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Local Spotlight: The Road to Rikers

Rikers Island is home to New York City's most notorious jail.
Rikers Island is home to New York City's most notorious jail.

Rikers is an imposing presence in New York City, physically, symbolically, and politically.

The island, situated in the middle of the East River, hosts the city’s most notorious jail. Criminal justice advocates have called for reform nearly since its inception.

The jail, where conditions by most accounts have worsened since the pandemic, is the subject of frequent headlines.

This month, three of its officers were charged with covering up an attack on an inmate. A New York Times report also released this month revealed that investigators charged with cracking down on jail officers abusing sick leave were guilty of the same offense themselves.

A plan is in place to close Rikers by 2027, but Mayor Eric Adams has suggested that might not happen.

“We can’t be so optimistic that we’re not realistic, or idealistic that we’re not realistic,” he told CBS New York.

For this installment of our “Local Spotlight” series, we talk to two longtime New York City crime reporters who have been covering Rikers Island for decades.

They interviewed more than one hundred people about the jail for their new book, “RIKERS: An Oral History.” They spoke with Hector “Pastor Benny” Custodio, a former Latin King leader who was detained from 1991 to 1994. He talked about his time in solitary confinement:

I first went in 1992, in the Bing. You only bathed on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Sometimes they would spit in your food. They would put your food under your door. You had to look thoroughly through the food. They gave you a monkey suit; none of your own clothes. During the summer, you had blistering heat. Imagine spending almost four years in your bathroom, locked up, and not being able to go anywhere.

That’s what it was like. You were so close yet so far. I’ve seen guys kill themselves, lose their mind, get broken. I had to stay focused. I said, one day I’m going to be free. I’m not going to let these people overpower me. I went for a master’s degree. Inside prison, you either become better or die in prison, or you fight for your freedom. I have children. I chose to fight. I wasn’t going to allow the system to break me. I just couldn’t be another statistic.

This is part of a series called “Local Spotlight,” where we cover local stories that deserve national attention. Have a suggestion about what we should feature? You know where to find us.

Copyright 2023 WAMU 88.5

Avery Jessa Chapnick