What are we going to do about Rikers?

I handed in my book and now I’m working on the epilogue. I almost don’t have to write it. Think about it: I’ve just written a book about how we dealt with the poor, the mentally ill, and the incarcerated in the 19th century. Cliff notes summation: We didn’t do a good job.

But does anyone believe we are doing a good job now? I don’t think so. The terrible news is we’re making the exact same mistakes, over and over and over again. We’re monsters. We’re the most monstrous to the people we arrest.

Our current justice system is, and always has been, so inhumanly unfair and criminal that perhaps we should all just change places. We are all guilty, for doing nothing, while others are abused on our behalf. If you think I exaggerate, watch the Bill Moyers documentary about Rikers. Read the CRIPA Investigation of the New York City Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island, which addresses how adolescent boys are treated there.

If I sound harsh it’s because I just spent over a year immersed in this history, seeing how bad it was, and how paralyzed the City and municipal workers were about fixing it. And then to watch that documentary only to learn that it is actually worse now, except the cells are, technically better, and at least somewhat more sanitary. But life inside for the inmates is worse to inconceivably nightmarish proportions.

I think I might have photographed this before, and posted it here. This is what it’s all about. Not just that no one wants to spend the money, but that people with money who commit crimes are not hunted and incarcerated to the degree that poor people are.


Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

3 thoughts on “What are we going to do about Rikers?

  1. You are talking about a sea change in attitude. Maybe even a change in the way people identify themselves. If there is to be change, it will be at least a generation in coming. I often use the example of drinking and driving to illustrate. When I was in law school back in the early ’80s, students were allowed to do simple defences and speak-to-sentence, on low level offences. One of the common ones you got to try your chops was drinking and driving. “Everybody did it” and few saw it for the serious offence it has become. It took about 25 years for that attitude to change, thanks in large part to MADD. So what we need is a popular uprising, consciousness-raising movement to change attitudes toward the incarcerated.

  2. Thanks Chris!

    Julia, I feel a little hopeless at times, especially after reading over a 100 years worth of history and seeing how little has changed. But what i’m feeling is part of the problem. I’m feeling it again about doing anything about Von Clownstick.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *