What is Rikers Island Prison?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Rikers Island prison, colloquially called Rikers, is the main prison compound of New York City, located on Rikers Island between the burroughs of Queens and the Bronx. The island is located directly adjacent to Laguardia Airport. New York City bought Rikers Island from a Dutch family in 1884 for $180,000 United States dollars (USD), and it has served as a prison since that time. Rikers is operated by the New York City Department of Correction, has a permanent population of 12,780 as of 2000, and has an annual budget of $860 million USD. During the Civil War, Rikers Island served as a military training facility.

Rikers Island prison is vast, with 10 different facilities.
Rikers Island prison is vast, with 10 different facilities.

Rikers Island prison has ten different facilities. Otis Bantum Correctional Center, Anna M. Kross Center, George Motchan Detention Center, and George R. Vierno Center hold detained adult males. Eric M. Taylor Center holds sentenced male adolescents and adults, and Robert N. Davoren Complex houses mostly males between 16 and 18 years of age. Rose M. Singer Center houses sentenced adolescent and adult females. North Infirmary Command houses prisoners in need of medical attention, and West Facility houses inmates with contagious diseases. There is also a prison barge associated with the Rikers Island complex, the Vernon C. Bain Center, which holds 800 beds and houses medium to maximum security prisoners.

Rikers Island prison has housed many famous inmates.
Rikers Island prison has housed many famous inmates.

This prison can only be accessed by the unmarked Francis Buono Bridge in Queens. The complex, which has been called the world's largest penal colony, has schools, clinics, chapels, sports fields, gyms, grocery stores and various shops, a power plant, and a bus depot. The daily population can exceed 20,000. Rikers Island prison has housed many famous inmates, including musicians Lil Wayne, Sid Vicious, Tupac Shakur, Peter Steele, and football player Plaxico Burress. It used to house a drawing by artist Salvador Dali, drawn in apology because the artist could not attend a sheduled talk on art for the inmates, but the piece was stolen in 2003, and has not been recovered.

Rikers Island prison instituted special housing for homosexual, bisexual, and transgender inmates in the 1970s, but the unit was closed in 2005 to increase security. A special hearing is now required for prisoners requesting placement in this segregated housing. The plans of the New York City Department of Corrections regarding the segregated facility has been criticized, as it includes a 23-hours-a-day lockdown, identical to that used as a disciplinary measure.

Rikers Island prison is located on Rikers Island between the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx.
Rikers Island prison is located on Rikers Island between the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


My son is in Rikers, awaiting extradition to Virginia. Which facility would he be held in?


@Georgesplane: I happen to be a federal correctional officer. The federal agency that manages the federal prison system is the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and is a subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Also, the federal prison system has both pre-trial detention centers (similar to the purpose that Riker's serves), as well as institutions for those serving out their federal sentences.


I'm doing a book report on Rikers High and i need to know if it's a state prison or a county prison.


@ GeorgesPlane- There are a number of differences between federal and state level penitentiaries. The respective states department of corrections manages state penitentiaries, so they can range from nicer institutions in smaller states that focus on rehabilitation and prisons in more conservative states that focus on punishment. One commonality between state prisons and jails is they are overcrowded. Many of these prisons are privately operated, and they lobby state governments and donate millions of dollars annually to fill beds. This privatization of the prison system is often what causes controversy, especially when there are cases where judges are receiving marginally legal but highly unethical kickbacks and incentives.

Federal prisons are more focused on rehabilitation and have established national standards. Most who have served tie in both claim that federal prisons are better, but they do have their disadvantages. State sentences are more flexible than federal sentences. Federal sentences are usually standardized with a mandatory minimum with no possibility of parole until that minimum has been met. The controversy over these mandatory minimums is that they are historically biased towards minorities and underserved populations, although the Obama Administration has reversed some of that as of late.


@ Georgesplane- Rykers Island prison is actually a county jail rather than a state or federal penitentiary. The Jail does hold prisoners who have been sentenced, but the main purpose of the prison is to hold inmates awaiting trial and serving shorter sentences.

This does not make Rykers any more of a pleasant place however. The Jail is home to numerous gangs, hardened criminals and habitual offenders. The prison is rife with stories of abuse from both prisoners and guards, even documented instances of guards beating inmates and hiring other inmates as his enforcers. The prison also closed its self-described "gay wing" a few years back because of concerns over abuse and lack of security for LGBT pretrial inmates. Remember that pretrial prisoners have not been proven guilty, so acts of inhumane treatment against these types of prisoners is particularly unsettling.


Is Riker’s Island a state prison or a federal prison? What is the difference between a state prison and a federal prison? Which types of prisons treat prisoners worse and which types of prisons treat prisoners the best? What agency manages federal prisons?

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