1935 — The city opens a new penitentiary on Rikers Island built using inmate labor. The island was envisioned as self-sustaining, with inmates putting in 8-hour days farming, making clothing, baking, and performing other work for city agencies.
1941 — Inmates convert a 25-acre garbage dump on the island into a tree nursery, where they tend to tens of thousands of trees and shrubs for the city’s parks and parkways. The nursery is eventually expanded to 115 acres and is cited as a reason for relatively few disciplinary problems on the island.
1954 — Overcrowding in city jails reaches crisis levels, holding 7,900 men and women with a capacity for 4,200 by cramming two and sometimes three beds into a cell. All women and pre-trial detainees are held in five borough jails; sentenced males are held on Rikers, Hart Island and at a reformatory in Orange County. A New York Times reporter noted the Rikers inmates, for whom there was work to do, “appeared more contented and better adjusted, less sullen and less embittered looking,” than the ones crammed in the borough jails with nothing to do. That year, Rikers inmates were issued a certificate of appreciation from the Red Cross for donating their 5,000th pint of blood. They raised 10,900 pounds of chicken, 5,900 dozen eggs, 59,300 pounds of vegetables, 75,000 trees for the parks department, 70,000 flowering shrubs and 270 peach trees, and baked 2 million loaves of bread, for city jails and schools, per the Correction Department’s annual report, which was printed at Rikers’ print shop.
1957 — A plane taking off from LaGuardia Airport carrying 101 people crashes into the tree nursery, leaving 20 dead. The city rewarded 81 inmates who helped with the rescue with time off their sentences.
1959 — City Planning rezones Rikers from a residential to an unrestricted district to pave the way for a massive penal colony on the island. Inmates are now paid 5 to 10 cents a day for their work farming, cooking, repairing items and making clothes. Previously they had received 25 cents and a sandwich on discharge. The city converts a storehouse on the island into P.S. 616 to school adolescents.
1961 — Correction Commissioner Anna M. Kross proposes a bridge to Rikers to allow the city to consolidate operations on the island.
1964 — The tree nursery was bulldozed to make way for new jails for women and adolescents.
1966 — Construction on the Francis R. Buono Memorial Bridge, christened as the “bridge of hope,” is complete, connecting Rikers to Queens.
1969 — City jails are at nearly twice their capacity, with 14,000 inmates for 8,000 beds. The state took 1,000 inmates from Rikers to relieve overcrowding. Suicides become an epidemic, with eight that year. A group of NYU students put out a report calling Rikers’ adolescent unit a “dumping ground.” The Bronx District Attorney and Correction Commissioner launch a sprawling investigation into the suicides, beatings, sexual abuse and drug trafficking on the island.
1970 — Fifteen-hundred Rikers inmates go on hunger strike and work stoppage to protest a law that cut in half the amount of time off sentences for good behavior, marking the start of a decade of inmate strikes, riots and hostage situations in jails across the city to protest conditions. Three new facilities are under construction on Rikers to handle over-capacity as Mayor Lindsay demands the state take 4,000 sentenced inmates and that the courts clear the backlog of old cases. A four-day riot breaks out in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Rikers jails, with inmates protesting court delays, high bail and poor living conditions. Legal Aid files a lawsuit alleging conditions at “The Tombs” in Manhattan constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.”
1971 — The women’s facility on Rikers is completed. Mayor Lindsay wants to use the old women’s facility at 10 Greenwich St. to ease overcrowding in the men’s jails, but neighborhood groups protest, saying they want it closed.
1972 — The state threatens the city with loss of certification unless it improves housing, health and educational conditions for young people on Rikers. The Bronx District Attorney finds more than 100 weapons at the adolescent jail. In one of several hostage situations that year, 20 officers and 75 inmates were injured at the adolescent facility. Legal Aid sues for the release of 100 adolescent inmates on Rikers, calling conditions at the jail unconstitutional. The group’s attorneys also staged a walk-off to protest a new policy of remanding women arrested for prostitution on Rikers and forcing them to get checked for venereal diseases. In response to a scourge of inmate rebellions, the city sets up “prisoners unions” on Rikers so they can formally air out their grievances.
1974 — The Tombs is closed for renovations after U.S. Judge Morris Lasker rules conditions there are unconstitutional. A small jail in Long Island City, which holds a large share of the city’s mentally ill inmates, is also closed. Men at both facilities protest being transferred to Rikers.
1975 — Judge Lasker rules conditions on Rikers Island, and the Brooklyn and Queens Houses of Detention, also unconstitutional. A Rikers warden warns of riots if conditions don’t improve. Months later, inmates at the men’s jail on Rikers hold five guards hostage and cause $1 million in damage to protest excessive bail, court delays and inadequate legal representation. Crowding is endemic and assaults on officers quintupled. Correction officers laid off in budget cuts block access to the bridge for an hour.
1979 — Mayor Koch drops a longtime plan for the state to take over Rikers Island in a 99-year, $200 million lease. The jail population had been cut in half over the past decade, and the city would have used that money to build eight new neighborhood jails closer to the courts. But local politicians and community groups fiercely opposed the plans.
1980 — More than 90 inmates on Rikers refuse to leave their cells for court appearances because they say attorneys do not visit them. Escapes from the island are rampant, with nearly 100 in the past five years. In a comprehensive plan for the city’s jails, Mayor Koch says in a report, “Rikers Island, conceived originally as a complex for sentenced inmates, has been forced to become a detention center. The nature and layout of the physical facilities and the Island’s remote location from the borough courts are not appropriate to this role.”
1981 — As the jail population again climbs to “crisis proportions,” Mayor Koch begins secretly looking at city-owned lots and empty buildings for minimum security jails.
1983 – Judge Lasker prohibits the city from increasing the jail population beyond 10,200. He eventually forces the city to release 613 inmates. Mayor Koch announces $300 million for new jails on Rikers and at an immigrant detention center at the Navy Brig in Brooklyn.
1988 — As the city’s jail population approaches 19,000 inmates, two warships, the Bibby Venture and the Bibby Resolution, are converted into jails as a way around local opposition to new jails. But the city still must fight challenges from local groups over where they would be docked. The Barge, which would eventually be moored off Hunts Point, is also under construction. At the time, the city was illegally housing inmates in gyms, classrooms and holding pens, in violation of court order.
1989 — With drug arrests continuing to climb, the jail population reaches a record high. Inmates shut down Rikers Island in a two-hour riot that injured 35 inmates and 12 officers the same day as hundreds of officers block the entrance of the bridge to protest lenient treatment of inmates.
1991 — To ease overcrowding, the city moves beds closer together in the dorms. Two courtrooms are opened on Rikers.
1993 — The Bloods gang begins recruiting on Rikers. Previously the jails had been dominated by the Latin Kings and the Netas.
1994 — Two Staten Island ferries are converted into jails to hold overflow of inmates.
1995 — Mayor Giuliani solicits for proposals for private companies to take over some or all the city’s jail operations in order to save money. The feds launch an investigation into excessive use of force on inmates held in solitary confinement on Rikers in response to an ACLU lawsuit.
1996 — An investigation by four agencies finds evidence of “deliberate beatings” of inmates held in the solitary confinement unit on Rikers. Acknowledging the beatings, city officials say 60 guards from the unit have been transferred and the entire unit will be moved to a new facility. Mayor Giuliani reopens the 800-bed “Barge” in Hunts Point to handle the overflow from his drug crackdown.
2002 — Legal Aid files a lawsuit on behalf of 22 inmates describing a culture of brutality at Rikers and other city jails, including the use of “headshots” (blows to the head) for punishment. The city later settles the suit by paying the plaintiffs $2.2 million and agreeing to a series of reforms.
2003 — An original painting by Salvador Dalí that hung at the high-security jail on Rikers for 40 years was stolen by a deputy warden and three other officers. Commissioner Martin Horn reorganizes the department in response to charges of corruption and abuse of power by top officials. As jail suicides spike, the Correction Department starts using paper sheets instead of cotton.
2005 — Investigators fault the private health contractor Prison Health Services and the Correction Department for a string of suicides. The state launches an investigation into Prison Health Services and finds the contract was illegal. Legal Aid reviews use of force incidents at six Rikers jails over a nearly three-year period and finds inmates suffered 703 head injuries, including 70 facial fractures or broken teeth, and 113 facial cuts requiring stitches. Commissioner Horn ends segregated housing for gay and transgendered inmates, saying it has become a place where people get preyed upon.
2007 — In a settlement to a lawsuit, the Correction Department concedes it has been wrongly strip-searching non-violent misdemeanor defendants, the third such admission in the past several years. The city would later pay $33 million to settle the case.
2008 — Guards are charged with taking bribes and smuggling drugs into Rikers, and ordering teens to assault other inmates to keep order.
2009 — Three correction officers at the adolescent facility on Rikers Island are charged with directing “The Program,” deputizing certain inmates in a cellblock to maintain order through violence. Correction Department internal investigations reveal it had gone on at other units throughout the facility as far back as 2007.
2013 — A former high-ranking Correction Department official and nine current guards and officials are charged in connection with severely beating inmate Jahmal Lightfoot then covering up the attack. Correction officers stage a job action to stop buses from bringing inmates to court on the same day an inmate was scheduled to testify against two officers accused of beating him and then covering it up. An independent review of mental health practices on Rikers Island commissioned condemns the Correction Department for using solitary too frequently.
2014 — Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara releases a 79-page report detailing a “deep-seated culture of violence” at Rikers Island’s facilities for teenagers, where officers beat the teenagers with impunity and subject them to solitary confinement for months at a time. Bharara asks to join a class action lawsuit filed by Legal Aid over abuses at the adolescent unit.
2015 — The city’s Department of Investigation find dozens of correction officers were hired despite red flags like gang affiliations, and later, that the private health contractor Corizon hired doctors and mental health workers despite criminal convictions that included murder and kidnapping. The feds expand the investigation into Rikers Island to encompass the financial dealings of its longtime union leader Norman Seabrook. He’s later indicted in a kickback scheme involving the pension fund. The city settles its lawsuit with the U.S. Attorney and Legal Aid by agreeing to a federal monitor and a raft of reforms.
2016 — City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito calls for closing Rikers Island in her State of the City address, the first high-profile politician to do so in recent years. Gov. Cuomo backs her proposal, but Mayor de Blasio says it’s unrealistic.
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