack. Venida was devastated after Kalief took his own life. She championed the cause of reforming the criminal justice system and made her case known nationwide
He spent two of the three years in ‘the bing’ – or, solitary confinement. That involved spending 23 or 24 hours a day inside a 6-by-8-foot cell, with limited food and water and no bathroom. Often he was starved, sometimes for days on end.
Outside his cell, he was beaten by inmates and correction officers alike – many attacks caught on surveillance cameras, but without any repercussions for the officers.
In one, he starts speaking to an officer as he is being escorted, handcuffed, into the shower. The officer slams him to the ground.
In another, a gang member spits in Kalief’s face in an open break room filled with cameras. Kalief swings back. Dozens of inmates pile on him, punching and kicking his face, his body. An officer joins in, flexing his biceps as he prepares to lay one on Kalief.
The footage, which was later obtained and published by the New Yorker, triggered a national debate about corruption in jails.
Kalief later revealed he tried to commit suicide six times inside – once trying to hang himself by ripping up his bed sheets and attaching them to the light in his cell.
RIKERS ISLAND: OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND
Rikers Island absorbs 80 percent of New York City’s Department of Corrections’ budget.
It has hosted some big names over time – notably Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Bobby Shmurda. But they are a subplot to the saga that has been branded ‘the shame of America’.
Ninety percent of the population is Hispanic or black. Specifically, around 55.7 percent of inmates are black, and 33.1 percent Hispanic.
New York City’s records say the rest is made up of 7.5 percent white, 1.1 percent Asian, 2.4 percent ‘other/unknown’, and 0.2 percent Native American.
Though the vast majority (86 percent) is aged over 22, there remains a high proportion of kids. Twelve percent of inmates are aged 18 to 21, while two percent are aged between 16 and 17 years old.
The only women’s jail has 1,139 beds, as well as a nursery for women who give birth in jail or get permission to bring their infants in after being admitted.
Around 85 percent of the island’s 10,000 inmates have not been convicted as a crime.
Rikers is a ‘temporary facility’ for people awaiting trial or sentenced to serve less than a year behind bars. (Any more time warrants a transfer to a state facility upstate).
Those who can afford to post bail can leave before their trial date. The vast majority of inmates – African Americans and Latinos from working class backgrounds in New York – do not have the resources to clobber together hundreds or thousands of dollars.
It means many will stay confined for years on end without seeing a judge.
In many cases, they may be offered a plea deal to get out early if they admit to the crime. For many, that could mean admitting to a crime they didn’t commit. Kalief Browder famously refused to do so. His stance came as a shock to prosecutors and fellow inmates: few resist the chance to escape the violent, overcrowded, isolated island that has a notoriously foul smell and unbearable heat that has driven many inmates to attempt suicide.
1. OTIS BANTUM CORRECTIONAL CENTER
- Solitary confinement (aka: ‘the bing’)
- Approx. 400 beds
2. NORTH INFIRMARY COMMAND
- Medical center
- Treats those with diseases like HIV
- Haven for people in danger e.g.: after leaving a gang
3. ANNA M. KROSS CENTER
- Mainly houses drug addicts, and offers mental observation
- Approx. 2,300 beds
4. BENJAMIN WARD VISIT CENTER
- Where visitors and inmates check-in
5. ERIC M TAYLOR CENTER
- Reputation for being the least volatile
- Shortest term sentences (in theory)
- Approx. 1,800 beds
6. GEORGE MOTCHAM DETENTION CENTER
- 18- to 21-year-olds
- Therapy for young people
- Approx. 2,000 beds
7. ROSE M. SINGER CENTER
- Aka ‘Rosie’s’
- Women’s jail
- Approx. 1,100 beds
- Nursery for newborns
8. ROBERT N DAVOREN CENTER
- Youths (16 to 17 years old)
- High rate of violent attacks
9. GEORGE R VIERNO CENTER
- Solitary confinement: inside for more than 23 hours a day (lessened in the case of good behavior)
- Approx. 1,300 beds