The Rikers Social History Project
Goal: Rikers Island Social History Project
The Rikers Social History Project aims to tell the story of the jail complex on Rikers Island. It traces the history of the island itself from the early 1860s when it was used as a training ground for the 20th Colored Regiment and as prisoner of war facility for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, to early debates - and scandals - surrounding prison reform and the penitentiaries of New York City, to forced labor laying the foundation for the earliest penitentiary on the island, through a bold mid-century experiment in progressive penology, which ultimately laid the foundation for Rikers of the present day. Theoretically the project as a whole builds on the debate introduced by E.H. Carr in What is History? (1961) and more recently that of S. Flaaten and P.J. Ystehede (2014) and (Mooney, 2014) about the importance of learning from the past and the need to keep an ‘eye’ on what lessons sociology and criminology can learn from history, as well as the input into history that can be gleaned from the sociology of crime. The project, therefore, situates the history of Rikers Island in terms of its political, social and cultural context.
Today the plan to close Rikers Island captures headlines, and the mere mention of its name conjures up arguments about the exponential growth of the prison industrial complex in the age of neo-liberalism. But on Rikers, scandal is nothing new. For over a century Rikers has been a magnet for controversy and political drama, as well as a temporary home to millions of people. The study charts the visually striking geographical expansion of Rikers Island, through the utilization of waste from the city as landfill, alongside its carceral evolution and expansion. It will show how this dual expansion, fueled by utopian dreams of building an ultra-modern institution of medicalized rehabilitation, descended into violence, rebellion, and neglect amid the rise of “law and order” policies and the “War on Drugs”. Rikers will conclude in the immediate present with New York City’s top politicians advocating and planning for Rikers Island to be closed. The intention with Rikers is to fill a gaping void in the scholarship of penal regimes – to say nothing of basic New York City history. As a large penal colony in the midst of one of the great cities of the world, Rikers has the potential to teach scholars, students and the public much about the history of punishment and crime policy in urban America. It is envisaged that this will provide the basis for a much larger study along the lines of the Hudson Valley Prison Public Memory Project, which documents and aims to create a public dialogue around the history of the prison in Hudson using a range of data sources, including archival material, oral histories and photographic representation -
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